Will Pope Francis’ Undoing Reforms Impact American Catholics?

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The simplified marriage annulment procedures unveiled by the Vatican aim to simplify what is often a tedious glove of bureaucracy. But it’s unclear what effect the reforms ordered by Pope Francis will have in the United States, where about half of all annulments are granted, even though American Catholics make up just 6% of the global church.

That’s largely because over the past few decades, U.S. dioceses have taken a number of steps to make the process less cumbersome and time-consuming, some of which were reflected in new procedures announced Sept. 8 in Rome. .

The new rules, the most sweeping reform in centuries, eliminate the automatic review of any “decree of nullity” by a second panel of Church judges, and they provide what is called a fast-track option that allows for undo an undo. granted by the local bishop within 45 days if both spouses request an annulment or do not oppose it.

Cancellation decisions can currently take up to a year or more and cost upwards of $1,000, although in the United States fees can be waived.

In the United States, 25% of Catholics are divorced; 26% of them say they have requested the cancellation, according to Pew Research.

Catholics who are divorced and remarried without annulment are not allowed to receive communion because they are considered to be committing adultery. It is a sensitive issue that is among several contentious issues that world bishops’ leaders will debate at a Vatican summit next month, called a synod, chaired by Francis.

The Catholic Church does not allow divorce, but has long recognized that in some cases a marriage is never valid – if one of the parties, for example, never intended to be faithful or was still married to someone else at the time, or if impotence prevented consummation of the marriage or, more often than not, if either or both parties were deemed too psychologically immature at the time to understand what what they were doing.

Francis says half of all marriages in the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, which he ruled before he was elected pope in 2013, were invalid because husband and wife did not view their vows as a lifetime commitment .

Yet critics consider the annulment process to be tantamount to a “Catholic divorce”. They often cite the cost and complexity of the process, and the fact that in the past annulments have been granted to couples – some of them wealthy and well-known – who have been married for decades and have had several children together.

In the two documents detailing the changes, Francis reaffirmed Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, but said “the impetus for reform is fueled by the enormous numbers of the faithful who…are too often alienated from the legal structures of the Church.”

The streamlining is in line with the pope’s emphasis on the church to reflect God’s mercy and to move away from an emphasis on what he called “narrow-minded rules.” In fact, the annulment reform was made just a year after Francis ordered it, a remarkably quick turnaround for the Vatican at a snail’s pace.

“This is a democratization movement focused on facilitating the process of reintegration into the church for women, in particular,” said Candida Moss, professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. Lady. “His actions are driven by compassion and pragmatism: he recognizes the dangers of domestic violence and the reality that many modern marriages are entered into without full consideration.”

Moss also noted that the timing of the moves is significant because it precedes Francis’ September 22-27 visit to the United States, his first. “Francis set the agenda for those conversations and paved the way for his visit later this month,” Moss said. “The message is clear: Francis does not want to change the teaching of the Church but neither does he want to focus on punishing people.”

The new procedures also demonstrate Francis’ desire to decentralize authority in the church; one of the main characteristics of the new reform is that, while the appeal to Rome remains an option, local bishops have more latitude adjudicate and dispense with cases of cancellation.

On this issue, bishops around the world may be looking to the American hierarchy for guidance.

Some of the steps announced this week were used on a trial basis decades ago by U.S. bishops, who also led efforts to reduce the complexity of the process.

The Reverend John Beal, a prominent canon lawyer who teaches at the Catholic University of America, recently said that US Church courts in each diocese have allowed applicants to submit written affidavits or even use Skype at instead of having to attend each hearing in person.

“We’re removing a lot of formalities like swearing in and other things that give a rough legal aspect to the process,” Beal said National Catholic Journalist, noting that many other countries have not taken these steps.

This is one of the reasons why American represented nearly half of the approximately 50,000 cancellation cases launched annually by religious courts around the world in 2014. Nearly nine out of ten cases in the United States result in an annulment, although the rate is lower in other regions.

Eliminating the automatic appeal could significantly speed up the process, as could another trend that Pope Francis further encouraged in his announcement this week: making the cancellation process free.

Over the past year, no less than a dozen of the nearly 200 U.S. dioceses have waived all costs of the annulment proceedings. The cost has ranged from $250 to just over $1,000, and fees have often been waived due to hardship.

But there appears to be a move to automatically eliminate fees, which could increase following Tuesday’s papal decrees.

It’s unclear whether any of these changes will lead to more cancellations or bring Catholics back to the sacraments.

Cancellations are down in the United States Just over 23,000 cases were opened in 2014, down from nearly 61,000 in 1985. Church officials note that fewer Catholics are getting married in the church, more are living together without getting married, and many of those who divorcing see no reason to cancel.

Here is a list of U.S. dioceses, compiled by RNS and using information from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, that are waiving cancellation fees. The list will be updated as information is received:

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