The streamlined marriage annulment procedures unveiled by the Vatican are aimed at simplifying what is often a tedious gauntlet of red tape. But it’s not clear how much effect the reforms ordered by Pope Francis will have in the U.S., where about half of all annulments are granted even though American Catholics are just 6 percent of the global church.
That’s largely because in recent decades American dioceses have taken a number of steps to make the process less cumbersome and time-consuming, some of which were reflected in the new procedures announced Sept. 8 in Rome.
The new rules, the most sweeping reform in centuries, eliminate an automatic review of any “decree of nullity” by a second panel of church judges, and they provide for what is being called a fast-track option that allows for an annulment to be granted by the local bishop within 45 days if both spouses request an annulment or don’t oppose it.
It’s an issue that potentially affects millions of people: in the U.S., 25 percent of Catholics have been divorced; 26 percent of them say they sought annulment, according to Pew Research.
While the first months of Pope Francis’ pontificate have been marked by his attention to the poor and his “Who am I to judge” attitude on homosexuality, his pledge to tackle the ban on Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics could have the biggest impact for Catholics in the pews, especially in the U.S.
The current policy has caused what some call a “silent schism,” and bishops around the world concede that the ban has alienated untold numbers of Catholics and their families.
“I think this is the moment for mercy,” Francis told reporters when asked about remarried Catholics during a wide-ranging news conference on the plane back to Rome from Brazil in July.
Like the gay issue, Francis seems to favor a more pastoral approach to the equally perplexing question of “invalid” marriages — couples who remarry outside the church without getting an annulment, or those who do not get married in church in the first place.
VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI has asked the Vatican’s highest appeals court to consider reviewing church rules on marriage annulments — a statement that may signal a change in tone more than a change in substance.
Speaking on Jan. 26 to the members of the tribunal of the Roman Rota, Benedict said that “lack of faith” on the part of the spouses can affect the validity of a marriage.
While the Catholic Church forbids remarried divorcees from taking Communion, church tribunals can declare a marriage void if it can be demonstrated that some key elements — such as a commitment to have children — were missing in the first place.