By Sarah Mac Donald - 09 September, 2015
On Tuesday, the Pontiff announced that the reforms will come into effect on 8 December, coinciding with the start of the special Year of Mercy.
The changes were published in two documents: Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus (The Lord Jesus, the Gentle Judge) and Mitis et misericors Iesus (The Meek and Merciful Jesus).
The first document addresses and modifies the annulment procedure for the Latin-rite Code of Canon Law; the second for the canons governing the Eastern-rite Catholic churches.
In ‘The Lord Jesus, the Gentle Judge’, the Pontiff reaffirms the Church’s traditional teaching on the indissolubility of marriage but also announces streamlined procedures which will eliminate sometimes lengthy and redundant judicial procedures.
The reforms will also do away with the heretofore mandatory requirement of a second review of any judgment that a marriage was invalid.
The changes are being interpreted as a signal that the Pope is seeking to reach out pastorally to Catholics affected by marriage breakdown.
As a ‘motu proprio’ the reforms have the force of law in the Church.
Last year the Pope established a special commission to examine the annulment process as it was widely criticised for being lengthy, costly, cumbersome and outdated.
Many couples and priests have complained that the complex procedures currently in place discourage couples, even those with legitimate grounds for an annulment, from trying to obtain one.
Most annulments are granted at a local level and only the most complicated cases reach a special court at the Vatican, known as the Rota.
However, Pope Francis has said the procedures, which can be every costly in terms of legal fees, should be free.
Mgr Pio Vito Pinto, dean of the Vatican Rota which rules on annulments, told a news conference that the new rules were the most substantive changes to annulment laws since the papacy of Benedict XIV, who reigned from 1740 to 1758.
The Pope said the changes would not encourage the nullifying of marriage, but would alter the time it took to complete the process.
He said the changes were being made so that “the heart of the faithful that wait for the clarification of their state may not be oppressed for a long time by the darkness of doubt”.
The situation of divorced and remarried Catholics who want to fully participate in the Church is a hot button issue in the church at the moment and it will be high on the list of discussions at the Synod on the Family in Rome in October.
Unlike divorce, where a marriage is dissolved, an annulment is based on the church finding that the marriage was never properly entered into in the first place.
Reasons can include one or both partners not understanding the vows, not realising marriage was a lifelong commitment, or not wanting to have children.
According to Dr John Murray of the Iona Institute, “It will probably not help Catholics who are validly married and who unfortunately are in trouble with their relationship.”
He added, “Even though it is a limited measure, I would hope that it will improve matters for some Catholics globally.”