Catholic annulments look to many to be a simple Catholic divorce. Divorce says that the reality of marriage was there in the beginning and that now the reality is broken. “Annulment” means a ruling by a Church court that a union between a man and a woman, even if it began with a Church wedding, is not a valid marriage because it fails one of the traditional tests, such as a lack of genuine consent or a psychological incapacity to undertake the obligations, or unwillingness of one of the spouses to have children.

Prior to this point, the procedure required annulments to be issued by one court and confirmed by another. Many have rightly said that this process was fraught with unnecessary delays and difficulties and added to the pain and suffering of those involved in separation, divorce and re-marriage outside the Church community.

At this morning’s press conference at the Vatican, Pope Francis issued two Apostolic Letters motu proprio (on his own authority) by which he introduced reforms to the legal structures of the Church dealing with questions of marital nullity. Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus and Mitis et misericors Iesus are the names in Latin of the two decrees respectively. The first one translates to “The Gentle Judge, The Lord Jesus.” The second is translated“The Meek and Merciful Jesus.” These new rulings make it faster, easier, and less expensive to obtain a marriage annulment. Both documents were signed by Pope Francis on August 15, 2015. They will take effect December 8, 2015, the first day of the Holy Year of Mercy.

By today’s Papal decrees, the annulment process will be free of charge because “the Church, showing itself to the faithful as a generous mother, in an matter so closely linked to the salvation of souls manifests the gratuitous love of Christ by which we were saved.” Many dioceses had already eliminated the fees for marriage annulments requested to cover administrative costs. Also every diocese in the world has the responsibility of naming a judge or a church tribunal to process requests, with the possibility of the bishops acting as judges.

Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, and also a member of the Special Commission appointed to study the issue and make the recommendations on which the reform is based, reiterated what the Church has always taught: that the reforms do not touch the nature and purpose either of marriage, or of the Church’s marriage law. Marriage is a sacrament and is by its nature indissoluble; when a marriage is accused of nullity, the Church merely investigates to see whether the parties presumed to be married ever actually executed a valid marriage contract in the eyes of the Church.

Cardinal Palmerio went on to explain that the concern of Pope Francis is in first place for the good of all the faithful, especially those whose situations have been a cause of difficulty in living the Christian life as fully as possible. “The problem,” he said, “is rather of an exquisitely pastoral nature, and consists in rendering marriage nullity trials more swift and speedy, so as the more solicitously to serve the faithful who find themselves in such situations.”

The Cardinal stressed: “We are not strictly talking then, about a legal process that leads to the ‘annulment’ of a marriage,” as though the act of the Church court were one of nullification. …Nullity is different from annulment – declaring the nullity of a marriage is absolutely different from decreeing the annulment of a marriage.”

The specific changes in today’s decrees directly address the question of speed in the process: the removal of the need for a twofold conforming sentence from both the court of first instance and then from the appellate court, which automatically reviewed the acts of the first instance trial. A single trial in the first instance will be considered sufficient for persons whose presumed marriage has been declared null, to enter into new marriages under Church law. Furthermore, there is an introduction of the possibility for a single judge to try and issue rulings on individual cases; the creation of an expedited trial process for certain cases, in which the evidence of nullity is abundant, and both parties acuse the marriage of nullity.

“The power of the keys of Peter remains ever unchanged,” explained the Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Luis Ladaria, SJ, who was also a member of the reform commission and present at today’s Vatican press conference. “In this [nullity] process as well, the appeal to the Apostolic See is open to all, in order that the bond between the See of Peter and the particular Churches be confirmed.” Archbishop Ladaria concluded his remarks saying, “We all hope that this reform of the Code of Canon Law will bring with it the fruit the Holy Father desires, and that many Pastors and faithful desire with him as well.”

The upcoming Synod & Communion for the divorced & re-married

Pope Francis has expressed concern several times that the upcoming Synod on marriage and the family must not become focused on a narrow canon of contentious issues, but should instead consider the broad range of challenges to family life, including the impact of poverty, war, and forced migration, and should also focus on how the Church can support families. This morning’s decrees are a clear indication by the Pope that the upcoming October Synod on the Family will not be embroiled in debating what a hypothetical annulment reform might look like.  It is now a fait accompli.

Today’s decrees did not address the significant question of Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried. The Church did not back down from its stand on divorce, but the Church was at least trying to show greater compassion and outreach to those who have experienced a breakup of their marriage. By implementing the compromise in advance, Pope Francis has not resolved the Communion debate; he has put it into a new context. The question must be studied further by the pastors of the Church.

In terms of future directions from this morning’s Press Conference, Cardinal Cocopalmerio also addressed the problem of new civil regulations that exist today relating to marriage and family laws that are incompatible with the doctrine and discipline of the Church. These new civil regulations inevitably have an impact on the Church’s Canon Law. How should the Church react to such new civil legislations in many parts of the world? The Cardinal specifically mentioned laws that allow gay couples to adopt children.  When gay couples wish to have their child baptized, how should the Church proceed? Is this baptism? More study is needed on these questions.

A Biblical Reflection on marriage and divorce

It is not by coincidence that Pope Francis’ reform of laws pertaining to marriage be announced today, on the eve of his visit to the United States, on the eve of the Synod of Bishops, and shortly before the extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy that will begin on December 8, 2015, the very same day these changes to marriage law take effect. This morning’s press conference was driven by a pastoral desire to lift the darkness of doubt from people’s hearts about their marital status.

It is important to turn to the Scriptures to look closely at Jesus’ dealings with similar painful, human situations. In Mark’s Gospel (10:2-16) the Pharisees confront Jesus with the divisive issue of divorce and its legitimacy: “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?”

“What did Moses command you?” Jesus asked. They replied that Moses permitted a husband to write a bill of divorce and dismiss the wife. Jesus declares that the law of Moses permitted divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1) only because of the hardness of hearts (Mark 10:4-5). In citing Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, Jesus proclaims permanence to be the divine intent from the beginning concerning human marriage (Mark 10:6-8). He reaffirms this with the declaration that what God has joined together no human being must separate (9).

Jesus wisely and prudently responds to the loaded question by appealing to God’s plan of complete unity and equality in drawing men and women together in marriage. He affirms that husband and wife are united so intimately that they actually become one and indivisible. In answering a direct question that was deliberately designed to entrap him, Jesus was speaking of the nature of marriage and of that only. His emphasis is on its holiness and covenant fidelity and not on the illegitimacy of divorce. The goal of marriage is not divorce and annulment.

Jesus did not condemn people who did their best and ended up divorced. He was not judging such people, throwing them out of the community of the Church, or assigning them places in hell. He was only affirming the outlook taken by couples themselves when they stand before the Church’s minister and pronounce their wedding vows.

Some divorced men and women have erroneously been told by well-meaning people that they are excommunicated from the Catholic Church, which is certainly not true. Their pain is often enormous; their need for understanding and acceptance is great. They need unambiguous Catholic teaching to enlighten them and lead them to Christ. They need friends, people to pray for and with them, and they need God in their lives in the midst of rupture and brokenness. They deserve understanding and prayerful care.

A positive teaching on annulments must be offered in every parish community. Though it may be a tedious and painful process for some people, an annulment can be an instrument of grace, healing, closure, and peace of mind and heart. In our pastoral strategies, how do we welcome the sanctifying role of Jesus Christ in the marriage of a man and woman? Are we ready to offer Jesus’ teaching on marriage with the openness to children? What are some of the weaknesses and painful situations that afflict marriages today? Can these marriages be saved and the brokenness in the husband-wife relationships be healed? What is the role of faith in all of this?

We must pray for married people, that they may grow in this awareness of the sacramentality of marriage and its capacity to reflect the love of God to our world. Let us never forget those who have loved and lost, and those who have suffered the pain of separation, divorce and alienation. May they find healing in the community of the Church, and welcome from those whose marriages have been so fruitful.

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, is the CEO of Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and the English Language Assistant to the Holy See Press Office.