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Pope issues new rules to streamline annulment process

September 08, 2015

Pope Francis has issued two documents reforming and simplifying the process for obtaining a marriage annulment.

The reforms, unveiled by the Vatican on September 8, eliminate the costs of obtaining an annulment, and the requirement—heretofore mandatory—for a 2nd review of any judgment that a marriage was invalid.

In his most dramatic reform, Pope Francis also allows for a new, accelerated process leading to annulment in cases in which the evidence appears clear.

The new norms will take effect on December 8, at the beginning of the Year of Mercy. They are contained in two documents, Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus (“The Lord Jesus, Clement Judge”), and Mitis et Misericors Iesus (“Clement and Merciful Jesus”), which amend the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canon Law for Oriental Churches, respectively. English translations of the documents are not yet available.

Introducing the reforms, the Pope explains that he was motivated by the desire to help those Catholics who “are too often separated from the legal structures of the Churches due to physical or moral distance.” He recalls that the need for simplifying the procedures for reforms was frequently mentioned during the October 2014 discussions of the Synod of Bishops.

These reforms, the Pope emphasizes, do not alter the Church’s clear teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. He notes that the canonical changes he introduces are “provisions that favor not the nullity of marriage but rather the speed of processes, along with the appropriate simplicity, so that the heart of the faithful who await clarification of their status is not long oppressed by the darkness of doubt due to the lengthy wait for a conclusion.”

The main steps of the papal reforms are:

  • Elimination of a mandatory review of every judgment of nullity. The Pope writes that “the moral certainty reached by the first judge according to law should be sufficient.”
  • Hearing of cases by a single judge—always a cleric—appointed by the bishop, rather than a court of three judges. The bishop himself retains the final authority as judge in his diocese.
  • An accelerated process [described in more detail below], in which the bishop serves as judge with the help of diocesan assessors, for cases in which the evidence appears clear that a sacramental marriage never took place.
  • Appeals in marriage cases may be heard by metropolitan tribunals, and in the final instance, cases may be appealed to the Holy See, to be heard by the Roman Rota.

The reforms reflect the work of a special commission created by the Pontiff last September to suggest ways to streamline the annulment process. Several members of that panel addressed a September 8 press conference at the Vatican introducing the new procedures.

Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, the president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts—the Vatican body responsible for the interpretation of canon law— emphasized to reporters that the term “annulment” is actually misleading, suggesting that the process dissolves a marriage. In fact, he explained:

It is a process that leads to the declaration of nullity, or in other words, which leads first to establish whether a marriage may be declared null and, if so, to declare its nullity.

Another member of the commission, Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, SJ, the secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said that a breakdown in the public understanding of marriage has led to a sharp increase in the number of Catholics who form a union without a proper understanding of Christian marriage. He said:

In our traditional civilization, it was possible to suppose that these teachings of the Church were known and shared. In recent times there has emerged the doubt, that would seem not without basis, as to whether all those who marry in the Church are sufficiently aware of these teachings and, therefore, as to whether their consent truly refers to them. If it is not the case, their marriage would be null; that is, it would not exist in fact.

Most of the specific changes instituted by Pope Francis will have little practical effect on Catholics in the US-- the country responsible for nearly half of all annulments handed down by Church tribunals worldwide. Most American Catholics have ready access to marriage tribunals, and many dioceses have waived the fees associated with a petition for annulment. However, the new “fast-track” option could bring a significant change for those Catholics who qualify for that alternative.

However, the reforms undertaken by Pope Francis could have an important impact on the work of the Synod of Bishops, which will meet again in October to discuss marriage and family issues. One of the most hotly contested debates at last October’s meeting of the Synod was whether Catholics who are divorced and remarried might be admitted to Communion. The new streamlined procedures for annulments will likely ease the pressure for such a change. As John Allen of Crux wrote:

The decision will recalibrate the discussion at October’s second edition of the Synod of Bishops on the family, likely reducing the emphasis on the question of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics and creating space for other issues to emerge.

In his motu proprio, Pope Francis stipulates that the shorter process could be followed in cases where one or both partners showed a clear lack of faith; where the marriage had been brief and the couple divorced quickly; where one partner was engaged in an extramarital affair at the time of the wedding; where one partner concealed information about serious disease, infertility, or children from another relationship; or where the marriage vows were taken under pressure or without the use of reason.

The Pope acknowledges that the accelerated process could open the door to abuses, and underlines the moral responsibility of the diocesan bishop to safeguard the integrity of marriage. In his motu proprio he writes that “it does not pass unnoticed that a shorter procedure may endanger the principle of the indissolubility of marriage; for precisely this reason I have required that in such a procedure the judge be the bishop himself who, due to his pastoral office, is with Peter the greatest guarantor of Catholic unity in faith and in discipline.”

The papal documents repeatedly emphasize the responsibility of bishops, as the final judges in their dioceses. The Pope notes that in appointing a judge to hear marriage cases, it is “in the first instance the responsibility of the bishop, who in the pastoral exercise of his judicial power must ensure that the former does not engage in any form of laxity.” He calls upon episcopal conferences to affirm the bishops’ responsibility and assist them in carrying it out.


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  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Sep. 09, 2015 9:35 AM ET USA

    I'm working with RCIA for a learning disabled couple, one of whom wants to come in to the Church, one of whom is Catholic and divorced without an annulment. Neither is prepared to deal with the annulment process, even with help. I wish the Pope's "fast track" process recognized these kinds of cases and provided for them. This person cannot have appreciated what a true marriage is now -- or in the past. The spouse is nonetheless blocked from baptism, which should not be.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Sep. 08, 2015 10:13 PM ET USA

    Of course the Bishops have an unblemished record in upholding church law across the board - NOT!!!

  • Posted by: filioque - Sep. 08, 2015 6:57 PM ET USA

    Certainly we can expect bishops to be careful, especially in the U.S. After all, in the 1970s, when the US was granted the option of not having a review (second instance)of cases where nullity was the finding if a review was thought not to bring additional value, guess how many cases were submitted by bishops for a review. According to Card. Burke, out of about 100,000 cases, NONE! I don't think this helps. We should concentrate on much better catechesis and marriage preparation.