Let Us Lawyer This Problem Together

A statement came out today from the top guy in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, basically saying that the Church was not going to change anything regarding divorced and remarried people.  Or, at the very least, it is not going to change anything doctrinally. Some took this as an opportunity to rend their garments and declare that Francis is all talk and that this new openness is an illusion.  In turn, the usual suspects took it as an opportunity to throw rotten tomatoes at those who are rending their garments.  And so, the circle of life continues.

I don't think it means much of anything.  First, there was a bit of the infamous "vote of confidence" about the article.  Every time you hear that a sports coach has the "full confidence" of the owner or athletic director, or a CEO has the "full confidence" of the Board of Directors, you can count down the days until that coach or CEO is canned.  There is no policy change until there is a policy change.

But let's say there is not going to be a significant theological change involving divorces and remarriages.  That still doesn't mean that you cannot make serious changes to the way divorces, remarriages, and annulments actually work in practice.  Instead of thinking about this as a policy problem, think about it as a process problem.  And, since this is a legal process, then the problem is susceptible to being lawyered.

Before you can lawyer a problem, however, you have to define what the problem is.
As I understand it, the problem goes like this.  There are many, many Catholics out there who were married in the Church, got divorced, and for some reason did not get an annulment before getting remarried.  As a result, the Church considers the second marriage to be adulterous, and they are not supposed to be eligible for the sacraments, such as Eucharist.  As to why people don't get an annulment, the general answer is that the current process, which involves making a formal petition to a marriage tribunal and essentially going through a trial, is too onerous.  Many complain it takes too long.  Some complain it is too expensive.  Some complain it is logistically to difficult--it requires the person seeking the annulment to gather witnesses and often corral the ex-spouse into participating.  Some say it is too personal and invasive to discuss one's failed marriage in a public forum in front of strangers.

So, the problem, really, is the tribunal.  And the logical solution is to by-pass or minimize the role of the tribunal.  How about this?

1.  I am a divorced Catholic (note: you need to be fully civilly divorced in order to apply for this annulment) and I want an annulment, presumably because I want to marry someone else.  Rather than go to a marriage tribunal, I make an appointment with my parish priest, Fr. Fred.  We sit down and discuss (in a confidential setting) what happened in my marriage.  The parish priest agrees that I meet the requirements for an annulment.

2.  Fr. Fred fills out and signs a form, stating that I meet the requirements for an annulment.  This document is a provisional annulment.  It is sent to the diocesan marriage tribunal, who in turn sends out a notice to my ex-wife at her last known address (listed on the form).  The notice states that the marriage has been provisionally annulled, and if she contests this, she should fill out a form and send it back to the tribunal within a certain period of time (say, 6 months).

3.  If the marriage tribunal doesn't hear from my ex-wife within 6 months, it formally grants the annulment.  If she responds and contests the annulment, then the tribunal conducts a full inquiry, just like they do now.

In other words, in the vast majority of cases, an annulment consists of going to your parish priest, getting him to sign off, and then waiting six months.  If you are on good terms with your ex, maybe you could speed that up by having him/her send in some affirmative statement that he/she doesn't contest the annulment.  Heck, maybe if both parties seek the annulment jointly, there is no waiting period at all.  It's faster, it's cheaper, it's quicker, and it is less invasive, unless your ex wants to be an enormous PITA and contest things.

It would also be a clean way to handle the problem of people who went ahead and got remarried.  Since the annulment granted by the priest is a provisional one, the remarried party could be readmitted to the sacraments as soon as he or she has her meeting with the priest.  And then, six months later when it goes final, they can have their existing marriages recognized by the Church.

Now, would this mean some priests would grant everyone an annulment and others would be hard-asses?  Yes.  But that's the nature of the beast.  Some diocesan marriage tribunals are known for granting annulments more easily than others.

It also has the advantage that the practice is in effect the same as that of the Orthodox Church, though the terminology and process are different.  In the Orthodox Church, a parish priest is empowered to grant an economia and bless the second marriage.  Here, the parish priest is empowered to begin the process for granting an annulment that allows him to bless the second marriage.  Since Pope Francis has, twice, pointed to the Orthodox practice as a model (notwithstanding that the CDF statement takes shots at the Orthodox for its procedures), consistency de facto, if not de jure, is relevant.

The best objection, probably, is that "this is stupid because the annulment concept is stupid and somewhat dishonest."  Maybe so, but it has very deep roots in the Catholic theology of marriage.  It would be a significant change to jettison the commitment to the idea that a person can have only one, valid marriage in life.  This solution addresses the pastoral problem without having to wade into these difficult theological waters.

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