Pope Francis 'fast track' annulments: An act of mercy for women?

The new process, revising judicial rules in place for centuries, will eliminate the automatic review required of any annulment granted and make 'fast track' annulments possible.

Andrew Medichini/AP/File
Pope Francis, shown aboard the papal fight in November, announced Tuesday that he was streamlining the process by which couples can seek an annulment.

Pope Francis announced another major pastoral shakeup for the globe’s 1.3 billion Roman Catholics on Tuesday, streamlining centuries-old procedures and making it easier, and cheaper, for couples to get an annulment of marriage.

The announcement comes after an already-contentious year, as many Catholic bishops and theologians have been seeking ways to bring Catholics who divorce and remarry back under the pastoral care of the church. Since marriage is a sacrament, those who break the sacred bond and then remarry are denied communion and considered to be living in a state of adultery, according to church teachings.

In two pastoral letters released by the Vatican on Tuesday, Pope Francis said, “the impulse for reform is fed by the enormous numbers of the faithful who … are too often alienated from the juridical structures of the church.”

The pope’s announcement is an administrative and procedural move, but it is also part of his radical reemphasis on the church’s pastoral ministries, especially for those often alienated by Catholicism’s moral teachings. Over the past 2-1/2 years, Francis has startled many of the faithful by focusing more on the church’s messages of mercy and forgiveness – including for politically-charged issues such as homosexuality and abortion – rather than its moral condemnations.

Last October, church officials began to discuss various theological issues surrounding family life, including the status of divorced and remarried Catholics. Many questioned, too, the status of same-sex relationships that, though morally problematic according to teachings, often include “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice” and constitute “a precious support in the life of the partners.” It was a theological observation and did not change any point of Catholic doctrine.

And while the moral status of divorced and remarried Catholics will remain on the agenda for the bishops’ synod on family life this fall, many see the streamlined annulment procedure as an act of mercy for women.

“It is a democratizing move focused on easing the course of reintegration into the church for women, in particular,” Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, told the Religion News Service. “His actions are propelled by compassion and pragmatism: He recognizes the dangers of spousal abuse and the reality that many modern marriages are undertaken without full consideration.”

Nearly a quarter of American Catholics have been divorced, and of these about 26 percent seek annulments, according to a recent survey by Pew Research. So it is likely that the issue will remain a central topic as church leaders prepare for the this year’s global bishops synod on family life, which will meet in the Vatican this October.

But the pope’s move to streamline the annulment process may have more to do with other regions of the world. Though they make up only 6 percent of global Catholics, American couples accounted for nearly half of the 50,000 annulment hearings around the world in 2014.

“There’s already a pretty efficient streamlined process here in the United States, so this will actually have the least impact on American Catholics,” says R. Andrew Chesnut, the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “This really is aimed at the global south – most particularly Africa and the pope’s native Latin America.”

“And I think it’s from his own pastoral experience back in Argentina, where he saw both how prohibitively costly and how Byzantine the process could be – it alienated a lot of parishioners from the church,” Professor Chesnut continues.

The new process, revising judicial rules in place for centuries, will eliminate the automatic review required of any annulment granted. It will also provide a “fast track” option that allows a local bishop to grant an annulment if both spouses request it, or do not oppose it.

As the pope has pushed the church in new pastoral directions, he has often used his administrative powers to achieve many of his ends. Last week, the pope bypassed the traditional power of bishops to handle excommunications after abortions, empowering all local priests over the next year to forgive and reinstate women who have had abortions and are “contrite.” Abortion is considered a mortal sin and usually results in automatic excommunication for all of those who sought or participated in the procedure. 

The pope also has declared 2016 to be a rare “year of jubilee,” in which the church emphasizes mercy and universal pardon for sins.

Annulments are granted for a number of reasons, including one spouse who never intended to be faithful, impotence, or emotional immaturity at the time of the marriage vows, among others.

Annulment rulings in the US can take up to a year, and cost nearly $1,000, according to reports. The pope said on Tuesday that the process should be free, “insofar as possible, as consistent with the right and decent compensation of the employees of the tribunal.”

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