Pope Francis streamlines annulment process

Even as preparations continue for the papal visit to the United States for the World Meeting of Families and the start of the ordinary Synod on the Family in Rome on Oct. 4, Pope Francis has approved a major reform that will directly impact family life.

At a news conference on Sept. 8, the Holy See announced that the pope had issued two motu proprios (papal decrees meaning “by my own hand”) governing the procedures for how the Church determines that a marriage between two persons was invalidly contracted, commonly termed an annulment. The first motu proprioMitis Iudex Dominus Iesus (“The Meek Judge, Lord Jesus”), brings changes to the Code of Canon Law that governs the Latin Church; the second motu proprioMitis et Misericors Iesus (“The Meek and Merciful Jesus”), will reform the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, the laws that govern the Eastern Catholic Churches.

At the heart of the reforms is a desire by the pope to balance mercy with justice, to find a way to respond to the long-standing complaints that the procedure can be too cumbersome, bureaucratic and coldly lacking in pastoral care on the one hand, while preserving the clear teachings of the Church on the sanctity and indissolubility of marriage on the other. By affirming the role of local bishops, he is restoring some ancient practices in the Church in the area of marriage nullity and reforming an elaborate appeal system that can take months and even years.

In search of a balance

In his brief introductions to both decrees, the Holy Father notes this important balance, writing that the he seeks “not the nullifying of marriages but the promptness of the processes.” Francis adds that this is so that “the heart of the faithful who wait for the clarification of their state may not be oppressed for a long time by the darkness of doubt.”

The stress on mercy is also made apparent by the fact that while the decrees were signed on Aug. 15, they go into effect on Dec. 8, the opening day of the Jubilee Holy Year for Mercy and the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council. Notably, both dates are Marian feasts. Nevertheless, Francis is retaining the traditional juridical structure of the tribunal system. It is required, he writes, “to protect to the maximum the truth of the sacred bond: and this is exactly secured by the guarantees of the judicial order.”

In the preparations for last year’s extraordinary Synod of Bishops, a number of proposals were put forth for changes to the tribunal system, and it is clear that Pope Francis was listening. In August 2014, he established a special Commission for the Study of the Reform of the Matrimonial Processes in Canon Law that had the task of looking at the whole tribunal process regarding marital nullity. And so, while the world’s media was largely focused — even obsessing — over the deliberations of the extraordinary synod on marriage, the commission met out of the media spotlight and presented its recommendations to Francis. The changes themselves represent a clear agreement with the most commonly proposed reforms that were discussed at the synod and that are favored by many of the world’s bishops.

Key pieces of reform

The key components of the reform are:

◗ A single sentence in cases of nullity, meaning that there will no longer be a potentially lengthy automatic second judgment for all annulment cases, in order for the parties to be admitted to new canonically valid marriages. Rather, the moral certainty reached by the first judge according to law should be deemed sufficient.

◗ A single judge may be appointed, under the responsibility of the bishop. The judge is to be a cleric and is to be reminded that in the pastoral exercise of his proper judicial authority shall guarantee that there be no laxity.

◗ The bishops of both large and small dioceses should not leave the judicial function in matrimonial matters exclusively to delegated officials but should serve as judges, especially in cases where there is clear evidence of nullity.

◗ The legal process should be streamlined and made more agile, beyond the so-called traditional documentary process (marriage cases that can prove that the previous union was not valid and that are usually handled without the need for extensive testimony from witnesses). Aware of the risks an abbreviated process of judgment might pose to the principle of the indissolubility of marriage, Francis declares that, “in such cases the bishop himself shall be constituted judge, who, by force of his pastoral office is with Peter the greatest guarantor of Catholic unity in faith and in discipline.”

◗ Appeal to the Metropolitan See should be permitted, meaning an appeal to the head of the local ecclesiastical province, “as a distinctive sign of the synodality of the Church.”

◗ The bishops’ conferences around the globe should assist in the practical implementation of the reform while respecting “absolutely the right of the bishops to organize judicial power each within his own particular Church.”

◗ Appeal to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota will be preserved to “respect of a most ancient juridical principle.”

In other significant reforms, Francis mandates what many dioceses are already doing: making annulment procedures free of charge. He also calls on bishops to give pastoral care to separated Catholics considering divorce and/or annulment.


Francis’ decree changes a relatively small number of canons in Church law, but the reforms recognize a genuine need for pastoral care at a time when men and women facing lengthy and detailed procedures are turning away from the pastoral solicitude of the Church. Ideally, marriage cases will now be streamlined, meaning that Catholics who are hoping to secure a declaration of nullity for a previous marriage will find a process more pastorally oriented and swifter in reaching final conclusion.

Much work remains in how all of this will be implemented, and to be sure, the reforms will spark controversy among some canonists and theologians who worry such a simplification of the procedures might reduce the ability of competent authorities to render a reliable judgment and that there might be a widespread perception that the Church is surrendering to the culture on the indissolubility of marriage. Francis is aware of this and has retained crucial protections for the preservation of the sacred bond of marriage.  

The reforms also tell us that contrary to some critics, the pope is no antinomian, an enemy of the law. He prefers solutions for substantive reforms that nevertheless remain anchored in law and tradition. But Francis also wants the tribunal process for annulments to be one of accompaniment that offers both justice and loving mercy.

Bringing the two elements of justice and mercy together, Francis writes in his prefatory remarks that the single most important principle guiding the work of reform is that of salus animarum — the salvation of souls — which is the suprema Ecclesiae lex — the supreme law of the Church.

Matthew Bunson is OSV senior correspondent.