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Pope Francis' annulment reforms may draw divorced Catholics back to the faith

Pope Francis' annulment reforms may draw divorced Catholics back to the faith
A bride and groom arrive at the Vatican for Pope Francis' weekly general audience. The pontiff is changing the way the church handles annulments. (Filippo Monteforte / AFP/Getty Images)

After her divorce, Laura Brockway quit going to Sunday Mass. She felt unworthy and her faith lapsed, and she waited more than a decade before seeking an annulment. She now calls that experience — petitioning the church to declare her marriage contract flawed from the start — the most meaningful of her life.

Coming to terms with her failed union, a process that took 11 months and involved typing up dozens of pages of personal testimony, was a spiritual milestone for Brockway. "I became devoted to my faith," said the 47-year-old, who now works for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Gary, Ind. "Now I hope it can do the same for others."

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Many Catholics across the United States have welcomed Pope Francis' annulment reforms, the most far-reaching in almost three centuries. Making it faster, simpler and cheaper to obtain an annulment, many hope, will foster greater acceptance and encourage lapsed or wavering Catholics to rejoin the faith.

"It's certainly a positive message, and I would say it's a correction," said Father Kevin M. Laughery, a judicial vicar who leads the annulment tribunal in the Diocese of Springfield, Ill. A century ago, he said, the church, uncomfortable with the idea of divorce, tried to respond by simply ordering the faithful to stay married.

"Obviously, that did not work," Laughery said. "Even though our tastes may not include the idea of recognizing divorce, we have come around to the idea that it is sometimes necessary."

The Catholic Church does not recognize civil divorce, its theology holding that marital unions sanctified by God are indissoluble. In an annulment, church leaders rule that something essential was missing from the couple's relationship when vows were exchanged, for reasons that can include infidelity, psychiatric illness or a spouse's unwillingness to have children.

In his declaration, Francis preserves the Catholic Church's traditional teaching of the indissolubility of marriage, while streamlining the existing annulment process, said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame.

The reforms the pope announced last week remove the requirement for a second judgment on annulment decisions, a process that can lengthen the process by many months. They also reduce the first tribunal to one member of the clergy and allow local bishops to fast-track the annulment process in certain cases — for example, petitions not contested by a spouse.

At a time when 1 in 4 American Catholics has gone through a divorce and more than 60% believe the church should allow Catholics who remarry without an annulment to receive communion, the reforms represent more than a pragmatic step. "Symbolically, it's in line with the perception that Pope Francis is opening doors, shaking things up and changing the way things are done," Cummings said.

In recent decades, the diocese in Springfield had worked to coordinate a merciful yet careful approach to marriage. "We're admitting we're in flux," said Laughery. "We recognize that people change and societal structures change, and it cannot be assumed that everybody just naturally takes to the idea of a marriage."

The pope's announcement sent a clear message that the church is sympathetic to those with flawed marriages, he said. "The church wants you to do this," Laughery said. "There has been a lot of misunderstanding, and the paradox is it's kind of hard to get the word out to people who feel that they've been banished."

Americans made up about half of the nearly 50,000 annulments granted worldwide in 2012. Yet the practical impact of the pope's reforms may be less significant in the U.S. — where many dioceses have already sped the process and reduced fees — than in the developing world, where annulments can be more difficult to obtain.

According to a Pew Research Center survey released last week, more than 40% of divorced U.S. Catholics did not seek an annulment because they did not see it as necessary or did not want one. Only 1 in 10 cited the cumbersome nature of the process, stating it was too expensive, complicated or time-consuming.

In the U.S., an annulment can cost $200 to $1,000, although fees may be reduced or waived in cases of financial difficulty. The reforms would make the process free, except for a nominal administrative fee.

The timeline varies from diocese to diocese, often taking 12 to 18 months or longer. Though eliminating the second review is likely to shave a few months off the process, some question whether the process can be reduced to 30 or 45 days.

"Some cases are so complex, you can't push them quickly," said Rose Sweet, author of "The Catholic's Divorce Survival Guide" and an advocate for greater pastoral care for divorced Catholics. "The goal is not just to do it, but to do it right. Any time you rush on anything, it invites room for error."

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Sweet welcomed the pope's reforms, but she noted that many dioceses — short-staffed and operating on limited budgets — may need more time to implement changes before the reforms go into effect Dec 8.

The church should also focus more on community outreach, she argued, walking people through what can seem an off-putting process. "The church has a beautiful healing process in annulment, and yet the average person is terrified about it, angry, and thinks it costs a lot of money," she said. "We've not done a very good job of going out to people and explaining what happens and how we can help you."

Ana Perez, 44, a federal preschool program case manager in Miami who received her annulment two weeks ago after waiting for more than a year, said the process had not seemed too long and cumbersome. "But I tend to be conservative," she admitted. "I don't want it to be a quick divorce kind of thing."

Still, Perez welcomed the move to make annulments more affordable, saying some people seemed intimidated by the process and put off by the expense. Francis' reforms, she said, emphasized compassion and made the church seem a little less strict. "The bottom line is more divorced people are going to show up in church because this is more acceptable now."

Brockway, too, said she hopes the reforms encourage more people to petition for annulments, yet she doubted it would make the process much easier.

"I'm not sure it changes things significantly," she said. "You're still going to have to do the emotional work."

Jarvie is a special correspondent.

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