Streamlined Annulment Process: A Sign of Compassion

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.

ringIn 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).
Articles by Fr. McCloskey:

  • BXVI

    This will quickly turn into a quickie Catholic divorce process. People will just get out of their marriages if they don’t want to stay in them and the Church will give them a quick and easy certificate to pretend their marriages never existed. I think the bigger problem is the notion being put forth by the Pope that half of all Catholic marriages may be invalid, so that it will be easier to let people out of them. These new rules will do more to undermine marriage than anything else that has happened in the last 100 years.

    • Ralph Coelho

      I do not know the situation abroad but I believe that most Indian marriages are invalid because the pre-nuptial inquiry is seriously flawed and does not detect the result of poor catechesis of the intending spouses!

  • cestusdei

    A lot will depend on the integrity of the tribunals who handle the cases, but that has always been true.

    • Ralph Coelho

      The survival of the Church depends on the integrity of its individual members

      • cestusdei

        Ultimately it depends on the grace of God, but you are correct that we must cooperate with that grace.

        • Ralph Coelho

          Ultimately it depends on response. The grace of God is always available because he is merciful!

          • cestusdei

            Even if we do not respond the Church perdures.

          • Ralph Coelho

            God perdures for the Church his son instituted just as he perdures for the sparrow on the line and the lilies of the field;even without our faith! The Church response is the response of imperfect persons!

  • FreemenRtrue

    well, I am aware of a few very specious annulments – they were farcical – and the situation does not have much hope of improving since the tribunals are eliminated? Why not simply let the divorced go Lutheran? Countermanding Christ will not fill the pews.

  • Elijah fan

    . If inadequate catechesis invalidates a marriage as the ending to this piece suggests, then why did Christ hold the Samaritan woman at the well responsible for her original vow….despite being involved with four subsequent men. As a Samaritan, she rejected the proverbs and the prophets and only accepted a pentateuch in which a verse was changed to glorify Mt. Gerizim. Yet Christ said she was really married to her original husband. We don’t line up with Christ since I’ll bet the Samaritan woman could get an annullment from us just on the serial cohabiting behaviour or bad catechesis…but obviously she got the opposite from Christ….an exhortation to return to her original man. We have 25% divorced and the Amish have about 1% or less…and they are the heretics? I think Cardinal Sarah of Africa and others will fight against this rosy interpretation of 45 day annullments.

    • Micha Elyi

      “If inadequate catechesis invalidates a marriage as the ending to this
      piece suggests, then why did Christ hold the Samaritan woman at the well
      responsible for her original vow….”–Elijah fan

      That is a good question. With justification, we can know that Christ knew her heart and her understanding of marriage–including its permanence–when he judged her responsible for her original vow.

      The process of seeking a declaration of nullity (“annullment” is a misleading term and I’ll accept that you do not intend to mislead anyone) depends on the good faith and honesty of the participants, most especially upon that of the petitioner. However Christ did instruct that the wheat will remain mixed with the chaff until the last day.

      Abusing the process of adjudicating a petition for a declaration of nullity is grave matter and remains so today–for that too some will be judged on the last day. Christ gave those of us who are distressed by tales of such abuse the ability to make acts of reparation and pray that those who have sinned will repent. However He did not give us the ability to see into souls and judge others’ state of sin.

      • Ralph Coelho

        The last paragraph is misleading. God judges the understanding of each person and judges accordingly. Even in civil law a person who lacks understanding cannot be judged culpable. This is known to lead to farcical acquittals but is still the law.
        I believe the compassion is shown by transferring some of the responsibility to th Bishop who will be tested severely!
        Finally a person who obtains an annulment unjustly will not escape the judgement of God,

    • Jennifer Johnson

      I had to look up the reference, because it didn’t seem right to me that “she was really married to her original husband.” From John 4:

      “He told her, ‘Go, call your husband and come back.’ ‘I have no husband,’ she replied. Jesus said to her, ‘You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.'”

      Evidently, her first marriage was not valid.

      • Elijah fan

        I’m not getting that because we are seeing “no husband” differently timewise: you are seeing the phrase as covering her lifetime and I’m seeing it covering her present period of life. Ask yourself what is Christ fraternally correcting in her…serial fornication or not being with her real husband? But Christ says she has had five husbands not five livein boyfriends and the one she is with is not her husband. He is going back to His ideal as He said it was in the ” beginning” not what He as God permitted to the Jews …divorce. He is converting her to His reinstating the original marriage not that which was permitted by their hardness of heart.

        From another perspective or put another way, annullments and cross examining validity didn’t exist before Christian marriage. For example Jacob is deceived into marrying Leah by intercourse in the night tent by her father when he had worked 7 years for the more beautiful Rachel and he must work another 7 for Rachel and is then married to both sisters in the eyes of that culture and in his own eyes. The Church would consider the marriage to Leah after Christ… null by deception.
        The premarital sexual unmarried couple as to the Old Testament ” law” were not stoned like adulterers but rather had to marry per Deuteronomy 22:28-29 ( and Exodus 22:16) unless the father objected and COULD NEVER DIVORCE…like the ordinary Jew could. Again the Church would not allow in Christians what in the prebaptism “law” given by God was mandatory….marriage based on sexual sin as the reason for marrying. This Deut.22:28-29 by the way is an alternative reason Christ could have been holding the Samaritan woman bound to the first husband with no divorce but I rather think He was converting her to the new way of Christians which has in common with Deut.22:29…no divorce ever.
        In other words, the ancient premarital sinners were bound to what would become Catholic permanence of marriage even though the ordinary Jew was not so bound.
        Either Christ knew that the Samaritan woman was bound by Deut..22:29 having entered marriage through premarital sex…OR…Christ was converting her to what marriage had been in His words in the ” beginning”…permanent.
        Your take on the wording means Christ is fraternally correcting her about serial fornication with five single men. I think not.

        • Dagnabbit_42

          Legalistically we could say that while Jesus intended marriage to be “as it was in the beginning” for all, the one-man-one-woman-indissoluble-sacramental was a reinstating of what had been lost…for Christians. Jesus’ “but I say unto you” command was given to the baptized, who alone could plausibly have the regular access to the grace of the sacraments which would allow them to bear that burden.

          Consequentially, the Samaritan woman could not be expected either to have access to those graces, or to have operated under Jesus’ reinstatement of original marriage.

          After she met Jesus, presumably the rules changed.

          But there is another issue:

          The literal sense of scripture is primary and comes first, but the other, spiritual, senses (moral, allegorical, anagogic) cannot safely be neglected.

          In pursuit of those senses, we need to ask: Who is Jesus, really? Who is the woman of Samaria? What might her five “husbands” represent? And who is “with her now” and why is he “not her husband?”

          The Samaritans were a mix of Israelites from the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and pagans whom the Assyrians brought in to resettle the land after deporting and dispersing most of the Israelites who previously lived there.

          Their religion became a mix of Judaism and the cults of 5 pagan gods of the peoples who came in, most of whom the occupiers and newcomers attempted to identify with, or “graft on to” the worship of YHWH. In the end, the Samaritan peoples were divided among those who favored YHWH but ret-conned a series of variations of the Hebrew scriptures to argue that they were supposed to worship YHWH on a mountain in the north rather than at the Temple in Jerusalem, and those for whom the whole religion question became tiresome, who lapsed in to indifferentism and were Helenized under the Selucids.

          When Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman at the well, then, He speaks to a woman who oddly seems to sum up the entire history of Samaria in her own life, in much the same way that Jesus is the summation of Judah.

          The Northern Kingdom was supposed to be married to YHWH, but instead entered into public concubinage with 5 false gods, and ended up having pagan daliances. When YHWH sat down at the well to converse with Samaria, she’d been through five “husbands,” but He — the one she was sitting with! — was not her husband.

          So there He sat, beside a well, beckoning the remnants of the lost tribes of Israel to return home and become part of His Church, so that Israel could be reunited and wed to her husband, the eternal I AM.

          • Elijah fan

            We disagree because not only the baptized are capable of no divorce marriage but the OT couples who were bound by Deut.22:29 were capable of permanent coupling prior to Christ. And secondly, the allegorical can be safely ignored often as at the well and thousands of other places.

        • Jennifer Johnson

          I’m just going off what He said. He said, “You are right when you say you have no husband.” Then He reiterated the point by saying, “What you have just said is quite true.”

          • Elijah fan

            and you’re ignoring his next words about her having had five husbands.

          • Jennifer Johnson

            According to Christian teaching, either she had one husband or she had no husband. In the given context, she could not have had five husbands. So He wasn’t being literal in saying “five husbands.” I still think that she had no husband, since this is what she said and what He twice confirmed.

          • Elijah fan

            Time to say adieu.

  • James

    Honestly, I never imagined we would witness this from you. I regret to say that I find it very disappointing.

  • Maggie Sullivan

    Basically what Fr. McCloskey is saying is a massive number of marriages are invalid.
    A few conclusions we can take from this:

    1. A large percentage of marriages are invalid… we can conclude a large number of other sacraments are also invalid. Baptisms, Eucharist, Anointings, Confessions, Holy Orders on a massive scale are not real Sacraments.

    2. The Church has failed in an epic fashion administering the Sacraments.

    3. We all know annulments are given almost 100% of the time and with “Francis mercy” no matter what the reason annulments will be given to anyone and everyone.

    4. We have Catholic divorce now…..admit it because it is true.

    • givelifeachance2

      Fr McCloskey does not seem to realize at the same time he is claiming so many marriages to be invalid, he is also condemning his brother priests as having been responsible for this failure. Maybe their priesthoods should be annulled.

  • Regan Wick

    An excerpt from a post about the effect of a streamlined and inexpensive decree of nullity process on future marriages.
    “We also must consider how this will affect future marriages. A streamlined process not only means faster; it also means easier having eliminated a layer of protection again false positive grants of nullity. Rather than the traditional posture of an absolute marriage-is-for-life, future generations – having heard of an easier, streamlined process as well as “success” stories – will be more inclined to put in a petition. Couples who in the past would have weathered the difficulties – and possibly created a beautiful, hard-won marriage – will be more inclined (even counseled) to submit a petition for nullity. Even if nullity is not granted in all cases, petition counts alone can be expected to rise.”

  • ranger01

    Of course, the world’s smartest priest will never have to get his hands dirty with the tidal wave of annulment requests which are sure to hit your local parish. He will not have to sift through and explain the vague wording of the new ‘process’ to the demanding couple across the table. That will be left to the poor parish priest who has all of this dumped in his lap with little, very little, guidance from his bishop….who will see early on what an unnecessary mess he has been handed by this pontiff.