The Vatican today released reforms to the annulment process, a mechanism by which Catholics can apply to have their marriage declared non-existent on the grounds that it is invalid. (If a Catholic receives an annulment, he or she can “remarry” and still receive Communion, because the Church would not consider it a remarriage.) The WSJ has the run-down of the changes:
The new rules, based on a year’s work by a papal advisory commission, eliminate the requirement that any annulment granted by a church court must be automatically reviewed by another set of judges. U.S. bishops effectively suspended the requirement from 1972 to 1983, with critics saying it led to a loss of quality control.
The new rules also establish a new “fast-track trial” to be judged by the local bishop, who can grant an annulment in less than two months. […]
Recognizing that an “accelerated judgment might endanger the principle of the indissolubility of matrimony,” Pope Francis said all such fast-track trials will be judged by the local bishop as a safeguard against excessive leniency.
It’s hard to judge how this will work out in particular cases, but it’s almost always a good thing when institutions simplify their procedures and cut the costs of using their systems (another change is that the process will be made free). An annulment system that gives answers faster and imposes fewer costs on those going to Church courts is a good thing in and of itself.
In the U.S., this announcement recalls the research of Charles Murray and other scholars who seem to have discerned an emerging two-track American marriage system. Among professionals and the upper middle class, marriage seems to be strong as an institution. There is, in other words, a cohort for whom permeant marriage seems to be a real and attainable ideal. That analysis suggests that easier annulments may not unleash an unstoppable torrent of “Catholic divorce” in the U.S. among that group, because many marriages remain sound and both parties are committed to making them work.
But outside that economic sphere, there are others for whom that kind of marriage is becoming less relevant or achievable. The research, therefore, points to a major pastoral and evangelistic challenge for not only Catholics but all churches: The unchurched poor are missing out. Being in a stable marriage is one of the best ways to escape poverty and to assure a better future for your kids, and when religious bodies are failing to offer the pastoral and social support that makes that possible, everybody suffers—the poor more than anybody.
But reaching the poor is only one of the pastoral challenges facing churches here. The theory behind the Papal move seems to be that a significant number of young people entering into marriage aren’t ready to make the kind of commitment that a Catholic marriage requires. This theory seems reasonable given the circumstances of contemporary society: The combination of a toxic hook-up campus culture and the rampant commercialization of sex makes it difficult for young people to achieve the clarity and maturity out of which genuine commitment can grow. At the same time, economic factors are making it harder for young people to achieve economic maturity—become self supporting—and this, too, is an obstacle to the development of the maturity that can make a lifelong commitment to another person possible. Add to that the pattern of breakdown in marriage—so many kids grow up in homes where marriage has become a fluid and temporary thing—and it’s clear that many people who approach the altar do so without the kind of mature and serious intent that Catholic marriage would require.
It will be interesting to see if the Pope and the Church follow through on the flip side of this: If there are so many marriages that need to be annulled, there’s been a collapse in discernment. If annulments need to become simpler to get, then marriage should be harder to get into. Ultimately, from the Church’s point of view, the annulment process ought to simpler but annulments rarely obtained. That will only happen if the standards for allowing couples to marry are tightened up even as the Church facilitates annulment.