The Vatican is making it much easier for Catholics to annul their marriages following a push by Pope Francis for reformation of a process long criticised for being complicated, costly and out of reach for many.
Rules unveiled on Tuesday speed up the annulment process, with a fast-track procedure now available, and allow for appeals to be judged by a local church official rather than the Vatican in what represents a significant decentralisation of power away from Rome.
The pope said the changes would not encourage or “favour” the nullifying of marriage, but instead alter the time it took to complete the process. He also emphasised that annulment ought to be free of cost.
The pontiff wrote that the changes were being made so that “the heart of the faithful that wait for the clarification of their state may not be oppressed for a long time by the darkness of doubt”.
The move marks a stunning departure from earlier efforts to make annulments more difficult to obtain, particularly by Francis’s more conservative predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
While the new rules will have a practical impact that will be felt by Catholics around the world, it is also turning on its head an ongoing and polarised debate within the Vatican about whether communion ought to be offered to divorced and remarried Catholics, which is currently not allowed unless the person has received an annulment.
The new rules do not change the church’s opposition to divorce and communion – a fact that will reassure conservatives – but it will make it far more practical for remarried Catholics to have their subsequent marriages recognised by the church – pleasing progressives – and allow those Catholics to receive communion.
Under the guidelines, a couple seeking an annulment will no longer require a second confirming decision for their marriage to be nullified after it has already been decided by a church tribunal. Instead, there was “sufficient moral certainty achieved” with a single decision, the panel said.
In a case considered to be straightforward, the panel said some annulment decisions could be made directly by a local bishop. Francis urged bishops to create structures that would guide separated Catholics who were considering annulment or divorce.
Among the reasons why a party could seek an annulment, the panel included the discovery that a person in the marriage was in an extramarital relationship at the time of the marriage, when a spouse procured an abortion, and when one party lacked religious faith.
The changes will make it easier for Catholics from all over the world who wish to remarry to have their second marriages recognised by the church, therefore allowing them to fully participate in church life.
While annulments are relatively easy to receive in the US, the process can be exceedingly difficult in countries such as Argentina and Chile, where it can take years.
Unlike the process of divorce, in which a marriage is dissolved, a completed annulment is predicated upon the church finding that the marriage was never properly entered into in the first place. Reasons can include one or both partners not understanding the vows, not realising marriage was a lifelong commitment, or not wanting to have children.