Starting Over

Thanks to Pope Francis, Breaking Up Has Never Been So Easy

Francis just made it cheaper and simpler than ever to annul a bad marriage—and for the Catholic Church to welcome back millions of the devout but divorced.

09.08.15 3:24 PM ET

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has not only made it easier for Catholics to divorce, he has also shown how easy it is for him to do things his way.

On Tuesday afternoon in the Holy See press office, seven men in priestly collars, whose combined experience in marriage is nil, presented radical changes to the Catholic Church’s approach to divorce as defined by Pope Francis

The changes, outlined in twin “Motu Proprio” documents titled Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, Latin for “The Lord Jesus, the Gentle Judge” penned by Francis in late August, will streamline the process of annulment and pave the way for divorced and remarried Catholics to practice their faith fully. The Catholic church does not recognize divorce, so those who remarry are considered adulterers and, as such, are not allowed to take certain sacraments, including Holy Communion. 

Until now, Catholics whose marriages failed could be granted annulments through a lengthy and expensive process that often took years and several layers of church bureaucracy. Now, thanks to Francis, from December 8 that process will be drastically cut and virtually cost-free, with the divorced Catholics being asked only to pay moderate administrative expenses that will no doubt be much less expensive than the civil component of their decoupling. 

Last August, Francis appointed a commission to study the procedures relating to the church’s rules. The new changes clearly reflect that group’s recommendations. “Some procedures are so long and burdensome people just give up,” the pope said when he appointed the commission. He said that the church’s laws must be designed for the “salvation of souls” and should not “lock the salvation of persons within the straits of legalism.”

Francis was clear that the new rules don’t “favor the nullity of matrimony” but they do serve to make it easier for those whose marriages are broken to retain their faith. The new rules are designed especially for those in situations where domestic violence or infidelity has led to the breakup.

The new procedures have been welcomed by many divorced Catholics who have been held at arm’s length from the church, but it will likely anger many conservative Catholics who see anything that reinterprets the church’s approach to doctrine as a threat to the church at large. Among the “potential problems” outlined during the press conference were such issues as what to do with children of divorced and remarried Catholics who were previously considered born in adulterous unions and denied baptism. 

By legitimizing them, the church potentially also opens the door to babies born from other unions the church does not recognize, such as adopted babies in same-sex unions, which Pope Francis has previously said should be baptized, though no regulations are in place to register those children born of unions not recognized as legitimate by the church as a whole. “If a homosexual couple wants to baptize the child, what should the procedure be?” pondered Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, the highest-ranking Vatican official on canon law, adding that this will no doubt stimulate dialogue at the autumn synod on the family. “The nullity of the marriage is part of this vast panorama of problems and regulatory reforms.”

On the sidelines of the press conference, Monsignor Dimitrios Salachas told The Daily Beast that by issuing a Motu Proprio now rather than waiting for the upcoming Synod on the Family, the pope was exercising his right to rule. “In doing this now rather than the fall, the Holy Father is exercising his right to do God’s will,” he said, adding that there were still many details that the synod participants would no doubt discuss.

The last pope to change rules relating to annulment was Benedict XIV, who led the church from 1740 to 1758—which makes Francis’s intervention all the more profound. These new rules follow the announcement on September 1 that gave priests the power to forgive those who have had an abortion. 

The pope has had a busy year reforming the church, making headlines with his views on climate change, abortion, and now annulment. It’s anyone’s guess what is next on the pope’s reform to-do list, but there is little doubt that it will go unnoticed. The pontiff begins a 10-day visit to Cuba and the United States this month.