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Annulment Process – a dramatic change

Pope Francis has announced a major overhaul in the Church’s system for granting annulments. This move is considered to be the latest in Francis’ reforms in which he seeks to make the Church more responsive to the needs of Catholics around the world. Without an annulment Catholics who remarry are excluded from the reception of Communion. This is, for many, a painful exclusion from one of the Church’s most important sacraments. Fr. James Martin, SJ, described the announcement minutes after it was made as “an act of mercy from a pastoral Pope who listens carefully to the concerns of the people.”

An annulment is a finding by a Church court that a union between a man and woman, even if ratified by a Church wedding, was lacking because it did not meet one of the traditional tests for validity – for example informed consent. The Pope said that he was streamlining the process out of concern for “the salvation of souls” but still maintained the Church’s traditional ban on divorce.

Under the rules, Catholics whose relationships break down and who want to marry someone else in the Church first need to obtain an annulment. Many people have experienced the process as lengthy, invasive, complicated and, in many places, too expensive. Pope Francis says that a great number of synod fathers (who met in October 2014 in preparation for the Synod on the Family in October 2015) emphasised the need to make the annulment process more accessible and less time consuming.

In two legal documents, called Motu Proprio, Francis has overhauled the process in order to speed it up. In the past, for example, annulments had to go through two courts. One issued it and another had to confirm it. Francis has ruled that only one court is necessary unless there is an appeal. Appeals can now also be handled by the nearest Archdiocese and do not have to be sent to Rome. The changes will take effect on 8 December, the first day of the “Year of Mercy” which Francis decreed earlier this year.

Other changes that the Pope has decreed are the following: Only one judge is needed to oversee the process; under some circumstances the bishop himself can serve as the judge; if the annulment is “evident” the process will be even shorter; the process must be free of charge (which means that Bishop’s Conferences and diocese must save appropriately to remunerate people who work for Church courts); and that a second appeal can be made to the Vatican if necessary. In the past the first appeal would have to go to Rome – the first appeal can now be made to the nearest Archdiocese.

It’s important to note that the grounds for granting annulments have not changed – it is the process the Pope is overhauling. This will be the most substantial change that has been made to the church’s marriage law since Benedict XIV who was Pope from 1740-1758. Pope Francis has, again, reminded us that mercy and forgiveness are key aspects of Christian life. It’s a massive challenge to us all.

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ
B.A. (UKZN) M.Th. (UKZN)

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Institute and is interested in the impact that communications technology has on society and spirituality. He regularly comments on South African Politics and various issues in the Catholic Church.

r.pollitt@jesuitinstitute.org.za @rpollittsj
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