CNS photo/Paul Haring

Stamp of mercy

By 
  • September 17, 2015

In 1741 Pope Benedict XIV was concerned that some bishops were dissolving marriages too freely so he established stringent protocols to govern annulments. Those canon laws remained virtually unchanged through 18 papacies until now, 274 years later, when they are being rewritten by a Pope who is affixing his stamp of mercy on a process that is often long, expensive and painful.

Pope Francis has announced sweeping changes to annulment procedures to cut red tape and remove much of the stress, delay and expense for couples who petition the Church to have their marriage declared null. Taking effect Dec. 8, to coincide with the launch of the Pope’s Holy Year of Mercy, the new rules remove the requirement for automatic approval of every annulment by two separate tribunals. Also, bishops will now be directly involved in the process as judges and, in cases where the argument for annulment is clear and convincing, be allowed to act unilaterally to render a quick decision, possibly within a matter of weeks.

It is a sad reality of modern life that many marriages fail. Pope Francis is to be commended for recognizing the hardship this creates for Catholic families and for proposing a compassionate remedy for faithful couples who can demonstrate that, for any number of legitimate reasons, their marriage was never valid from the start. He understands that justice delayed is justice denied, and has proposed changes that reflect his vision of a Church that is pastoral and merciful.

It should be made clear, however, that the Pope has simply streamlined the process for those who may qualify for an annulment, not softened the criteria to obtain one. As he said, his objective was to make the law “more consistent with the truth of faith” and to ensure couples are not “oppressed by the darkness of doubt” about their marital status.

The standards for granting an annulment are unchanged and the bar to reach those standards has not been lowered. To grant an annulment, a tribunal or bishop must still be morally certain that a true, sacramental marriage never existed.

Yet the risk in untangling annulment procedures is that mercy here could embolden those who seek a Church that is even more flexible on annulment and, ultimately, on divorce. That is not possible, of course. Jesus explicitly commanded that marriage is an unbreakable covenant. The Church has no authority to change His teaching. It can regulate procedures to determine the validity of some unions but it is powerless to dissolve a valid, sacramental and consummated marriage.

Pope Francis has taken an important step by reaching out to couples adrift in matrimonial purgatory while their annulment cases are laboriously adjudicated. They will benefit from reforms that show compassion while continuing

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