There is nothing in today’s announcement that changes the Church’s understanding of marriage or of sacraments. There is nothing doctrinally new in it.
What it does is reform the procedure for declaring a marriage null. There are two elements at the heart of today’s announcement:
- The need for all sentences to be reviewed automatically has been scrapped, as canon lawyers have long urged. This gets rid of a cumbersome extra layer to the process, and means that judgements should not take more than a year.
- The bishop has been given the power to declare a marriage null in those cases where there is moral certainty about the facts, and both parties to the marriage are in agreement. This new “abbreviated” procedure effectively bypasses the need for a lengthy judicial process, complete with witnesses.
Why Pope Francis has decided to act
As bishops and canonists have long pointed out, the canon law on marriage has always — or at least for the past 300 years — assumed that couples entering marriage basically know what marriage is. They have assumed this, because culture has assumed it. But this has not been true for many years. Contemporary western culture no longer regards marriage as permanent, open to children etc.
In the absence of a rigorous catechetical preparation of couples for marriage, it is inevitable that many, if not most, Catholic couples marrying in the past decades have done so with an improper understanding of marriage. That means many, if not most, couples whose marriages have broken down, may have married invalidly. Yet the numbers of divorced Catholics petitioning for annulments is extremely low.
There are many reasons for people staying away from ecclesiastical tribunals — cost, complexity, the elaborateness and invasiveness of the process — and there is a natural injustice built into the system: in wealthy countries, with well-staffed tribunals, it is far easier to obtain a declaration of nullity than in poor countries, where in some cases it is all but impossible.
Pope Francis is also concerned at the pastoral consequences of a lengthy, drawn-out process. Today’s reforms have put front and centre the need to attend to the needs of the “poor”, who include those who have experienced marriage breakdown and are suffering greatly as a result. He says his aim is that “the heart of the faithful awaiting clarification [of their marital status] is not long oppressed by the darkness of doubt.”
Although this is a bold action by Pope Francis, he has a clear mandate for it: the synod of bishops last year was overwhelmingly in favour of a commission to look at speeding up and streamlining the system.
And at the 2005 synod of bishops, Proposition 40 called for a deeper understanding of the validity of marriage given the “profound anthropological transformation of our time” — by which the delegates meant the lack of proper formation of Christians going into marriage, and the loss of the meaning of marriage in culture.
Back in 1998, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger too cast doubt on the idea that every Catholic marriage was really a sacrament.
What underlies today’s announcement
At the heart of the reform is the Vatican II doctrine of collegiality, which sought to recover the early-church role of the bishop as one who governs the Church “with and under” the Pope. The bishop is teacher as well as judge, who has been given the power to loosen the knots and burdens on people. Although today’s reform does not introduce anything new to the Church’s theology of marriage or of the sacraments, it does reflect the conciliar vision of the Second Vatican Council. As result of today’s reforms, the bishop is given the key responsibility for determining who will be admitted to the sacraments.
It also means less pressure on the Roman Rota, the Church’s supreme court, where delays have long been notorious.
What is behind the reform is the Pope’s — and the Church’s — concern for the “health of souls”. The purpose is to make it easier for people to be in relationship with God, and part of the Church’s life.
What effect will the reforms have?
It will take time for the implications of the reforms to be spelled out and implemented. Many bishops will feel woefully unprepared for the new responsibilities on their shoulders. But it will allow bishops to admit to the sacraments large numbers of people, often very active in parishes, whom they have good knowledge of pastorally.
By streamlining the “ordinary” annulment process, it also enables more complex cases to be handled more quickly. Pope Francis would also like the processes to be free, as already in some dioceses.
Over time, the reforms have the potential to reverse the cycle of alienation from parish life which bishops have long lamented.
And more immediately, the reforms will free up the synod to discuss means for supporting and reinvigorating marriage, without being side-tracked into the annulment question.
It may also be sufficient for those who have long been asking for bishops to be allowed to re-admit people to the sacraments in cases where they have moral certainty of the invalidity of their marriage.