In September when Pope Francis announced a reform of the annulment process, media headlines suggested the Church was stepping towards the acceptance of divorce. However, the closing of the Synod on the Family just one month later saw confirmation that the Church would not change its teaching on the indissolvability of marriage. So what is really going on?
The Catholic Church holds that the Sacrament of Matrimony is a living witness of God’s unconditional and permanent love, and therefore it is also permanent and indissolvable. Theology aside, there are also sound sociological reasons for affirming the permanency of marriage. For one thing, marriages established on the premise of permanency provide the optimum environment for the flourishing of the spouses and the raising of any children.
The Church has higher expectations when it comes to Matrimony than the State has for civil marriage: Matrimony is a freely-made, life-long vow to total self-donation that is sexually exclusive and open to children. For this vow to become an authentic Sacrament, it must meet a number of conditions, including the free commitment of both spouses to the fullness of the Sacrament.
In practice, many couples marry in the Church without a full understanding of the nature of Catholic marriage, and while most of these ‘grow’ into deeper understanding, some don’t. No one marries planning to divorce; but when a marriage breaks down, the question arises as to whether or not the couple had a full understanding of the commitment they made.
While many mistakenly think annulment is a form of ‘Catholic divorce’; nothing could be further from reality. A civil divorce legally terminates the civil marriage contract while an annulment is a declaration that an essential element required to establish the Sacrament was not present at the time of the wedding, nor subsequent to it. It doesn’t mean that a marriage never existed (it did), nor that any children from it are illegitimate (they’re not). It simply recognises that sometimes, the best intentions of the couple, their family and their celebrant were insufficient to overcome the obstacles that prevented the couple from establishing a Sacramental bond.
To date, the process of applying for an annulment can be lengthy (in excess of 12 months) and for some, costly. In addition, it can bring to the surface a sense failure or an apprehension they may need to interact with a hostile spouse. As a result many judge that seeking an annulment is too hard, especially as there is no guarantee it will be granted. Instead, they remarry outside the Church or re-partner without marriage, actions which precludes them from receiving the Sacraments of Communion and Reconciliation. Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, when confronted with this situation some withdraw from parish life altogether.
In September Pope Francis’ made changes to make the annulment process as accessible and efficient as possible. This is a worthy objective; there is no benefit in making the annulment procedure any more difficult than absolutely necessary to maintain the integrity of the process. Previously, an annulment application required the evaluation of a local and regional tribunal. Pope Francis has both shortened the process and made it cheaper by removing the need to have a second evaluation by a regional tribunal and giving full authority to the local Bishop. In the rare cases that are referred to the Vatican tribunal, he has made the process free.
None of this changes the Church’s doctrine about the indissolvability of marriage, nor the grounds on which an annulment can be declared. Nor does it change the ‘chances’ of being granted an annulment. What it does do is make the process simpler, faster and cheaper.
Combined with the often overlooked benefit of the annulment process in assisting spouses in understanding reasons why their relationship failed to flourish, and so helping them to avoid similar outcomes in a possible subsequent relationship, this change is a welcome reform.
For a more detailed discussion on this topic, visit: Annulment Reform Explored