The pope wants to know what we think.
That in and of itself qualifies as a minor miracle.
In our top-down hierarchical church, the concept of the sensus fidelium
has been pretty much a dead letter since the Second Vatican Council.
Usually Rome talks and we listen.
But now he wants to hear from us.
In preparation for the meeting of bishops in October, Pope Francis
has asked the whole church to answer 38 questions in nine broad
categories, all dealing with marriage and family life. I just want to
deal with just one question: annulments.
Here is my view: It is time for us to scrap our current annulment
process and look east to see what our Orthodox brothers and sisters are
It is pretty clear from the Gospels that Jesus did not approve of
divorce and remarriage. He says it amounts to adultery, which is pretty
strong language, especially coming from Jesus.
But if we are his
followers, we have to at least try to deal with his teaching. Our
annulment process is an attempt to take his teaching seriously and still
allow people a second (or third) chance.
The problem with the process in the Roman Catholic church is that it
takes what ought to be a pastoral matter and turns it into a legal one.
It is complicated, often unfair, and frequently unintelligible to the
participants. Some tribunals are easy. Some are hard. It can be very
Annulments come up every year in our RCIA program. We always have
several couples who are divorced and remarried and want to come to the
sacraments. Often, they have been divorced and remarried for years, even
decades. Sometimes their own children don't even know about the
previous marriages. Until they felt the attraction to the church, it
never even occurred to them that they might need a Catholic annulment.
It does not make any sense to them that they need to get a marriage
annulled that may have taken place 30 years ago in a Baptist church or
before a justice of the peace. All the annulment process does is put a
road block in their way to entering the church.
There is a loophole for Catholics. If either party in the former
marriage was a Catholic and the marriage took place in a non-Catholic
ceremony, the annulment is just a matter of paperwork. It is a slam dunk
that goes through in a few weeks.
I always get these right away. But it seems unjust. It rewards people
who were disobedient to the church years ago and got married outside
the church. Most people take it for what it is: a loophole. They get a
chance at a second marriage because of the kind of ceremony they had
The thornier annulments involve people who were not Catholics at the
time and had absolutely no reason to get married in a Catholic church.
Ironically, they have to go through a full legal process before a church
It is painful and pointless. They have to find witnesses, get
records, take statements, dig up old contacts, and open old wounds. All
of our language is legal, not pastoral. We speak of petitions,
tribunals, witnesses, advocates, petitioners, defendants and evidence.
It is Kafkaesque. It turns pastors into bureaucrats, to no purpose.
Sometimes there are good reasons why people don't want to get in
touch with the former spouse. There may have been abuse or violence.
They open themselves up to further wounds or retribution. They may not
even know where the former spouse or witness is after so many years. I
have had cases in which former spouses held up an annulment out of spite
Nobody is deterred from getting divorced and remarried by our
annulment process. But many people are deterred from coming into or back
to the church by our annulment process.
It is spiritually
The Roman Catholic annulment process needs a total overhaul. We
should look to the Orthodox churches for a better way to handle it.
In the Eastern churches, the first annulment is handled entirely by
the parish priest.
After all, he is the person on the scene. He knows
the people involved and can judge their sincerity and seriousness. He
can talk to them about marriage and see if they are sincere in their
desire for reconciliation with the church. No tribunal downtown at the
chancery office can do that.
Basically, in the Orthodox churches, couples get a second chance.
Their first marriage can be annulled by the parish priest in a simple
conversation and confession. But third or fourth marriages would need
the permission of the bishop in most Orthodox churches, as I understand
it. However, this is a pastoral process, not a legal one.
Our legal process of annulments is a holdover from the days when the
Catholic church was the civil law of marriage in many countries. Today,
it makes no sense.
Over the years, I have had several couples get infuriated with me or
with the church and just walk away in anger. A friend of mine who is an
Episcopal priest told me once, "So long as you guys are so strict about
divorce and remarriage, there will be a reason for the Episcopal
Sometimes, I have just taken the pastoral route. For instance, I've
had couples in their late 70s and 80s who were married decades ago. They
can hardly remember their first marriage, let alone dredge up the
records. Or I've had people who are terminally ill and want to come into
the church. There is no time or energy to get an annulment.
If I were pope, I would leave the decision about annulments and
reception of the sacraments entirely up to the parish priest. It should
be resolved in the internal forum of the confessional. The emphasis
should be on mercy, not law. End of story. Move on.
The people who come to RCIA are spiritually mature. They are serious
people who are really giving the Catholic church a serious look. I find
that these converts make the best Catholics and the strongest witnesses
to the faith.
If we put a legal roadblock in the way of converts, all we really
accomplish is keeping them from coming back to or into the church. No
grace for you!
It does not change any of the facts of their lives. They are already
in their second or third marriage. It would not be moral or prudent to
expect them to leave their current spouse just because we say so.
To our faithful, the real scandal is not the fact that divorced and
remarried people might receive Communion, but that sincere people who
really desire the Eucharist are kept from it by a legalistic,
complicated, capricious and alienating annulment process.
Let divorced and remarried people make a good confession and offer
sincere contrition and a firm purpose of amendment. Then let them start
again. God has forgiven us much worse.
Priests and bishops should be pastors, not jurists. That's one pastor's opinion, anyway.
I'm glad the pope is asking and actually wants to know what is happening in the local church.
[Fr. Peter Daly is a priest in the archdiocese of Washington, D.C.,
and has been pastor of St. John Vianney parish in Prince Frederick, Md.,