Vatican makes big changes to annulment law ahead of October Synod of Bishops in Rome


For nearly a year, Church watchers predicted that that day would come: The Vatican officially changed canon law on marriage annulments, making it easier for Catholics to separate from their spouses with the blessing. from the church. When Pope Francis brought together the bishops of the Church for a historic synod in Rome last October, divorce and annulments were major topics of discussion. In about a month, the bishops will be revisiting these topics in a follow-up meeting that is expected to change the Church’s stance on family life. In many ways, Tuesday’s announcement on cancellations is the first shake before the big changes to come.

But before Catholics rush to their local church court to ask for their vows to be overturned, a few notes. First, Tuesday’s changes specifically address the issue of nullity, or whether a marriage was ever valid in the eyes of the Church. These are reforms to “the relatively complicated and lengthy legal process that the Church has used since at least the Middle Ages to deal with problems of marriage breakdown,” said Father John Beal, professor of canon law at the Catholic University.

If a person claims their marriage is void, the Church will initiate an investigation. Since about 1750, these claims must be approved by two separate courts; Tuesday’s reforms eliminate the second mandatory trial, except when one party disputes the nullity claim. They allow more cases to be brought before a single judge – or, significantly, a tribunal that includes a clerk and two lay people, Beal said.

This is not the first time that the Church has experienced this new structure. “We tried this in this country between 1970 and 1983,” Beal said. “The bishops of the United States were concerned that the cancellation process would take too long and be too complicated, so they called for changes on an experimental basis.” The change has had big results: by eliminating the second court, “about 90% or more of cases have been settled after a decision,” Beal said. But when the revised code of canon law came into effect in 1983, the United States reverted to the two-court requirement.

Tuesday’s reforms do not change the Church’s broader teachings on marriage. “The doctrine of the Church is that faithfulness to the teaching of Jesus obliges us to view marriages as not only permanent, but [indissoluble]”Beal said. And it is still the case that only certain types of marriages are eligible for annulment. There are three broad categories of marriages that can be considered void,” Beal said: marriages that do not have not been celebrated correctly, before a priest and two witnesses, marriages which suffer from a kind of “impediment”, which means that the husband and the wife were too close or that one of the spouses was too young, for example example; and marriages that suffer from “flawed consent.” This is the category of claims that will be most affected by Tuesday’s decision, Beal said: Case of one of the spouses suffering from mental illness or not susceptible to have children or to commit infidelity, for example.

Globally, cancellation is quite rare. According to Node, the Church only delivers about 60,000 each year. The majority of them take place in the United States: while only 6 percent of the worldCatholics live in America, they represent somewhere in between 55 and 70 percent of cases, depending on Node.

This is in part what Francois and his council of advisers hope to change. In a speech to the Roman Rota, or the Church’s highest court, last January, the Pope instructed listeners, or judges, “do not close the salvation of people inside a bottleneck. ‘legal strangulation’. According to Rocco Palmo from the blog Whispers in the Loggia, this was in part in reference to the many annulment cases that have piled up in Church courts. Throughout his pontificate, Francis tried to eliminate bureaucratic inefficiencies from the curia, or the body of officials who govern the Church. This change fits in with this theme: it mainly aims to make the cancellation process less bureaucratic and faster by reducing the number of officials who have to approve requests.

While the United States is home to most cancellations globally, these changes could have the biggest effect elsewhere. From the Vatican perspective, the United States is a country that needs more marriage, not less, according to in Pew, one in four American Catholics has divorced, which is not tolerated by the Church. Later this month, Francis will visit America for the first time for the World Meeting of Families, where he will likely emphasize the moral importance of marriage and the family.

The announcement is perhaps the most important for places like the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic country where divorce is illegal and the cancellation process is incredibly bureaucratic. As Ana P. Santos wrote in Atlantic in June,

Under Philippine law, two people wishing to end their marriage have limited options. They can apply for legal separation, which will allow them to separate their property and live separately, but does not legally end a marital union and therefore does not allow remarriage. They can file for divorce if they are part of the estimates 5 percent of the population which is Muslim and is ruled by the Code of Muslim Personal Laws.

Or they can get an annulment, which in the Philippines is a long and expensive court process. (An ecclesiastical annulment, granted by a Church tribunal, is a separate procedure, without which a Catholic cannot remarry in the Church. Pope Francis said that the Church should “rationalize” this process, which can take up to a decade.) An annulment ends a marriage, but differs from divorce in important ways. The parties, for example, must prove that the marriage was never initially valid. Under Philippine law, the grounds may include one or both parties who are under 18 at the time of their marriage, either party has an incurable sexually transmitted disease, or cases of polygamy or mistaken identity.

The biggest changes in the Church’s stance on family matters are yet to come – at next month’s synod, for example, bishops are expected to issue statements about whether divorced and remarried Catholics can go to Communion. If the bishops approve of this change, said Beal, “It could make a lot of noise about nothing.” In other words, like Ross Douthat argued, if civilly divorced and remarried Catholics are allowed to go to Communion, this can discourage people from going through the Church’s official annulment process.

So stay tuned: this is a pretty big legal change for the Church, but it remains to be seen how the reforms will play out in practice or whether the Church will make even bigger changes to its laws. on the end of marriages.


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