Motu Pro-What?…Understanding Annulments and the Pope’s Changes

by Catholic Church, Pope Francis

From CNN to the New York Times, the media is ablaze reporting (distorting?) what is going on with Pope Francis’ decision to “speed up” and “simplify”  the annulment process for Catholic marriages that have ended in divorce.  The media can often misinterpret the words of Pope Francis so we must be mindful of this when reading about the Pope’s decision.  Consider the source and always be willing to investigate further.

Since this is likely an issue that co-workers, friends, and family will be discussing, it is important to be able to join in the conversation and provide a better understanding of what the changes to this process truly mean for divorced Catholics.

Here are five things you should know about the Pope’s decision so that you can discuss it with those who have questions.

Motu Pro-What?…Understanding Annulments and the Pope’s Changes

1. What is an annulment?  How is different from a divorce?  

An Annulment is a statement that the sacrament of marriage was not present in the marriage.  A person can seek an annulment for many reasons, but some of them include physical violence, extramarital affairs at the time of the wedding, a short marriage, and concealing information such as infertility or past marriages before the marriage.  An annulment is not “a divorce, Catholic style”.   A divorce deals with the civil law and legalities of marriage.   An annulment is concerned with the spiritual aspects of the marriage and looks at the situation to the best of the Church’s abilities from the perspective of Church teaching and the Gospel Message.

2. What was the old process of annulments?

The former process took about 12-18 months. It involved a lot of steps.  The nullity (the person who is seeking the annulment) writes a testimony about the marriage and also has to provide a list of people who knew details about the marriage.   The people listed have to be willing to answer questions about both spouses and the marriage.  The ex-spouse (respondent) will also be contacted, but their cooperation is not necessary.  Each of the spouses can select a Church advocate who will represent them before the tribunal.  The tribunal is the court of the Church.  The Church also selects someone to be a representative that will argue for the  validity of the marriage.  After this process, the tribunal reaches a decision.  After that the case is reviewed by a second tribunal.  This process of the annulment typically costs anywhere from $200 to $1000 to cover the tribunal and representative fees.

Nulidad Matimonia-01

3. What is Pope Francis changing?

“The sacrament of Matrimony signifies the union of Christ and the Church. It gives spouses the grace to love each other with the love with which Christ has loved his Church; the grace of the sacrament thus perfects the human love of the spouses, strengthens their indissoluble unity, and sanctifies them on the way to eternal life (cf. Council of Trent: DS 1799). Marriage is based on the consent of the contracting parties, that is, on their will to give themselves, each to the other, mutually and definitively, in order to live a covenant of faithful and fruitful love.”(Catechism of the Catholic Church 1661-1662)
The secular media is correct in reporting that the Pope would like to speed up the process of annulments and to lower the cost.  The Pope has decided to do away with the need to have a second tribunal review the decision on nullity.  He has also made local bishops the judge, allowing them to make their own rulings on some cases of marriage nullity.  In clear cut cases, the bishop will be able to pass a ruling rather than sending the case for a more formal process.  Those who decide to appeal a decision made by the tribunal or bishop will no longer be required to travel to Rome. They will be able to do that at the closest metropolitan diocese.  All of these changes will be beneficial in allowing the process to move more quickly.

Pope Francis has also declared that annulments will be done free of charge.  Though this was happening in some dioceses, it will now be universal.

4. How did Pope Francis do this?

He did this by issuing two motu proprio. What is a motu proprio? It is basically an apostolic letter that is written from the Pope’s own personal initiative.  The letters were entitled “Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus” (The Lord Jesus, a meek judge) and “Mitis et misericors Iesus” (Jesus, meek and merciful).  By writing these letters Pope Francis did nothing to change Church doctrine.

5. Why would Pope Francis want to do this?

Put simply, Pope Francis has made these changes out of his heart’s desire for “for the salvation of souls”.  His goal is not to undermine the Catholic Church’s doctrines on the indissolubility of marriage.   The changes will take effect on December 8th, 2015.  This is the same day that the Year of Mercy will begin.  This demonstrates once again Pope Francis’ hope of showering God’s people with mercy and charity in order to bring them closer to the Lord.


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