Pope Francis should consider church’s obsolete annulment process


The pope wants to know we think.

This in itself is considered a minor miracle. In our descending hierarchical church, the concept of sensus fidelium has practically remained a dead letter since the Second Vatican Council. Usually Rome speaks and we listen. But now he wants to hear from us. Thank you.

In preparation for the October bishops’ meeting, Pope Francis asked the whole Church to answer 38 questions in nine broad categories, all dealing with marriage and family life. I just want to address one issue: cancellations.

Here is my view: It is time for us to abandon our current cancellation process and look east to see what our Orthodox brothers and sisters are doing.

It is quite clear from the Gospels that Jesus did not approve of divorce and remarriage. He says it equates to adultery, which is pretty strong language, especially coming from Jesus. But if we are his disciples, we must at least try to come to terms with his teaching. Our cancellation process is an attempt to take his teaching seriously while allowing people a second (or third) chance.

The problem with the process in the Roman Catholic Church is that it takes what should be a pastoral issue and turns it into a legal issue. It’s complicated, often unfair and often unintelligible to participants. Some courts are easy. Some are tough. It can be very finicky.

Cancellations occur every year in our RICA program. We always have several remarried divorced couples who want to come to the sacraments. Often they have been divorced and remarried for years or even decades. Sometimes their own children are not even aware of previous marriages. Until they felt the pull of the church, it never even occurred to them that they might need a Catholic annulment. It makes no sense to them to have to have a marriage annulled that may have taken place 30 years ago in a Baptist church or before a justice of the peace. All the cancellation process does is put an obstacle in their way to enter the church.

There is a loophole for Catholics. If either party to the former marriage was Catholic and the marriage took place in a non-Catholic ceremony, annulment is just a matter of paperwork. It’s a slam dunk that takes place in a matter of weeks.

I always get them right away. But that seems unfair. It rewards people who disobeyed the church years ago and married outside of the church. Most people take it for what it is: an escape. They are lucky to have a second wedding because of the kind of ceremony they had years ago.

The trickiest annulments involve people who weren’t Catholic at the time and had absolutely no reason to marry in a Catholic church. Ironically, they have to go through a full legal process in a religious court.

It is painful and unnecessary. They must find witnesses, obtain records, take statements, dig up old contacts and open old wounds. All of our language is legal, not pastoral. We are talking about petitions, courts, witnesses, lawyers, petitioners, defendants and evidence. It’s Kafkaesque. It turns pastors into bureaucrats, in vain.

Sometimes there are good reasons why people don’t want to get in touch with the ex-spouse. There may have been abuse or violence. They expose themselves to further injury or retaliation. They may not even know where the former spouse or best man is after so many years. I’ve had cases where ex-spouses have delayed an annulment out of spite for years.

No one is deterred from divorcing and remarrying by our annulment procedure. But many people are deterred from entering or returning to church by our cancellation process. It is spiritually counterproductive.

The Roman Catholic annulment process needs a complete overhaul. We should look to the Orthodox churches for a better way to handle this.

In Eastern churches, the first cancellation is handled entirely by the pastor. After all, he is the person on the scene. He knows the people involved and can judge their sincerity and seriousness. He can talk to them about marriage and see if they are sincere in their desire for reconciliation with the church. No downtown court at the chancery office can do that.

Basically, in Orthodox churches, couples get a second chance. Their first marriage can be annulled by the priest in a simple conversation and confession. But third or fourth marriages would need the bishop’s permission in most Orthodox churches, as I understand it. However, this is a pastoral process and not legal.

Our legal annulment process is a holdover from when the Catholic Church was the civil law of marriage in many countries. Today, that makes no sense.

Over the years, several couples have gotten mad at me or the church and ran away in anger. A friend of mine who is an Episcopal priest once said to me, “As long as you are so strict about divorce and remarriage, there will be a reason for the Episcopal church.”

Sometimes I just take the pastoral route. For example, I’ve had couples in the late 70s and 80s who got married decades ago. They can barely remember their first marriage, let alone search the records. Or I’ve had people who are terminal and want to come to church. There is no time or energy to get an annulment.

If I were pope, I would leave the decision on cancellations and reception of the sacraments entirely to the parish priest. It must be resolved in the internal forum of the confessional. The emphasis should be on mercy, not law. End of the story. Pass.

People who come to RICA are spiritually mature. They are serious people who really take the Catholic Church seriously. I find that these converts make the best Catholics and the strongest witnesses to the faith.

If we put a legal obstacle in the way of converts, all we really accomplish is to prevent them from returning or entering the church. No grace for you!

It doesn’t change the facts of their lives. They are already in their second or third marriage. It would be neither moral nor prudent to expect them to leave their current spouse just because we say so.

For our faithful, the real scandal is not the fact that divorced and remarried people can receive communion, but that sincere people who really desire the Eucharist are prevented from doing so by a process of legalistic, complicated, capricious and alienating.

Let divorced and remarried people make a good confession and offer heartfelt contrition and a firm goal of amendment. Then let them start over. God forgave us much worse.

Priests and bishops should be pastors, not jurists. That’s one pastor’s opinion, anyway.

I’m glad the pope asks and wants to know what’s going on in the local church.

[Fr. Peter Daly is a priest in the archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and has been pastor of St. John Vianney parish in Prince Frederick, Md., since 1994.]

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