Do not be afraid: Regardless of what you have heard or read, the Catholic Church has not by any means changed its teaching regarding the permanent nature of marriage. That is something that is dogma and therefore unalterable for the Church that Christ founded and whose head He divinely preserves from officially teaching error. What we have here in Pope Francis’ recent revision of the annulment process may not be easy to understand, but nonetheless it is showing compassion for those Catholics who have been divorced and who have petitioned their diocese for an annulment due to their belief that the marriage was not valid.
Up until now, the process of examining the validity of the marriage could take many years; it could also be very expensive, with the need for canon lawyers to closely examine the validity or invalidity of the marriage. Thanks to Pope Francis’s change in the procedures (which take effect Dec. 8), diocesan bishops have the ability to further expedite the annulment process in what would be regarded as straightforward cases. The Holy Father decided to alter the enrollment process on his own, as he had the right to do as the pope, rather than wait for the Synod on the Family that is coming up in October. Consistent with the bishop’s traditional role as principal judge in his diocese, the new process places responsibility on the bishop himself, although assisted by those he chooses.
In terms of the average Catholic whose marriage in the Catholic Church has ended and is seeking clarity as to the marriage’s validity and his or her current status, this helps to make an already painful situation easier, and that is what the pope wants. He said in August, “How I wish the marriage proceedings were free of charge” and also urged Catholic clergy to be more welcoming to divorced and remarried Catholics.
To reiterate: Jesus Christ expressly taught that those who divorce and then remarry are committing the great sin of adultery. He said that whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. One can also see clearly that the Holy Father in this year dedicated to mercy is making every effort, where possible without violating Christ’s law, to bring alienated and fallen-away Catholics back to the Church and its sacraments. To do so, he does not intend to undercut the indissolubility of marriage; however, he would like those petitioning for annulments, many after a period away from the Church during which they contracted an invalid marriage, to receive a timely decision.
To give an idea of the complexity of this change, we might look at the various circumstances that would qualify for the “fast-track” option because they suggest (though that would still need to be determined) that that might well qualify for annulment:
- Lack of faith resulting in the simulation of consent to be married. A couple divorced very quickly after being married.
- The couple aborted a child to prevent procreation during the marriage itself, showing unwillingness to procreate.
- The stubborn persistence of an extramarital affair at the time of the wedding or at a time immediately following.
- The malicious concealment of infertility, serious contagious disease, children born from a previous relationship, or incarceration.
- A reason for getting married that is completely foreign to married life, something like effecting a marriage to be able to immigrate or gain an inheritance.
- Physical violence inflicted to extort the marriage.
- The lack of use of reason proved by medical documents.
Without question, Pope Francis’s changes may split Catholic opinion between those who believe the Church is streamlining the process in a needed way that will bring more Catholics to the Church and those who worry that revisions could make it too easy to move from a marriage that Catholic teaching dictates is a permanent sacrament. The number of annulments in the United States has been in decline in recent decades; in my opinion that is because many Catholics—at least, baptized Catholics—either have left the faith or quite possibly have found it too difficult to wait for an annulment decision to be made.
In my opinion, the Holy Father’s decision was good in that it can bring people back to the Church while also helping them to carefully and honestly examine their motives and intentions for marriage. Many quite orthodox priests and bishops over recent decades have suggested that a great number of Catholic marriages may not have been validly entered into—due in large part to our era’s poor catechesis and society’s debased idea of marriage. So, to take advantage of this work of mercy, what the Holy Father also desires going forward is that couples prepare themselves well before they take the step of holy matrimony.Fr. C. J. McCloskey III, S.T.D. is a Church historian and Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, DC. He is perhaps best known for guiding into the Church such luminaries as Dr. Bernard Nathanson, Lawrence Kudlow, Robert Novak, Judge Robert Bork, and Senator Sam Brownback. His articles, reviews, and doctoral thesis have been published in major Catholic and secular periodicals. He is co-author (with Russell Shaw) of Good News, Bad News: Evangelization, Conversion, and the Crisis of Faith (Ignatius Press) and the co-editor of "The Essential Belloc" (St. Benedict's Press).
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