More petitions for annulments are opened by Catholics in the U.S. than in any other country, but the number has dropped in the past two decades amid declining numbers of marriages, fewer divorces and perceptions of a stigma from the church, analysts say.
Often misunderstood as simply a “Catholic divorce,” the subject is one of the prominent family issues under discussion during this month’s Extraordinary Synod of Bishops and one area in which the church might see some tangible changes in practice.
The most recent numbers available from the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae, which compiles statistics about the Catholic Church and its members, show that 24,010 cases, or 49 percent of annulment cases, were petitioned from the United States in 2012. Poland, the country with the next highest number of petitions, accounted for 6 percent with fewer than 3,000 cases.
But the U.S. figure is down sharply from the 72,308 cases introduced in the United States in 1990, as are figures for requests worldwide.
“The number of annulment cases introduced each year is declining,” said Mark Gray, senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. “In part, this is related to fewer divorcing and fewer ever marrying.”
What hasn’t changed, Mr. Gray said, is the percentage of annulments that are granted.
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“In most years since 1980, this has fluctuated between 85 percent and 92 percent,” Mr. Gray said. “In 2012, nine in 10 cases resulted in a ruling of nullity.”
The ruling itself is often misunderstood. Rather than dissolving a marriage, an annulment declares that a union thought to be binding according to church law fell short of at least one of the five essential elements.
For a marriage to be valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church, the man and woman must be free to marry; must freely give their consent; must marry with the intent of staying married for life, as well as faithful and open to having children; must marry with good intentions for their spouse; and must be married by a church minister in front of at least two witnesses.
Maureen Ferguson, senior policy adviser for the Catholic Association, described the annulment process as “an investigation that shows that a marriage that was thought to be valid at time of the wedding, actually fell short of at least one essential element of sacramental marriage.”
The process “can be quite cumbersome,” she said, but an annulment “can be a source of hope for many people who went into marriage without proper understanding of the proper sacramental marriage.”
An annulment can take anywhere from a year to 18 months, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, though each case is different.
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On paper, annulments are not cheap. The bishops conference stated that most tribunals — the church panels that consider the requests — charge $200 to $1,000, though fees can be reduced or waived.
Another widely held belief is that the speed and processing of a request for an annulment can be influenced by donations — a suggestion Catholic leaders are quick to dispute.
The Rev. Anthony McLaughlin, an assistant professor at the Catholic University of America’s School of Canon Law, served on the church tribunal that handled annulment cases in the Diocese of Tyler, Texas. He said a donation of $400 was suggested, but “I couldn’t tell you of any diocese that would forbid a process if [a petitioner] didn’t give you a donation.”
The idea of annulment reform isn’t new. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once said a “lack of faith” was a threat to the sanctity of marriage and that the “issue of the validity of marriage” needed review.
In August, Pope Francis established a commission “to prepare a proposal of reform of the matrimonial process, with the objective of simplifying its procedure, making it more streamlined, and safeguarding the principle of the indissolubility of matrimony.”
According to Catholic teaching, a second marriage, even a secular one not performed by the church, is invalid if either party has not had any marriage annulled. Therefore, the church teaches, both parties in such marriages are engaging in bigamy and/or adultery and, among other things, should absent themselves from Communion and the other sacraments.
Francis raised expectations in some Catholic circles this spring of changes to at least some practical details in a “pastoral call” to an Argentine woman who was in such an irregular marriage — her first but to a divorced man.
According to the husband on his Facebook page, Francis said the woman could take Communion. The Vatican hedged, saying Francis’ private conversations “do not in any way form part of the pope’s public activities” and “consequences relating to the teaching of the church are not to be inferred.”
Regardless, some within the church saw the potential of reform as a threat to the concept of traditional Catholic marriage.
The book “Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church” was released in September and contains arguments for keeping the status quo from high-ranking Catholic leaders, including Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American who is prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura.
“They’re against it because, in their way of thinking, marriage is between one man and one woman. It’s indissoluble,” said the Rev. Tom Altepeter, a spokesman for the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, which advocates for the rights of divorced and remarried Catholics.
The disagreement is yet another line dividing Catholics as they meet at the Vatican to consider the church’s stand on family issues, such as birth control and same-sex marriage.
Those “in favor of a reduction, want to see a clearer explanation of the nature of the process of annulling a marriage, so that the faithful will better understand it,” according to documents guiding the discussion among the roughly 200 participants. Others worry that “the action might bolster the mistaken idea that an annulment is simply ‘Catholic divorce.’”
The church’s perspective during the synod is twofold, Father McLaughlin said.
“While I don’t expect Pope Francis and the synod [to decide] that, ‘Oh, by the way, marriage is no longer indissoluble,’ the question is whether there is room for improvement of the annulment process, a man-made process, to arrive at the truth,” Father McLaughlin said. “In the history of the church, I think the process as we currently have it is as user-friendly as we’ve had in the church. Does that mean it could not be further streamlined or tweaked? It could be more user-friendly. It’s certainly open to that possibility.”
Ms. Ferguson said she also felt there was “certainly room within the church for annulment reform.”
But opposition in some quarters remains firm.
“While enthusiasm is great and there’s a lot of people excited about the possibility, I just think it’s realistic to keep in mind that a lot of people within the church are against this idea,” Father Altepeter said.