Sweeping Reform! Dramatic change! Cumbersome, complicated procedure gone! Clearing away rules dating from 1741! Fast-track annulments in forty-five days! No charge, no fault annulments! These are some of the ways that the media has characterized and sensationalized the new rules that Pope Francis issued September 8, 2015 for granting annulments in the Catholic Church.
When the news of the Pope's reform rules broke, a rush of commentators flooded the airwaves and journalists went to press. Amid all the excitement, a casual observer could easily be led to think that the Church has, with the stroke of the papal pen, introduced divorce into the Catholic Church. But, marriage is so profound a reality that it cannot be summarily done away with, as headlines seem to suggest.
Every marriage is more than just a legal contract. It is a covenant. In 1983, the revision of the 1917 Code of Canon Law appropriated the Second Vatican Council's scriptural view of marriage as a covenant. For the marriage covenant of Catholics to be valid, there must be freedom from certain impediments. For example, there cannot be too close a blood relationship between the spouses; the marriage must take place before the properly delegated minister and two witnesses; and, both parties must make a free act of the will providing valid consent to the rights and obligations of marriage.
If it is determined after careful examination that one or another of the necessary conditions for a valid marriage was not present at the time of the marriage, the Church grants a decree of nullity, sometimes referred to as an annulment. The Church does not annul a marriage. It merely recognizes that a valid marriage has not taken place.
Pope Francis has issued two motu proprios dealing with the granting of decrees of nullity for marriage. A motu proprio means that the Pope has issued these documents "on his own initiative." In Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus for the Latin Church and Mitis et Misericor for the Oriental Churches, the Pope has revised the rules and procedures for determining whether or not a marriage is a valid marriage. For instance, he eliminated an automatic review of any decree of nullity issued by one diocesan tribunal by a second tribunal in another diocese. He made other changes, such as the number of judges to a tribunal, so that the work of examining marriages can be done more expeditiously, thus reducing the amount of time it takes for an annulment to be granted.
Moved by his pastoral compassion, the Holy Father has responded to the concrete challenges faced by the Church worldwide. The new canonical procedures will help the Church's outreach to those who need healing at a difficult time of their lives. Many times, however, there is a delay in granting an annulment because witnesses involved in the examination of the marriage, for many different reasons, do not readily respond.
The experience of married life is varied and complicated. If the truth be told, there are good marriages and not so good marriages. There are marriages where one spouse does not give as generously as the other. At times, there may be cause for separation for the good of the children or the good of one of the spouses. However, when it comes to annulments, the Church looks to the primary question of whether or not a valid marriage ever took place. Human failure and sin within a marriage are a different issue.
In promulgating the new procedures, Pope Francis has emphasized that the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage remains intact. This teaching comes from Christ himself. Questioned on divorce by the Pharisees, Jesus responded,
"Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate" (Mt 19: 4-6). Jesus did not say that every marriage is perfect. But, he did say that God instituted marriage as the indissoluble one-flesh union of man and woman.
By updating the Church's judicial procedures, Pope Francis has responded to some of the difficulties that many couples face when seeking resolution of their marital status in the Church. He did not, however, change the divinely established reality of marriage. As Pope St. John Paul II clearly said, "A ratified and consummated sacramental marriage can never be dissolved, not even by the power of the Roman Pontiff" (Address to the Roman Rota, January 21, 2000).
An overemphasis on the new simplified and quicker procedures to obtain an annulment for an invalid marriage, unfortunately, seems to be casting a very dark shadow over the value of the indissolubility of the conjugal bond. Our secular, individualistic culture idolizes personal freedom and happiness. The autonomous power of self-affirmation, often exercised against others, has pushed aside the noble virtues of sacrifice and generosity so essential to any marriage. Insisting on the near impossibility of couples to make a lifelong commitment to each other mocks the marital fidelity of so many husbands and wives who work hard to keep their marriages alive.
Pope Francis has said that lifelong commitment is needed today since "the image of the family -- as God wills it, made up of one man and one woman in view of the good of the spouses and also of the generation and education of children--is being deformed through powerful contrary projects supported by ideological colonizations" (Address to the Équipes Notre Dame September 10, 2015). Those who affirm that most marriages are invalid because individuals no longer have the proper faith or understanding merely demonstrate their own pessimistic view of human nature and God's grace.
No marriage is perfect, simply because no spouse is perfect this side of heaven. But, this is no reason for spouses to despair, when they face difficulties. God calls certain individuals to love and cherish each other for their entire lives in marriage and, if it be his will for them, to bring children into the world. He will never deny them his grace to do his will.
Husbands and wives, despite their human imperfections, can grow in their love for each other when they find in Christ the foundation and strength of their love (cf. Eph 5: 25). God wills the indissolubility of their marriage covenant to be "a sign of the absolutely faithful love that God has for man and that the Lord Jesus has for the Church" (Pope John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, n. 20). Those who enter a sacramental marriage have from God a special vocation for the good of the entire world. When we do all that we can to support and help them live the calling that God gives them, society itself is lifted up and ennobled.