Pope Francis makes changes to annulment process

Pope Francis issued two documents today that bring significant changes to the process of getting an annulment in the Catholic Church. The changes came based upon recommendations from an 11 member committee the pope formed to examine what changes could be made to the annulment process. The changes take effect on December 8, 2015, at the beginning of the year of mercy.

Even before the announcement made by the Vatican today, changes to the process were anticipated. The changes made by the pope to the process are designed to make the process shorter, more accessible and simpler. The changes do not reflect a significant change in Church doctrine about marriage and divorce.

Simply put, the changes concern the cost of annulments (the expectation is that they are now free), the elimination of the automatic appeal when the annulment is granted in the first court, and greater ability for local bishops and bishops’ conferences to act on their own in marriage cases, without the need for using the Vatican Tribunal.

The document, called a motu proprio, a phrase meaning on his own impulse, is a direction that comes from the pope himself. The document is titled Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, or “The Lord Jesus, the gentle judge”,  is consistent with Pope Francis’ emphasis on mercy for this upcoming year. Changes to the annulment process had been long sought, particularly in the United States, where most of the annulments in the world are granted.

The changes outlined in the document include:

  • No need for a second confirmation when a declaration of nullity is made; a single declaration of nullity has moral certainty;
  • While non-clerics can act as judges, when they do the automatic appeal remains. If the judge is a cleric, and declares a marriage null, it does not need an appeal. While the document reiterate the fact the bishop is a judge, this has always been the case.
  • In situations where the evidence for nullity is especially clear, the bishop may use a streamlined process. Both parties must participate, or at least give consent to this process.
  • Appeals for negative decisions can be made to the metropolitan bishop (usually the archbishop of an archdiocese), or in the case of the metropolitan himself, to the longest serving ordinary bishop in the province. The difference is that in the case of appealing a declaration of nullity, one of the parties must file the appeal, as there is no longer an automatic appeal.
  • Any person can appeal a decision to the Holy See, and the Rota (essentially the Church’s Supreme Court) must take special care to prevent abuse, such as situations that are purely vindictive or seek to prevent the person from entering into marriage.
  • Costs associated with the annulment should be reduced or, if possible, eliminated.
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Pope Francis indicated that the motivation for these changes concerns the “salvation of souls.” There is also attention given to the situation in much of the world where access to tribunals is limited or for all intents and purposes, non-existent, unlike in the United States where most dioceses have their own tribunal.

Church teaching indicates that a valid marriage remains in effect until the death of one of the spouses. Recognizing there are many factors that can invalidate a marriage, usually related to consent, the Church created the annulment process. Essentially, an annulment process is a declaration that a marriage is not valid, because some required component for consent to be made was not present. An annulment is a declaration that a marriage is not valid, as opposed to a divorce, which is essentially the breaking of a contract and the creation of the terms for each party to be able to break the contract. These changes take effect on December 8, the start of the Year of Mercy.

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