After a year’s work by a special legal commission, Pope Francis has approved a reform of the Code of Canon Law to simplify and streamline the marriage annulment process. The new rules were presented at the Vatican Tuesday at noon and were laid out in two brief papal letters.
The new reform is not intended to make it easier to obtain an annulment, but rather to speed up the process, which can sometimes last for many years. Since the Catholic Church considers marriage a lifelong commitment, the annulment process is deliberately slow and cautious, but Pope Francis has emphasized couples’ right to swifter judgment.
In September 2014, the Pope established a special 11-member commission of canon lawyers and theologians to study a possible reform of the matrimonial processes in Canon Law. He asked for proposals to “simplify procedures, making them more agile while safeguarding the principle of the indissolubility of marriage.”
In a meeting with diocesan officials and canon lawyers last fall, Francis said that “there are so many people who need a word from the Church on their marital situation, for a ‘yes’ or a ‘no,’ but that it be just. Some procedures are so long or so onerous that they do not facilitate them, and the people leave.”
The Pope highlighted before the Roman Rota, the Church’s highest court, the need “to streamline processes for a reason of justice with people waiting. Many people wait years for a ruling.”
Pope Francis also raised the prospect of no-cost marriage annulments after revealing he had dismissed a church official for selling annulments for thousands of dollars, which he called a “public scandal.”
“We have to be careful that the procedure does not become some kind of business,” the Pope said.
An annulment, formally known as a “decree of nullity,” is a ruling that a marriage was not valid in the first place according to Church law because certain pre-requisites, such as free will, psychological maturity and openness to having children, were lacking. Tuesday’s reforms, while reaffirming the indissolubility and permanence of a valid marriage, have provided for a leaner process for determining where a marriage never existed.
The Catholic Church does not recognize divorce. Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church are considered to be still married to their first spouse and living in a state of sin, which forbids them from receiving sacraments such as Communion.
It is clear that Pope Francis wished the reform of the nullity process to be completed before next month’s Vatican synod on marriage and family life, effectively removing this issue from matters to be debated and making room for other discussions.
Francis himself has urged his brother bishops to focus on the real situation of families in the world today, on a deeper Christian understanding of marriage, and on how the Church can be more present in the lives of families to accompany them through their hardships and their trials.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.