Pope Francis announced one of the most significant reforms of his papacy on Tuesday — changes to how Catholics can nullify a marriage.
The changes are radical. An annulment is a finding by Catholic officials that a marriage between a man and a woman was not a real marriage for a variety of reasons. An annulment is not a divorce — marriage in the Catholic church is an indissoluble bond, and so technically there isn’t such a thing as “Catholic divorce,” but Catholics can have their marriage annulled if Church leaders deem that the marriage was never valid in the first place.
An annulment declares that a marriage did not meet the standard of a binding union, including being open to having children or being based on deceit. Previously, annulments could take years but the new process will reduce time, eliminate most fees, and increase the authority of the local bishop.
Pope Francis is not favoring annulments — he is streamlining the annulment process. His concern is spiritual, the salvation of souls, which as he explained in his introduction to the announcement remains the “supreme goal” of the Catholic Church’s laws and institutions. He also is not unfamiliar with divorce — his sister Maria Elena is divorced and not remarried — and he has repeatedly said that the Church must find ways to embrace divorced people.
Unlike changes in tone, annulment reform changes actual church laws. Pope Francis announced that starting December 8, 2015 — non-coincidentally the same day that the Pope’s declared Jubilee Year of Mercy begins — the new laws about the nullity of marriage go into effect. The new laws are the most sweeping changes to the annulment process in 300 years, according to Pope Francis biographer Austen Ivereigh.
Pope Francis’ strategic timing is as interesting as the actual reforms. Francis made the announcement a month before the upcoming Synod of the Bishops on the family, a worldwide gathering of bishops to continue to discuss family and marriage issues that began last October at the Extraordinary Synod. The bishops last year called for faster and more accessible annulment process, Francis said in his announcement. Instead of waiting to announce annulment reform as a conclusion of this year’s gathering, Francis preempted the process. He cleared the way for this next synod to discuss other issues of marriage and family — everything from how to better embrace gay people to how to help families separated by migration, poverty, war, and economic realities.
It is another sign that Pope Francis is thinking large about his papacy. Last week Pope Francis announced that priests can forgive the Catholic sin of abortion during the Year of Mercy. He also announced that the Vatican will, and every parish in Europe should, host refugee families. Families are at the core of his mission, and that topic will be central when he visits the United States late September for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.