Pope Francis issued a decision on Catholic marriage that is said to streamline the process by which Catholics may annul their marriages. The announcement came on September 8, just weeks before the pontiff will make his first visit ever to the United States. Without Church-approved annulments, Catholics are barred from remarrying according to the rites of the Church. Should they marry according to civil law, or otherwise cohabitate, they are barred from receiving Holy Communion. Some see this as a painful exclusion from the life of the Church. However, Catholics whose marriages are annulled, or have been divorced according to civil law, are not prohibited from receiving Holy Communion should they refrain from remarriage. A significant change in annulments that was announced this morning is the elimination of the required review by a second tribunal before an annulment can be officially granted. 
 
Among those united in Catholic marriage in the United States, 28% end in divorce, according to the General Social Survey conducted by Georgetown University. While that figure is lower than the figure for non-Catholics, it is equivalent to 11 million adults. The Catholic faith does not recognize civil divorces, but holds that marital unions sanctified by God are indissoluble.
 
American Catholics accounted for about half of the nearly 50,000 Church annulments in 2012, which is the latest year for which statistics are available. 
 
The Washington Post quoted Kurt Martens, a lay professor of canon law at Catholic University, as saying that the Church is church is providing a path that looks like the Catholic version of no-fault divorce.
 
Annulments, which heretofore are available only through Church tribunals, are findings that the marriage contract was fundamentally flawed from the start, and hence invalid. Among the reasons for a finding of annulment is a refusal by one or both parties to consummate the marriage. In the 1970s, the universal Church granted special permission to the Catholic bishops of the United States to issue annulments in certain circumstance without a second review that is otherwise required. As of 1983, the bishops of the United States were brought back into line with the universal practice of the Catholic Church that required a second review of affirmative annulment decisions. The latest announcement removes that requirement for the entire Church.  
 
The three main changes are:
 
• the elimination of a second review or appeal by a Church official before a marriage can be annulled.
 
• bishops would be able to hasten the process of annulment and grant themselves under certain circumstances. For example, when spousal abuse or an extramarital affair has occurred.
 
• the annulment process would be free of charge, except for nominal administrative costs, and   completed within 45 days.
 
The Pope's reforms came in the form of two "motu proprio" documents, Latin for "by (the Pope's) own initiative," which cover both the Roman rite and the Eastern rites of the Church. They will become officially part of canon law on December 8, when the “Year of Mercy” declared by the Pope commences. According to the official Vatican news website, the extent to which an abbreviated process of annulment judgment “might put the principle of the indissolubility of marriage at risk, did not escape me [writes Pope Francis – ed.]: thus, I have desired that, in such cases the Bishop himself shall be constituted judge, who, by force of his pastoral office is with Peter the greatest guarantor of Catholic unity in faith and in discipline.”
 
In the documents, Pope Francis asserted the "indissolubility of the marriage bond," but added that  "charity and mercy demand that the Church, as mother, be close to her children who consider themselves separated." The canon laws of the Church must be directed to the primary purpose of saving souls, said the pontiff.
 
Bai Macfarlane, founder of Mary’s Advocates - a nonprofit that upholds Catholic marriage - told Spero News in an interview that any administrative process by a bishop would still not be able to invent new grounds for nullity. “I’ve been pressing church officials to implement the laws of the church on marital abandonment so as to keep families together. And I’ll be giving a presentation in Rome this month that will be shared eventually with the delegates at the bishop’s synod that will take place in October. One issue that they will have to address is that in the United States, marriage tribunals covering half the Catholic population are already granting annulments to over 98% of the petitioners (according to 2012 data).”
 
Macfarlane also brought up another issue that is addressed in the two recent documents. “As reported in a story at the official Vatican news site, annulment cases are now to be decided by a single judge who must always be a cleric. So it looks like Pope Francis just fired all the lay people and nuns who are canon lawyers working as judges in tribunals around the world.”
 
Stretching the reasons for annulment too far
 
Macfarlane learned that in 2012, Msgr. Kenneth Boccafola, an appellate judge at the Tribunal of the Roman Rota said cases on appeal are overturned because local level judges are erroneously interpreting the law about the basis for annulment. He said “there are some flaws in the interpretation of doctrine and jurisprudence, for instance they use the more generic term of immaturity rather than psychological incapacity.”  Of the new book,  “The Theology of Marriage,” published by Catholic University of America, Macfarlane said, “The author, Msgr. Cormac Burke, who is a  former Roman Rota judge, criticizes the errors popular in the 70’s and 80’s because of the superficial analyses of the well-being of the spouses.”
 
Macfarlane proposes the use of modern technology and global document management systems in the annulment adjudication process. “Uniformity in process could assist in uniformity of discipline. With this kind of system, a subject matter expert on the correct application for particular grounds for nullity could work on cases from different dioceses at the same time.  If judges in the U.S. have been misapplying the grounds for annulment, then something needs to be done to address the problem.”

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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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