Pope Francis’ annulment reforms could bring divorced Catholics back to the faith

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After her divorce, Laura Brockway stopped going to Sunday mass. She felt unworthy and her faith lost her life, and she waited over a decade before asking for an annulment. She now calls this experience – asking the church to declare her marriage contract flawed from the start – the most meaningful in her life.

Coming to terms with his failed union, a process that lasted 11 months and involved entering dozens of pages of personal testimony, was a spiritual step for Brockway. “I became devoted to my faith,” said the 47-year-old, who now works for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Gary, Indiana. “Now I hope he can do the same for the others.”

Many Catholics across the United States hailed Pope Francis’ overturning reforms, the most ambitious in nearly three centuries. Hopefully, making it faster, easier, and cheaper to get an annulment will foster greater acceptance and encourage lapsed or hesitant Catholics to join the faith.

“It’s definitely a positive message, and I would say it’s a correction,” said Father Kevin M. Laughery, a judicial vicar who heads the Cancellation Court for the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois. A century ago, he said, the church, uncomfortable with the idea of ​​divorce, attempted to respond by simply ordering the faithful to remain married.

“Obviously it didn’t work,” Laughery said. “Even though our tastes do not include the idea of ​​acknowledging divorce, we have come to the idea that it is sometimes necessary.”

The Catholic Church does not recognize civil divorce, its theology maintaining that marital unions sanctified by God are indissoluble. In an annulment, church leaders say something essential in the couple’s relationship was missing during the exchange of vows, for reasons that could include infidelity, psychiatric illness, or refusal to do so. a spouse to have children.

In his statement, Francis preserves the Catholic Church’s traditional teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, while streamlining the existing annulment process, said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame.

The reforms announced by the Pope last week remove the requirement for a second judgment on annulment decisions, a process that can lengthen the process by months. They also reduce the first court to a member of the clergy and allow local bishops to expedite the annulment process in certain cases – for example, requests not contested by a spouse.

At a time when 1 in 4 American Catholics have divorced and over 60% believe the church should allow Catholics who remarry without canceling to attend Communion, the reforms represent more than a pragmatic step. “Symbolically, it fits with the perception that Pope Francis opens doors, makes things happen and changes the way things are done,” Cummings said.

Over the past decades, the Diocese of Springfield had strived to coordinate a merciful but cautious approach to marriage. “We admit that we are changing,” said Laughery. “We recognize that people change and that societal structures change, and it cannot be assumed that everyone naturally embraces the idea of ​​marriage.”

The pope’s announcement sent a clear message that the church is sympathetic to those whose marriages are flawed, he said. “The church wants you to do this,” Laughery said. “There has been a lot of misunderstanding, and the paradox is that it’s pretty hard to get the word out to people who feel like they’ve been banned.”

Americans made up about half of the nearly 50,000 cancellations granted worldwide in 2012. Yet the practical impact of the Pope’s reforms may be less in the United States – where many dioceses have already accelerated the process and reduced fees – only in the developing world, where cancellations can be more difficult to obtain.

According to a Pew Research Center survey released last week, more than 40% of divorced American Catholics have not requested the annulment because they did not see it as necessary or did not want it. Only 1 in 10 cited the cumbersome nature of the process, saying it was too expensive, complicated or time consuming.

In the United States, a cancellation can cost anywhere from $ 200 to $ 1,000, although fees can be reduced or waived in the event of financial hardship. The reforms would make the process free, except for a nominal administrative fee.

The schedule varies from diocese to diocese, often taking 12 to 18 months or more. While eliminating the second review is likely to shorten the process by a few months, some wonder if the process can be shortened to 30 or 45 days.

“Some cases are so complex that you can’t push them quickly,” said Rose Sweet, author of “The Catholic’s Divorce Survival Guide” and advocate for greater pastoral care for divorced Catholics. “The goal is not just to do it, but to do it right. Anytime you rush into anything it invites error.

Sweet welcomed the Pope’s reforms, but noted that many dioceses – understaffed and operating on limited budgets – may need more time to implement the changes before the reforms go into effect. December 8.

The church should also focus more on community outreach, she argued, guiding people through what can seem like a daunting process. “The church has a beautiful healing process when canceled, and yet the average person is terrified, angry and thinks it costs a lot of money,” she said. “We haven’t done a very good job of reaching out to people and explaining to them what’s going on and how we can help you.”

Ana Perez, 44, a case manager for the Federal Preschool Program in Miami which received its cancellation two weeks ago after waiting more than a year, said the process had not seemed too long and tedious. “But I tend to be conservative,” she admitted. “I don’t want this to be some kind of a quick divorce.”

Still, Perez hailed the move to make cancellations more affordable, saying some people seemed intimidated by the process and put off by the expense. Francis’ reforms, she said, emphasized compassion and made the church a little less strict. “At the end of the day, more divorced people are going to show up to church because it’s more acceptable now.”

Brockway also said she hoped the reforms would encourage more people to seek cancellations, but she doubted that would make the process much easier.

“I’m not sure that makes any significant difference,” she said. “You’re still going to have to do the emotional work. “

Jarvie is special envoy.

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