On Tuesday, Pope Francis is to release a plan to reform the Catholic Church’s procedure for marriage annulments, according to a Vatican representative. The move comes ahead of a highly anticipated meeting the pope has organized in Rome in October that could result in changes in church practice and doctrine around the family.
The pope will announce two decrees during a news conference on Tuesday in Rome. The decrees are titled “Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus” and “Mitis et Misericors Iesus,” Latin meaning “The Gentle Judge, The Lord Jesus” and “The Meek and Merciful Jesus.”
Annulment — a required process for Catholics that invalidates an earlier marriage — and the rules governing Communion for divorced Catholics who remarry outside the church have been under discussion since a high-profile meeting at the Vatican last year. Francis has spoken several times of the need to reform annulments, as Catholics have complained that the process can take time and money to obtain one before they can take Communion again.
“The sacraments give us grace,” he said earlier this year to jurists of the church’s final court of appeals for annulments. “And a marriage proceeding” — like an annulment — “touches on the sacrament of marriage.”
“How I wish all marriage proceedings were free of charge!” he added.
One in four Catholics have gone through a divorce and one in 10 have remarried, according to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center. About a quarter of divorced Catholics (26 percent, or 6 percent of all Catholic adults) report that they or their former spouse sought an annulment of their previous marriage. More American Catholics say getting remarried after a divorce without first obtaining an annulment is not a sin (49 percent) than say it is a sin (35 percent).
Monsignor Kevin Irwin, dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at Catholic University, said that it wasn’t clear from the church’s announcement what specifically was going to happen, but he predicted one possibility Francis could announce. Irwin said in the early 1980s, the church had added an additional layer to the process of getting an annulment; Catholics not only had to go to a tribunal in their own diocese, but a second diocese had to be involved in approving the annulment.
“Certainly Pope John Paul and Benedict wanted to tighten the way people got annulments. They thought it was too easy,” said Irwin, who speculated that Francis might be returning the church to the pre-1980s more streamlined process. “Maybe Francis is going to take [that additional layer] away.”
Irwin said that when Francis was in Buenos Aires, the then-archbishop realized that a huge percent of people were in a second marriage outside the church. “He thought, ‘Maybe they don’t know the process.’”
Francis might be saying, Irwin said, that a lack of their knowledge of the process could become a grounds for annulment. The bigger picture, Irwin said, is the possibility that Francis could be opening the door to the concept that a marriage could end.
Robert Kaslyn, dean of the School of Canon Law at Catholic University, said that the committee working on the annulments issue is pretty diverse, so it’s difficult to predict what could come on Tuesday.
Annulments are different from divorce because they come into question when one or both parties say that the marriage was invalid for some reason. One person might say a marriage was invalid because it wasn’t performed in front of a priest or deacon, for instance.
“Is this a complete reform?” Kaslyn said. “Is it a simplification? Is it a way of avoiding certain steps in certain cases? That’s the real issue.”
Ahead of his visit to the U.S. later this month, Pope Francis encouraged women who have had an abortions to seek forgiveness from any priest during an upcoming “year of mercy.”