[To paraphrase Shakespeare: “A divorce by any other name is an annulment”; hat-tip to Canon212: “FAST, FREE, MERCIFUL FRANCISANNULMENT CASELOAD SKYROCKETS IN SCRANTON!”]
BY DAVID SINGLETON / PUBLISHED: SEPTEMBER 9, 2016
The number of marriage annulment petitions filed in the Diocese of Scranton so far this year already exceeds the 2015 total and is on track to be the highest in years.
The spike coincides with Canon Law revisions Pope Francis made last September aimed at simplifying and speeding up an annulment process many Catholics found complicated and plodding. The new standards, including elimination of administrative processing fees, took effect Dec. 8, the start of the church’s Year of Mercy.
Figures released by the diocese show divorced Catholics initiated 171 annulment cases between Jan. 1 and Aug. 19, compared to 164 for all of last year.
If the pace continues — at an average of just over five new cases per week — the year-end total will approach 270. That would easily be the most since at least 2010, the earliest year for which the diocese provided totals.
Since December, the diocese has experienced a “significant increase” in both annulment petitions accepted by the Diocesan Tribunal and requests for paperwork to start the process, diocesan spokesman William Genello said in an email.
The paperwork requests in particular have soared since a reminder about the fee waiver and the more “user-friendly” annulment process started appearing in parish bulletins across the 11-county diocese earlier this summer, he said.
It would be difficult to say the increase is being driven by elimination of the fee, which was typically $500, but people who have asked “are delighted to hear a processing fee is no longer required,” Genello said.
An annulment is the process by which an ecclesiastical court — the tribunal — determines whether a marriage thought to be valid according to church law was in fact not spiritually binding because it lacked one or more essential elements, leading to a finding known as a declaration of nullity.
Because the church believes marriage is a lifelong bond, a divorced Catholic who remarries without the benefit of an annulment is not permitted to receive communion or participate in some other sacraments.
The Rev. Anthony J. Generose, J.C.L., diocesan judicial vicar and episcopal vicar of administrative canonical processes, said the revisions streamlined certain procedures.
For example, it is now easier for a tribunal to establish competence, or jurisdiction, over a case at the outset, he said. In addition, the requirement for a second, higher court — in the diocese’s case, at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia — to review and ratify a declaration of nullity has been dropped.
In the diocese, the changes have shortened the time-frame for an annulment by about a month to six weeks. The Rev. Generose said that means a process that previously took nine months to a year can now be completed in as little as seven or eight months.
What has not changed, he said, is the church’s teaching that marriages are permanent.
“The whole notion of this process, as inspired by the Year of Mercy, is not intended to say that as an expression of our mercy, we are giving annulments away,” he said. “If you look at the new norms and the articles behind them and the pope’s inspiration for doing this, we still believe in the indissolubility of the marriage.”
The mercy comes in meeting people at the point they are in their lives, he said.
“You have to take people where they’re at,” The Rev. Generose said. “It is to be able to give them mercy as we deal with the circumstances of their lives in truth and justice.”
Some people have asked the diocese whether changes instituted in December will end when the Year of Mercy ends, Genello said. They won’t.
“The new norms are a matter of Canon Law and will remain in force even after the conclusion of the Year of Mercy,” he said.