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Annulment changes give Catholics hope, but some have doubts
Hope and doubt greeted the news of changes in how the Roman Catholic Church grants annulments. Pope Francis announced moves that will streamline the procedure and, potentially, make more faithful eligible to receive communion. - photo by Mark A. Kellner
Changes in the way the Roman Catholic Church grants annulments announced Monday in two documents issued "motu proprio," or on the Pope's initiative may yield unintended consequences for the 1.2-billion-member religion, observers say.

Pope Francis, who a month earlier called for compassion toward divorced Catholics whose earlier marriages had not been annulled, released the new rules two weeks before his first-ever visit to the United States, and a month before the second meeting of a Synod of Bishops on family issues.

According to the Crux news site, the changes restructure "the process by which Catholics can obtain marriage annulments, reducing the number of courts and judges, dropping automatic appeals, and making the process free."

Instead of having to have two rulings in favor of what the church calls "nullity," a single ruling is sufficient, and instead of having the Vatican bureaucracy involved in each case, local Catholic bishops can appoint a hearing officer to adjudicate cases.

According to the Rev. James Martin, S.J., a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large for America magazine, the pope's changes are motivated by pastoral factors.

"Francis's streamlining of the annulment process is an act of mercy from a pastoral Pope who listens carefully to the concerns of the people," Father Martin tweeted.

But in an article anticipating the papal moves, however, Crux analyst John L. Allen, Jr., a longtime Vatican-watcher, wrote Catholic "bishops would probably feel the need for an objective forum to resolve such disputes, which basically means a court. What starts out as a pastoral process could quickly turn into a legal one, with all its contentiousness, delays and cost."

Allen also suggested "many pastors might not want the grief, and therefore, would be tempted to say yes to almost anyone who asks" for an annulment.

Blogging at The New York Times' website, columnist Ross Douthat worried that "a Catholicism where the rules on remarriage vary from one diocese to another, one country to another, will seem from a Catholic perspective more scandalous, more a sign of real and growing and dangerous disunity."

He suggested such a dichotomy pitting traditionalists against progressives in the church "would leave a division unlikely to be healed."

And, said The Atlantic, "The biggest changes in the Churchs stance on family issues are yet to come at the synod for example, the bishops are expected to issue statements on whether divorced and remarried Catholics can take communion."

In Buffalo, New York, one Catholic Church member, Ted Brown, told WIVB-TV the annulment changes would draw lapsed Catholics back to the fold.

As a young adult I had a lot of trouble maintaining my faith, and with the present Pope its much easier to really be part of the church, Brown told the station.

The Roman Catholic faith isn't the only religious group struggling with marriage and divorce issues. In April, the Deseret News noted the struggles some Orthodox Jewish women have had in obtaining a religious divorce, called a "get," from spouses. Without the religious decree, these women cannot remarry within the faith, and if they do, the community might shun any children born in such an unsanctioned remarriage.
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