The Vatican is making it much easier for Catholics to annul their marriages following a push by Pope Francis for reformation of a process long criticised for being complicated, costly and out of reach for many.
Rules unveiled on Tuesday speed up the annulment process, with a fast-track procedure now available, and allow for appeals to be judged by a local church official rather than the Vatican in what represents a significant decentralisation of power away from Rome.
The pope meets the public in St Peter’s Square outside the Vatican in Rome. Photograph: Zuma/Rex Features
The pope said the changes would not encourage or “favour” the nullifying of marriage, but instead alter the time it took to complete the process. He also emphasised that annulment ought to be free of cost.
The pontiff wrote that the changes were being made so that “the heart of the faithful that wait for the clarification of their state may not be oppressed for a long time by the darkness of doubt”.
The move marks a stunning departure from earlier efforts to make annulments more difficult to obtain, particularly by Francis’s more conservative predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
“This is a 180 degree change in direction,” said James Bretzke, a professor of theology at Boston College. “Francis has shown us over and over again his [different approach], which is ‘let’s look at the people in the pews, in the barrios, in the field, and let’s respond to them in their existential needs.’”
He added: “This makes [requesting an annulment] less intimidating to the average couple who right now think this thing is virtually impossible, or really expensive, or that it will take forever.”
While the new rules will have a practical impact that will be felt by Catholics around the world, it is also turning on its head an ongoing and polarised debate within the Vatican about whether communion ought to be offered to divorced and remarried Catholics, which is currently not allowed unless the person has received an annulment.
Catholic bishops are meeting in Rome next month – part two of an extraordinary session of the synod of bishops – to discuss the church’s attitude towards the modern family. While the question of communion for divorced Catholics was considered a top agenda item, some experts said that Tuesday’s announcement would likely defuse the issue.
The new rules do not change the church’s opposition to divorce and communion – a fact that will reassure conservatives – but it will make it far more practical for remarried Catholics to have their subsequent marriages recognised by the church – pleasing progressives – and allow those Catholics to receive communion.
“Francis has expressed concern several times that the synod shouldn’t become focused on a narrow canon of contentious issues, but should instead consider the broad range of challenges to family life, including the impact of poverty, war and forced migration,” wrote John Allen, associate editor of the Crux website.
“The possibility of that actually happening looks like less of a long shot in the wake of this decision than before it.”
The rules were established by a panel of Vatican-appointed canon lawyers who have spent a year studying ways to simplify the process while at the same time ensuring that the church maintains its position that marriage is a lifelong and sacred commitment.
The man charged with overseeing the changes, Monsignor Pio Vito Pinto, said at a press conference that it was only the third revision of the process in the church’s 2,000-year history, with the last reforms established in 1741 and 1908.
It was described as a change that serves the poor and suffering whose marriages are broken.
Under the guidelines, a couple seeking an annulment will no longer require a second confirming decision for their marriage to be nullified after it has already been decided by a church tribunal. Instead, there was “sufficient moral certainty achieved” with a single decision, the panel said.
In a case considered to be straightforward, the panel said some annulment decisions could be made directly by a local bishop. Francis urged bishops to create structures that would guide separated Catholics who were considering annulment or divorce.
Among the reasons why a party could seek an annulment, the panel included the discovery that a person in the marriage was in an extramarital relationship at the time of the marriage, when a spouse procured an abortion, and when one party lacked religious faith.
The changes will make it easier for Catholics from all over the world who wish to remarry to have their second marriages recognised by the church, therefore allowing them to fully participate in church life.
While annulments are relatively easy to receive in the US, the process can be exceedingly difficult in countries such as Argentina and Chile, where it can take years.
Unlike the process of divorce, in which a marriage is dissolved, a completed annulment is predicated upon the church finding that the marriage was never properly entered into in the first place. Reasons can include one or both partners not understanding the vows, not realising marriage was a lifelong commitment, or not wanting to have children.
The pope has long been a vocal advocate for easing the process, a reflection of the real-world experience he has brought to the papacy and that has given him a reformist reputation. He has repeatedly said annulments ought not to be a source of profit for the church.
The move can be interpreted as part of a broader effort to bring disillusioned and discouraged Catholics back to the church and back to faith.
Last week, the pope announced that all priests would be allowed to offer forgiveness to contrite women who have had abortions as part of the church’s jubilee year of mercy, which begins in December. Under normal circumstances, forgiveness for abortion, which is considered a grave sin and punishable by automatic excommunication, can only be offered by priests given the power to do so by a bishop.
The annulment rule change also affects non-Catholics who are divorced and wish to remarry a Catholic. Non-Catholics need an annulment before validly marrying a Catholic in the church.
Catholics who receive a civil divorce are not excommunicated, and the church recognises that the divorce procedure is necessary to settle civil matters, including custody of children. But divorced Catholics are not allowed to remarry until their earlier marriage has been nullified. If a Catholic has remarried civilly but not had their earlier marriage annulled, they are not allowed to receive communion.
The changes were signed by the pope on 15 August and take effect on 8 December, which marks the beginning of the year of the jubilee, a holy year devoted to mercy.
Have you had your marriage annulled? We’d like to hear from those who have been, still are or hope to be married in the Catholic church. How are you affected by the pope’s reforms? You can share your experiences and stories by filling in the form below. We’ll feature some of them in our reporting.