The following comes from a Sept. 8 posting on the Vatican Insider by Joshua J. McElwee. It first appeared in the National Catholic Reporter.
Pope Francis has substantially and significantly altered the process for those seeking annulments of marriages in the Catholic church, eliminating sometimes lengthy and redundant judicial procedures and empowering local bishops to make judgments on their own in “particularly evident” cases.
The changes — announced at the Vatican Tuesday with release of two formal documents signed by the pope known as motu proprios — reflect a decided and new shift in delegating power from the church’s central command to local prelates around the world.
They also may represent the most public difference yet between Francis and his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who had widely sought to limit the number of annulments in fear of creating a sort of back-door divorce process for Catholics.
In a short introduction to the new changes, Francis explains that he wanted to balance the church’s timeless worry to provide for the salvation of souls with “the enormous number of faithful that … too often are detached from the juridical structures of the Church at the cause of physical or moral distance.”
…. The changes announced by Francis modify the procedures for obtaining annulments in two key ways: Eliminating a sometimes lengthy process requiring a second judgment on all annulment decisions and allowing local bishops a so-called “shorter” process to personally judge on cases considered particularly straightforward.
The changes also, in a new take on a since-abandoned practice, allow any first appeals of annulment decisions to be made at the local level instead of at the Vatican. Appeals from smaller dioceses will now be made at metropolitan archdioceses, which are the archdioceses that are normally closest to the diocese in question….
“It has not escaped me how an abbreviated judgment might put at risk the principle of indissolubility of marriage,” the pope continues. “Indeed, for this I wanted that in this process the judge would be composed of the bishop, that in the strength of his pastoral office is, with Peter, the best guarantee of Catholic unity in the faith and discipline.”
The Vatican announced the changes Tuesday by releasing the two official documents, given the Latin names of Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus (“The Meek Judge, The Lord Jesus”) and Mitis et misericors Iesus (“The Meek and Merciful Jesus”)….
The pontiff’s decision to remove the until-now necessary, and sometimes lengthy, second judgment on all annulment decisions echoes an ability the U.S. Catholic bishops had from 1970-83, when they were allowed by the Vatican to dispense that obligation for certain cases.
That ability — which was sharply criticized by some at the Vatican who thought the U.S. bishops were applying the dispensation too liberally — was removed with the publication of the 1983 edition of the Code of Canon Law.
The number of annulment procedures initiated in the U.S. has dropped sharply in recent decades. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, the processes initiated went from 60,691 in 1984 to 23,302 in 2014.