New cancellation rules are welcome, but they could still be easily hijacked

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The Catholic Church now has a job ahead of it to explain to people its new cancellation procedures. I have never heard of the circumstances in which a marriage can be annulled being formally explained. I doubt many others have heard it explained either.

or most of the time, the information you gather about it happens through a kind of osmosis. For example, that non-consumption is grounds for cancellation. You hear the accusation from time to time that an annulment is a “divorce, Catholic style”.

If you’ve been paying more attention than most, you may have heard that for years it was easier to get an annulment if you live in America than in most other countries. Or that even in America you might get an annulment in one diocese more easily than in another.

In fact, at one point, the United States accounted for 80% of all annulments granted worldwide, even though America only represented 6% of all Catholics. Between 1982 and 1984, the Vatican overturned 80% of US annulment decisions it reviewed.

A notoriously reversed annulment was that of Sheila Rauch Kennedy, wife of Joe Kennedy, eldest son of Bobby Kennedy.

Joe wanted an annulment. Sheila didn’t. She wrote a book about the breakdown of her marriage and the battle for the annulment. It became a bestseller.

In truth, however, chances are you know pretty little about the cancellation because there was never a formal effort by the Church to properly inform Catholics about it.

That’s going to have to change now that Pope Francis has relaxed cancellation rules to make it easier, faster and cheaper to get one.

The bishops will also have to prepare for a possible resurgence of requests for cancellation. If there is an upsurge, it will be a reversal of current trends in Ireland. In 1998, there were just under 600 applications nationwide. In 2007, this number had fallen to 332 and in 2013 to 231. This is therefore a drop of almost two thirds in just 14 years.

What’s going on? Probably fewer people could care to apply than in the past. One possible reason for this is that it has so far been so difficult to get an annulment. But that has always been the case. The main reason is probably that many Catholics, including practicing Catholics, don’t feel the need to get one. They simply separate and, if need be, divorce and remarry according to civil law without approaching the church.

It is a symptom of the increasing secularization of the country and, therefore, a decrease in knowledge of what an annulment is.

It is also a consequence of a diminished awareness of what a sacramental marriage is. Two-thirds of Irish people still marry in church. This is much higher than the level of practice in the country, especially among the age group most likely to marry, the thirties.

Many couples choose to get married in church because of a cultural connection to their religion that often isn’t very deep or because churches are usually pretty places to get married, or both.

How seriously they take the religious dimension of their marriage is another question. The extent to which they understand that they are marrying in the eyes of God is questionable.

Have they been properly explained that a sacramental marriage in the Catholic Church creates an indissoluble bond and that your spouse can no more cease to be your spouse than your brother can cease to be your brother, no matter what do you feel for him?

How many knows that a Christian marriage should be open to the possibility of having children?

In other words, how many of those who marry in church really believe that marriage is much more than an emotional bond between two adults that should last only as long as both spouses feel that emotional bond?

Who knows? But according to German Cardinal Walter Kasper, Pope Francis estimates that up to half of Catholic marriages may be invalid due to a deeply misunderstood understanding of what marriage really is.

This very high estimate has been heavily disputed, but even if 50% is a big exaggeration, the fact remains that probably more Catholic marriages can be annulled than we think. If so, then it is right for the pope to facilitate the process.

A declaration of nullity, by the way, is a declaration that the marriage never existed. Therefore, it is not like a divorce. It’s a bit like when someone can cancel a contract because it was badly concluded.

A person may have been forced to enter into the contract, in which case he did not give his free consent to it. They may have been deceived about the nature of the contract or they may not have been in good mental health when signing the contract, which again means that they did not enter into it freely. .

In none of these cases did they breach the contract. The contract never really existed.

It is the same when a marriage is annulled and the grounds for annulling a marriage are not entirely different from the grounds on which a contract can be annulled. A big reason is that the marriage was not entered into freely and with the full and proper consent of one or both parties.

By the way, the cost here of going through the annulment process is low, especially compared to getting a divorce through the civil courts and in half of the cases, nothing at all is paid.

This reform is part of Pope Francis’ efforts to make Catholic rules less cumbersome and more merciful.

Cancellation reforms are worthwhile, but could easily be mishandled and bring the whole system into disrepute. Ultimately, each bishop will have much more discretion over how rescissions are handled and whether they are granted in his own diocese.

Suppose that in the name of “mercy” a given bishop facilitates the obtaining of an annulment? This would sow enormous confusion and uncertainty among other Catholics as to the validity of their own marriage.

Then you could have another much stricter diocese. Word would spread that it is easier to get an annulment in this diocese than in that one and the whole system would come to seem very arbitrary and inconsistent.

Imagine a legal system in which too much depends on the individual disposition of judges. It’s a factor, obviously, but shouldn’t be too big of a factor.

So the challenge now for the church is to properly inform Catholics about the whole annulment process, to put in place a system that works well and to ensure that there is uniformity and consistency between dioceses that strike the right balance between mercy and a high enough standard that the whole annulment process is not abused and discredited.

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