Explanation: What is a cancellation? (And why does Pope Francis want to make it easier to obtain a certificate?)

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A meeting on January 29 between Pope Francis and members of the Roman Rota, the highest judicial tribunal in the Vatican, raised an issue that Francis returned to several times during his pontificate: the reform of annulment. The Pope said that since 2015, when he tried to streamline the cancellation process and make it less costly, he has received “a lot of resistance” to his reforms.

“Almost all of them were lawyers who were losing clients. And that is where the problem with money lies, ”Pope Francis said. “In Spain there is a saying, ‘Por la plata baila el mono‘—’The monkeys will dance for money.’ (Now filed under: “Things no other pope would ever say.”)

Pope Francis wanted his 2015 reforms to make the process of getting an annulment “faster, cheaper and much more pastoral ministry.” He urged dioceses to waive fees that fund diocesan courts that preside over annulment processes and also instituted an abbreviated process whereby a bishop himself could step in and grant an annulment. For many divorced Catholics around the world, he suggested, the cost and intimidating complexity of the annulment process were among the reasons they never requested an annulment.

For many divorced Catholics around the world, Pope Francis suggested, the cost and intimidating complexity of the annulment process were among the reasons they never requested an annulment.

The cost of an annulment petition varies from diocese to diocese, but in many places in the United States remains expensive. Last week, the Archdiocese of New York announced that in addition to the $ 100 application fee for an annulment petition, effective February 1, 2021, an additional $ 650 would be billed as an administrative fee. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles charges $ 500. In either case, however, the official policy is that no one who cannot afford the fee will be turned away. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia charges $ 800, but in response to Pope Francis’ call for financial mercy, does not charge those who initiate a business who live in the Archdiocese. “In these cases, Pope Francis encourages those who are in a position to make a contribution to do so in order to offset the expenses of the Tribunal,” says the archdiocese’s website. “Any contribution to this cost is greatly appreciated once your file is completed. “

“The cancellation process is necessarily private, dealing with the intimate details of a couple’s life, so it is difficult to assess how these decisions are made in particular cases,” wrote Americaeditors 2007. “Nonetheless, it seems clear that the church needs to do a better job of explaining how cancellations are obtained. For too many Catholics, the process remains a great mystery.

A 2007 survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that 85 percent of American Catholics who were currently divorced had not requested annulment. Eight percent requested a cancellation but did not get one, while 7 percent received a cancellation. Many Catholics who divorced without annulment remarried, which led prominent bishops and cardinals at the Synod on the Family in 2015 for the Catholic Church to establish a mechanism for divorced and remarried Catholics, to whom it is asked to abstain from the Eucharist, as the Church teaches that their second marriage places them in a state of grave sin: to return to the sacrament and to “the life of the Christian community”.

Like divorce itself in civil society, an annulment was a rare event in the Catholic Church until the last century. It is a strange irony that the possibility (or the impossibility) of having a sacramental marriage annulled has nevertheless played a huge role in the history of the Church. From Henry VIII’s battle with the Vatican over his invalid marriage to Anne Boleyn, to the annulment granted to Louis VII of France and Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152 (they were cousins) to contemporary examples in American society with prominent politicians and public figures seeking (and often obtaining) the annulment of their marriages, Catholic annulments have played an inordinate role in politics.

A 2007 survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that 85 percent of American Catholics who were currently divorced had not requested annulment.

Cancellations are much more common in the United States than in the rest of the world, even today. Ladislas Orsy, SJ, a hot lawyer at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC, said America in a 1997 interview that 71 percent of the nearly 51,000 cancellations granted worldwide in 1994 were in the United States.

Pope Francis created a Catholic media storm in 2016 when he said, in informal remarks at a Vatican conference attended by journalists, that “the vast majority of sacramental marriages are void.” The Vatican then clarified that the Pope had mistakenly used the “majority” when he meant that “part” of sacramental marriages is void. Francis explicitly approved the change, the Vatican reported, and “any other interpretation can no longer be justified.”

What is a cancellation

An annulment is the church’s colloquial term for the declaration of a “decree of nullity,” a determination that a sacramental marriage did not take place on the wedding day of the couple in question due to an impediment that prevented one or both parties from giving full consent to the marriage.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops describes an annulment as “a declaration by a Church court (a court of the Catholic Church) that a marriage considered valid under Church law did not fulfill in reality not at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union. . “

The Catechism of the Catholic Church specifies that the exchange of consent between spouses is “the indispensable element which ‘makes the marriage’. Without consent, there is no marriage ”(no. 1626). In addition, this consent “must be an act of the will of each of the contracting parties, free from constraint or serious external fear. No human power can substitute for this consent. If this freedom is lacking, the marriage is null ”(n ° 1628).

Any Catholic who benefits from an annulment can remarry in the church, and any Catholic who does not receive one cannot.

Diocesan courts therefore do not focus on the health or longevity of a marriage itself, but on the circumstances surrounding the onset of a marriage: was it a “forced marriage” due to an unexpected pregnancy? Was the marriage coerced by physical or verbal abuse? Has a partner hid a persistent addiction to their spouse? Did both parties really understand what the sacrament itself meant – the promise to remain sexually faithful, not to forsake one’s spouse, to be open to children without conditions? Anything and everything can be evidence of “the lack or lack of consent,” in church parlance. Nowadays, courts can also ask an applicant to undergo a mental health assessment.

Another obstacle that can lead to a judgment of nullity is the fact that the marriage ceremony was not performed according to the usual rules which govern the ritual of the marriage of the church but without official deviation from these rules. One of these requirements is that the ceremony must take place in a church before a duly authorized minister (a priest or deacon) in the presence of two witnesses. Weddings that do not meet these criteria may be annulled due to “lack of canonical form”.

Of course, not all wedding ceremonies take place under ideal circumstances. A bishop can authorize a marriage in a non-Catholic church, for example, if one of the spouses is not Catholic. He may also authorize it to take place outside a religious setting, or even outdoors. Likewise, in the increasingly frequent case where a priest or deacon is not available, the local ecclesiastical authority may grant permission for another person (sometimes a nun) to officiate at a Catholic marriage service. . In Catholic sacramental theology, the bride and groom administer the sacrament of marriage to each other, with the official president of the church, whether a priest or ordained deacon or someone else. authorized, serving as a public witness to the couple’s sacramental act..

Any Catholic who benefits from an annulment can remarry in the church, and any Catholic who does not receive one cannot.

What it is not

No matter how many times you hear it described as such, jokingly or not, an annulment is not just a “Catholic divorce.” Church teaching is not just marriage in question failed, but this marriage never existed in the sacramental sense.

While the church requires that a petitioner obtain a civil divorce before seeking an annulment, it maintains that a sacramental marriage has only a tangential connection to civil proceedings. Despite opposing perceptions, the church also does not teach that divorced people cannot receive the Eucharist; their marital status only becomes a problem for the church if they remarry without cancellation.

Nor is an annulment a statement that the children of a Catholic marriage are somehow illegitimate in the eyes of the Catholic Church. This misconception can cause great psychological harm in families and may be the reason why one or both divorced spouses decide not to seek annulment. In such cases, expressions such as “decree of nullity” or “failed to meet at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union” may seem harsh and misleading. But baptism (and the subsequent receipt of other sacraments) is not at all affected by the marital status of one’s parents – and baptism is the sacrament that brings a person into the church.

No matter how many times you hear it described as such, jokingly or not, an annulment is not just a “Catholic divorce.”

Neither is an annulment a declaration that a marriage did not exist – to declare such a thing in a case where couples have been married for decades would be absurd – but simply that there was no component. sacramental in marriage. Reverend Paul V. Garrity, priest of the Archdiocese of Boston, put it in lay terms in a 2015 article for America: “All marriages look the same from the outside. When a marriage ends in divorce, the annulment process tries to look inside the marriage to see what may have been missing from the very beginning.

“To explain what an undo is, I often hold a pen with its tip retracted. The assumption is that the pen contains a cartridge and is suitable for writing, ”wrote Father Garrity. “If I take the cartridge out of the pen, it still looks the same as before. It is only when I try to write with the pen that I find that there is no ink. While the pen looks like any other writing instrument, it’s only when I look inside and find that something essential is missing that I understand why it won’t write.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated with additional information on May 13, 2021.

Other US resources on cancellations:


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