The Annulment Process and Forgiviness of Abortion: How Pope Francis is Spreading God’s Mercy



In 2015 Pope Francis issued a Papal Bull of Indiction which established the Jubilee Year of Mercy. And while Catholics are pretty used to their Pontiff making headlines, two of his announcements that accompany this year are rather groundbreaking – and perhaps a little confusing to laymen.

The announcements concern the forgiveness of the sin of abortion and changes to the annulment process, respectively. Fr. Kevin Finnegan, the Judicial Vicar for the Diocese, and Fr. Lawrence O’Keefe, the Assistant Judicial Vicar, run the Tribunal Office, which oversees marriage and annulment cases. In this episode, they take a look at each of these important issues and how they impact the Church.

Forgiveness of Abortion

Canon Law holds that any woman who obtains an abortion and anyone who assists in the procurement of an abortion is automatically excommunicated, and must obtain absolution from a bishop before the excommunication can be lifted. A bishop can delegate this faculty to absolve to a priest. In the United States, most American bishops have already delegated this ability to their priests, although the right sits first with the bishop.

In our own Diocese, this power to absolve had already been delegated to priests since the administration of Bishop Hastrich in the late 1980s.

For the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has given all priests worldwide the ability to absolve the excommunication without first obtaining permission from their bishop. The Pope has made it clear that this is a very deliberate act of compassion, because if a woman or man has cooperated in an abortion, it can take an enormous amount of courage to bring this to a priest for forgiveness.

“I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision. What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope. The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the Sacrament of Confession with a sincere heart in order to obtain reconciliation with the Father.” – Pope Francis, January 9, 2015

Permanent Changes to the Annulment Process

The Church defines sacramental marriage as a marriage between two Christians. For example, if two Baptists were married by a Justice of the Peace, and it was a first marriage for both, not only is that a valid marriage, it is a sacramental marriage. If a Catholic is involved, a third condition must be met in order to be sacramental – it must be witnessed by a minister of the church: a bishop, priest, or deacon.

The church wants to uphold the teachings of Jesus on the sanctity and indissolubility of marriage – “what God has joined together, let no man divide.” But He also makes provision for marriages that never should have taken place at all. The question during the annulment process is basically “did God or did He not join these two together in marriage?” And this is where the Church has laid out the various conditions that must be met.

Ultimately, there has been no change in the Church’s teaching on marriage. But because of the concern for mercy for people who find themselves in difficult situations, the Pope asked canonical experts in Rome to see if the procedure for examining marriages could be simplified. This has resulted in simplification in the following 3 areas:

First: A change which applies to the Tribunal Office: there are new rules for determining competence. Competence refers to the right of a particular court to try a case.

  • Example: in civil law, if a man is accused of murder on the Navajo reservation, the courts in Gallup and New Mexico are incompetent to deal with that – it automatically is a federal case that must be tried in federal court. The federal court has competence. The New Mexico State court does not.

So, in the Church, the grounds of competence are simplified in the following way: A tribunal may process a case if the marriage took place in that tribunal’s Diocese, and if either the petitioner or the respondent lives in the Diocese.

Before, if the respondent lived outside the Diocese, permission would have to be obtained from the Diocese where the respondent lived. The Pope has done away with this requirement.

Second: there is no longer a requirement for a second review of a case when there is an affirmative judgment. Before, a case was always sent to another tribunal.

  • Example: if the office in the Diocese of Gallup had judged that there were grounds for an annulment, the case would have been sent to the Diocese of Phoenix for a second review.

Now, the only time a second review will be needed is if the respondent or the Defender of the Bond appeals the Judicial Vicar’s decision. Otherwise, the case is closed and the applicant is free to remarry.

Third: The Pope has specified that in cases where the evidence is very clear, the annulment process should be shortened even further.

  • Example: a very clear-cut case would be one in which a person asks for an annulment on the basis that one or both parties did not intend to be faithful, and there is plenty of evidence and corroboration to back this claim. The judicial vicar could then go to the bishop and ask for the case to be streamlined. If the bishop agrees, the case would then go to an instructor and an assessor (these terms are covered below). They would look over and prepare the case for the bishop by gathering evidence. The bishop would then take the case and look through it himself, and if he was able to achieve moral certitude that the marriage was invalid, he could officially annul it.

There are also certain conditions which have to be met for a valid marriage:

  • there must be freedom of choice for both parties (someone cannot be compelled, forced, or scared against their will into marriage)
  • a person must have the capacity to enter into marriage (the person must fully understand what marriage is and the duties it requires)
  • a person must have the right intention (I intend to enter a Christian marriage; I intend to be faithful; I intend that my marriage is open to children; I intend to live a lifelong marriage, etc.). If any of these intentions are missing, and according to witnesses and evidence it is obvious that one or both parties did not fulfill these intention, then the case may be a candidate for streamlining.

However, most cases are not as clear-cut as this, so a streamlined process would not be used in every case.

All three of these are permanent changes in the Church and in the Canons.

90% of all annulments in the world are granted by tribunals in the United States and this is precisely because the tribunals in the US take marriage so seriously.

How is the responsibility for the process divided?

In the Catholic Church there is a threefold division of power – very similar to the government of the United States: executive, judicial, and legislative. The difference is that in the Church, all three reside in the Bishop.

The executive ability can be delegated, and would go to the Vicar General. The Judicial authority can be delegated to the Judicial Vicar. However, only the Bishop has the power to legislate in the Diocese. In a Diocese, legislation refers to making policies. A Bishop may hear recommendations from a group, like the Presbyteral Council, but he is the only one who can enact procedures and policies.

Along with the Judicial Vicar, the Bishop may receive aid from two other positions in the Tribunal Office: the instructor and the assessor.

  • an instructor gathers the evidence for a case. The Diocese of Gallup has a small Tribunal office, so our equivalent of an instructor would be the tribunal secretary. She gathers evidence, sends letters to witnesses, and files cases.
  • an assessor looks over the gathered information and makes a recommendation as to whether it fits the conditions for a streamlined process. An assessor can be anyone, and they do not have to have a degree in Canon Law, although they do have to have experience and education in Canon Law. It really requires someone with good knowledge and judgment. They also must be appointed by the Bishop.

Despite Bishops being able to delegate, Pope Francis has indicated that he wishes them to maintain a role in the judicial side of things, and this means taking an interest in the tribunal office and annulment process.

In our own Diocese

The time between the Pope’s announcement and the beginning of the Year of Mercy is known as a vicatio lagis, a “pause of the law”. This gave Canonists time to understand the new changes and make plans to implement them. In the Diocese, Fr. O’Keefe and Fr. Kevin met with Bishop Wall and planned out their own implementation.

This also gave Canonists time to get an instructor and an assessor in place for any streamlined cases.

Ultimately, these issues cannot be separated from the Pope’s call for compassion. Pope Francis has stated that “We live in a savage world”, where there is little mercy evident. And yet mercy is at the heart of the Scriptures and the Gospel. In his Encyclical, Pope Francis moves through the Old Testament, the Psalms, and the Prophets, always making note of the references to God’s mercy and compassion. He means to underline an essential teaching about God, and to stand in contrast to a world that turns away from mercy.

“The Canonist must have always before his eyes the salvation of souls, which is always the supreme law of the church.” – The Final­ Code of Canon Law


Featured image: “Confessional”, Emilio Labrador


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