VATICAN CITY • Pope Francis has announced new procedures to make it easier for Roman Catholics to obtain marriage annulments, a move intended to streamline a process long criticised by many Catholics as too cumbersome, complicated and expensive.
The new rules announced on Tuesday take effect on Dec 8, and are expected to speed up cases in which neither spouse is contesting the annulment. These fast-track cases can be heard as soon as 30 days after a couple files an application, and at most within 45 days.
The new procedures also eliminate one of the two church trials for couples seeking an annulment, a process that can drag on for years, at great cost.
NO NEED TO FEAR
These reforms say, 'If you think a marriage is invalid, don't let the procedure frighten you away'.
MR JOHN THAVIS, an author and Vatican expert, on marriage annulment reforms.
"To ensure that a case doesn't sleep, tribunals and judges will have to sleep a little less," said Monsignor Alejandro Bunge, secretary of the commission that drafted the changes.
Most cases are to be handled by individual bishops rather than being subject to a hearing process. Appeals to a Vatican court against individual annulments will still be possible, but only in exceptional cases.
Church officials acknowledge that many details still have to be worked out. Vatican experts said the new system was expected to be free, not counting legitimate fees to maintain the tribunal process.
Divorce is a topic that has long splintered many of the Catholic faithful from the Church. Under church law, marriage is indissoluble, divorce is not recognised, and any Catholic who remarries without annulling a first marriage is committing adultery.
Yet, many Catholics are divorced, especially in the West, and the divide between reality and church dogma has alienated many of the faithful. Many divorced Catholics, believing that annulments are too invasive and onerous, have drifted away from the Church without bothering to undertake the process.
"These reforms say, 'If you think a marriage is invalid, don't let the procedure frighten you away'," Mr John Thavis, an author and Vatican expert, said.
The new rules demonstrate Pope Francis' approach to his papacy: Change procedures and tone, so as to attract people back to the Church, without changing doctrine. They are also a tacit acknowledgment of the challenges the Church faces in the modern world, and Pope Francis' attempts to find points of interaction.
The Pope is preparing the Church for a major meeting, or synod, to be held at the Vatican next month, in which bishops and other Catholic leaders will debate changing the Church's approach on social issues such as homosexuality and divorce, among other matters.
Many Catholics are waiting to see whether the Church will soften its position and start giving Holy Communion to those who have divorced and remarried without receiving annulments.
That meeting is shaping up as a showdown between liberal and conservative Catholics.
But on the subject of improving the annulment process, analysts say there is broad consensus, which is why the Pope acted now.
"Salvation of souls" is the primary goal of the decree, Pope Francis wrote in a letter to Catholic churches across the world, saying that the changes "do not favour the nullity of marriages, but the expedition of trials, as well as a just simplification". Marriages can be declared invalid, or annulled, if a husband or wife can prove that the union failed to meet certain requirements under church law.
Analysts also noted that Pope Francis was using the new rules to place greater authority with local bishops to oversee the streamlined process, part of his broader effort to promote "collegiality" in the Church and devolve powers away from the Vatican.
NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE