Pope Francis announced Tuesday that the church will make it faster and less complicated for Catholics to obtain marriage annulments, an often-painful process that now can take years and alienate the otherwise faithful.
The sweeping new rules call for fast-tracking certain annulment applications, canceling the requirement for two church tribunals to decide petitions, allowing local bishops to speed up certain cases, and making the process free.
The reforms are of particular interest to the estimated 800,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which has one of the nation’s highest rates of denying annulments, according to the Canon Law Society of America’s 2012 annual report.
“I think it will prevent a lot of other people from facing the problems that I did, so fewer people will end up leaving the church in frustration,” said Ray Miller, of New Brighton, whose annulment was granted this year after a four-year wait.
“Under the old system, you had to wait for the first court to get through their backlog,“ Miller said. “Then once you had a judgment from them, you had to wait for the second diocese to get through their backlog.”
The reforms go into effect Dec. 8. They do not address staffing levels, backlogs or the composition of the Catholic tribunals that make decisions on annulments. But they significantly streamline bureaucracy, and they arrive a month before Pope Francis convenes a special meeting in Rome of global Catholic bishops to focus on family issues.
Divorce is a thorny issue for the Catholic Church. Because it does not recognize divorce, Catholics who remarry without annulments are barred from taking communion and other sacraments.
Their first marriages are still considered valid, so they are in effect committing adultery with a new spouse.
A survey by the Pew Research Center released last week indicated more than 60 percent of those identifying themselves as Catholic want the church to change its policies on the communion ban.
From two tribunals to one
Nearly 6,000 annulment petitions were overseen by the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Twin Cities archdiocese over the past decade.
Those applying were required to submit highly sensitive information about their personal lives as well as to provide statements by witnesses. The petition is seen by a panel of three judges, which makes a ruling and then forwards the petition to a second tribunal.
Likely changes would include:
• The annulment processing fee, which was about $600 last year in the archdiocese, would be eliminated or reduced.
• Petitions would not need to be approved by another diocese’s “court of second instance.”
• Clear-cut petitions could be settled directly by the archbishop.
• One judge could make annulment decisions instead of the current requirement of three, of whom at least two are priests and one is a canon lawyer.
Twin Cities acting Archbishop Bernard Hebda provided further detail. Any cases submitted under the new rules will receive a preliminary review and be separated into two categories: cases that qualify for an expedited decision and cases that would have to be treated according to the traditional procedure. Those qualifying for fast track would be sent to the archbishop for his decision.
In general, those “would be cases in which the parties to the marriage are ‘on the same page’ — either where they are both submitting the case for adjudication or if only one party is submitting the case, the other has at least given his or her consent,’’ Hebda wrote in response to questions about the process.
Traditional annulments should be speeded up by three to six months, said Hebda. The new procces would free up tribunal personnel who otherwise were acting as a second court for other diocese cases.
One annulment, four years
If the reforms had been in place four years ago, Miller believes his annulment petition would have been granted in just a year, instead of four. His logjam occurred when the petition was sent to the Winona Diocese for a second decision, and then sent back to the archdiocese, where it was seen by different staff, he said.
“It’s possible that my case would have been clean-cut enough for the fast-track option, since my ex wasn’t opposing the annulment, “ he said. “But again, since that would be up to each bishop, I can’t say for certain.”
Even with the reforms, two other key factors will continue to shape annulments, namely who is making the annulment decisions and what their attitude is about divorce and remarriage, said the Rev. Tom Doyle, a former canon lawyer at the Vatican Embassy in Washington and former tribunal judge at the Chicago archdiocese.
The annulment process wasn’t always so burdensome for American Catholics, said Doyle. A quicker, more simplified process was in place during the 1970s and early 1980s, he said. But as divorce skyrocketed in the U.S. and annulments reached record highs, critics charged that they were too easy to get, he said.
Pope John Paul II tightened the process in the 1980s, he said.
“Now it’s like another period, another generation of change,” said Doyle.
About a quarter of American Catholics say they have divorced, according to the recent Pew Research report. About one in four have petitioned for an annulment. While the cost of annulments here may not seem prohibitive, they are a factor in many countries, said Massimo Faggioli, a theology professor at the University of St. Thomas.
“This was necessary because in many countries, the annulment process become a kind of divorce for rich people with contacts and good lawyers,” said Faggioli, who is from Italy.