Pope Francis Wants To Make Breaking Up Easier For Catholic Couples

Breaking up may be hard to do, but if you're nearing the end of your marriage, remember this: Pope Francis is here for you. According to the Vatican, Francis will announce Tuesday major reforms to annulments, the only legal way to end a marriage in the Catholic Church. These reforms will include easing the administrative burdens of annulments, which can be a lengthy and cumbersome process that may turn off many married couples seeking to end their relationship.

The Catholic Church stipulates that marriage is an eternal contract between — of course — one man and one woman, thereby making divorce completely unacceptable in most circumstances (the church does allow exceptions for cases of domestic violence). For Catholics married through the church, they only way they can end a marriage and remain in good standing is through an annulment, which voids the marriage. Essentially, the church is saying, "This marriage is not a Catholic marriage."

Here's how the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops describes annulments:

An annulment is a declaration by a Church tribunal (a Catholic church court) that a marriage thought to be valid according to Church law actually fell short of at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union.

But acquiring an annulment can be a tricky process. First, couples must undergo a "tribunal process" in their home diocese, which requires written testimony from one spouse about what the marriage was missing and why it wasn't a so-called Catholic marriage. The testimony and ensuing paperwork are then vetted by a second tribunal, typically from a separate Catholic diocese. According to the USCCB, this whole process can take between 12 and 18 months — and a whole lot of stressful paperwork.


There's also the cost. While annulments are cheaper than regular divorces, the fees can be inconsistent, as they change from diocese to diocese. Some dioceses may only charge a few hundred dollars, while others may have fees reaching into the thousands. And of course, these tribunals do dole out negative decisions.

While the Vatican has not said how Francis is going to change the annulment process, Monsignor Kevin Irwin, at the Catholic University, told The Washington Post it's likely the pontiff will remove the second tribunal, making annulments much less painful and time-consuming. It wouldn't be such a left-field possibility: Last year, Francis hinted at wanting to make it easier for Catholics to get annulments, even though the church has long preached that annulments should be scarce.

During the general bishops meeting in October 2014, at which family was the focus, Francis opened a discussion on divorced and remarried Catholics. Vatican watchers at the time said it appeared the pontiff was accepting reality, more so than his conservative clergy, and looking for ways to welcome divorced and remarried Catholics back into the church. (In Catholicism, remarried Catholics who did not receive an annulment cannot receive Communion. Meanwhile, divorced Catholics can only remain in good standing if they don't remarry.) Although Francis did not change any church teachings at the time, the meeting seemed to have put his plan into motion.


Then, in November 2014, the pontiff, who's been a conflicting figure among progressive and conservative Catholics alike, publicly criticized the high cost of annulments to a group of Vatican lawyers. Francis reportedly fired a church official who was auctioning annulments for at least $10,000, the pontiff said.

"We have to be careful that the procedure does not become some kind of business," Francis said, according to the Religion News Service. "There have been public scandals. ... When you attach economic interests to spiritual interests, it is not about God."

Many Vatican watchers have since wondered if Francis, the people's pope, would end up removing annulment fees altogether, which would make the proceeding more accessible to low-income couples.


According to Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, 28 percent of ever-married Catholics in the United States have been divorced at some point — a rate that's far lower than the national average. A survey released last week by the Pew Research Center had similar results, finding that four in 10 American Catholics have gone through a divorce; just one in 10 American Catholics have divorced and remarried. Another one in 10 American Catholics are cohabitating with an unmarried romantic partner.

While the Catholic Church currently requires an annulment in order for Catholics to remarry, it appears to be an unpopular opinion: The Pew survey also found that nearly 50 percent of U.S. Catholics believe it's not a sin for divorced Catholics to remarry. The growing acceptance of divorce and remarrying among Western Catholics may have been a signal to Francis that the church needs to do something about annulments, or else lose a number of otherwise devoted Catholics.

If anything, Francis' annulment reforms would have the biggest impact in the United States. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate estimates that the United States makes up 49 percent of all annulments in the Catholic Church.