Archdiocese welcomes Francis’ cancellation changes

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San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller on Tuesday welcomed news from the Vatican that the process of obtaining a Catholic annulment, the Church’s declaration that a marriage was invalid, will become less cumbersome, more quick and more merciful.

The same, presumably, is true of a majority of American Catholics, who a recent poll found to be in broad disagreement with church doctrine on marriage-related issues.

Francis’ decrees changed church discipline, not doctrine, speeding up annulment trials and requiring only one judgment to be rendered locally. Hearings must take place within 30 days of the request.

The pontiff, who will make his first trip to the United States this month, also called on bishops to be more welcoming to divorced and separated Catholics who have felt alienated from the Church. Divorced Catholics who have civilly remarried without Catholic annulment cannot receive sacraments such as Communion.

García-Siller said he was “really very happy with the news”, saying Pope Francis’ statements will bring “Catholics closer to the Church and to God’s mercy”.

The Archbishop expressed hope that Catholics who receive annulments will enter into new relationships within the church and discover “the beauty of marriage”.

Francis announced the administrative decrees in two papal letters seen largely as part of his continued dedication to new openness, especially to Catholics who have distanced themselves from the church and the wider Christian world.

The new rules go into effect Dec. 8, the start of the church’s Year of Mercy, a time that a San Antonio theologian said was no accident.

García-Siller said the Archdiocese of San Antonio has already begun to streamline the annulment process since an assembly of bishops discussed family matters at the Vatican last October.

Father Martin Leopold, a canon lawyer who serves as moderator of the curia here, said Francis’ decrees in no way alter the church’s view of marriage as indissoluble and between a man and a woman, nor do they change the church’s position on marriage-related issues, such as its opposition to birth control.

Leopold said he was grateful for the papal decision. Before the start of the streamlining, it could take up to 18 months to get a reversal and the “easier and more direct” path after Dec. 8 will make it “a matter of months”, he said.

Many cases of annulment arise when a Catholic seeks to remarry in church. Not always, though — Gerard Bustos requested an annulment at St. Jude’s Catholic Church for personal reasons, he said, and he did not remarry in the church.

Finalized last month, the process took nearly two years — “it all seemed endless,” Bustos said — and cost $450, which he said could be prohibitively expensive for some Catholics.

The pontiff’s changes are “a good thing”, Bustos said.

A new poll of American Catholics by the Pew Research Center found that 49% said they did not consider it a sin to remarry after an unannulled divorce; 35 percent said yes. More than 60% also said the church should allow divorced and remarried Catholics — as well as those who cohabit — to receive communion.

But while most American Catholics will see a need for compassion and a modernization of politics, García-Siller acknowledged that conservative Catholics may lament the changes and feel they threaten marriage and family life.

“It’s the opposite,” added the Archbishop. “There is a place to heal people who have been hurt by divorce. It’s sad that marriages, for whatever reason, don’t work out. There are many in this category.

“But how wonderful that … there is a way for people to feel closer to the Lord, to bring God closer to people,” he said of healing in the Catholic Cancellation. “God’s mercy is endless.”

As for divorced Catholics whose new marriages are not recognized by the Church, “we will need to be their pastor,” García-Siller said.

Nothing in Tuesday’s announcement came as a surprise to James Ball, an associate professor of theology at St. Mary’s University.

The fact that the Church’s Year of Mercy begins on the same day as these changes is “clearly deliberate” and consistent with the pope’s compassion, awareness and pastoral approach, Ball said.

“He’s not saying divorce is a good thing,” Ball said. “The goal of the process is to heal and move on with your life.”

Leopold said the decree illustrated the Holy Father’s confidence in his bishops. “They can decide cases themselves when it’s a clear case,” he said.

As of early 2014, the archdiocese had 1,700 statewide nullification cases in its San Antonio-based appeals court.

“We are working as fast as possible,” García-Siller said. “By December, we hope to be at around 500. With this new management, it could be much faster.”

The Archbishop said complex cases may still require more time.

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Twitter: @ElaineAyala

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