ANNULMENT. It is a profound, life-changing process for a Catholic to divorce and then remarry within the Church.
And traditionally, Church teaching held that unless a divorced and remarried Catholic obtained an annulment, they were seen as committing adultery, and, among other things, could not receive some sacraments.
Pope Francis has broken new ground on the thorny annulment issue, both with reforms to the annulment process announced in September 2015, and with his landmark document on family life – the post-synodal apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (The Joy of Love).
Pope Francis’ reforms to the annulment process (which came into effect on December 8 – the opening day of the Jubilee of Mercy year) gave more of a role to the local bishop, dropped automatic appeals and pressed to waiver fees.
Then, in April this year, “The Joy of Love” was released and immediately sparked controversy because it opened the door to civilly remarried Catholics receiving Communion.
Within the document was support for bishops and priests to allow permission for Catholics to annul on a case-by-case basis, after accompanying them on a spiritual journey of discernment.
Pope Francis wrote “The Joy of Love” following two synods, convened to discuss marriage and the family. It was an opportunity for bishops from all cultures to contribute to the issue.
“People think the Catholic Church is monolithic. I mean, at times, listening to the voices of the synod, I thought, ‘It’s like herding cats. How does this thing hold together?’,” Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge, who attended the second synod, and recently discussed annulment with ABC TV’s Compass program, said
“When the Pope chose marriage and the family as the theme of these two synods, it was a very shrewd choice because marriage and the family is where the rubber hits the road in the intersection between faith and culture and the Church’s engagement with the modern world.
“Once you’re talking marriage and the family, you’re not talking pie in the sky. This is real human life for most people.”
In Brisbane, the Regional Tribunal handles annulments, and each case can be a lengthy task for the judicial vicar of the tribunal Fr Adrian Farrelly.
He is already working within new guidelines.
“People say, ‘Why are we doing this? Why do we have to have annulment proceedings?’ and all the rest of it,” he said.
“And I say, or my colleagues say, ‘Well, it’s the teaching of Jesus and if Jesus hadn’t said this, I wouldn’t be in a tribunal helping people prepare marriage nullity cases. I’d be off doing something else’. But the reality is He did say something.
“Originally, before we had the revised laws of Pope Francis, probably … of those who would come and start to see what’s involved in a marriage annulment case, probably only a third would continue on.”
At the centre of the annulment process is an exploration of the circumstances surrounding the couple on the day they made their vows.
Did they marry of their own free will? Were they open to having children?
Did they understand the sacrament of marriage? Were they of sound mind?
An investigation starts to decide if the marriage was a “valid contract”.
“It’s a very complex process of discernment and every story has to be attended to, so that basically when someone comes to the tribunal, the first question is, ‘Tell me your story’. And every story is different,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
For Catholics, the sacrament of marriage is a public sign that one gives oneself totally to the other person – according to Matthew 19:5-6: “God made them male and female. This is why a man must leave father and mother and the two become one body. They are no longer two therefore but one body. So then what God has united, man must not divide.”
Because of this teaching, the Church cannot simply give civilly divorced people permission to remarry.
This would be tantamount to permitting adultery because the couple is still married in the eyes of the Church.
Most painful for a Catholic who remarries without an annulment is that they cannot receive Holy Communion.
“They’re in a kind of a twilight zone and this can be the agony, of course, for many people, who are people of genuine faith and who long to receive Holy Communion,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
“They can be part of the community in all kinds of ways and we have to be more creative in that regard.
“See, I have no difficulty in accepting what the Church teaches about marriage. But where I really grapple is how to apply that teaching to the reality of people’s lives.
“That’s because I’m a pastor. I’m supposed to help people. So I grapple … to bridge the gap between the ideal and the real.”
Archbishop Coleridge said he was able act on Pope Francis’ request to cut the cost of an annulment.
“He said to the bishops, people like me, he said, ‘Why do you have to charge even to cover administrative costs? Isn’t this part of the basic service that the Church provides to people in need?’,” he said.
“When I read it, I thought, ‘Well, that’s true.’ So in my little patch, we’ve decided we won’t charge people for this process of discernment that we call an annulment process.”