Watch the news and you might get the impression that Pope Francis is changing the Church doctrine. Church practice can and has been changed over the years, but doctrine cannot be changed.
Should the rules about families, marriage and divorce be changed to make the Church more compassionate? To be Catholic or universal, the 'rules' have to apply worldwide. The so-called 'rules' are not to punish but are to echo what Jesus taught about marriage.
Here is what the Church has traditionally taught about marriage, divorce and annulments.
Marriage as a Sacrament
The Catholic Church teaches that marriage is sacred. When a baptized man and a baptized woman are joined in marriage, it is considered a sacrament. The Catholic Church considers baptisms to be valid even though they took place in a church other than the Catholic Church as long as the baptism is in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Therefore, marriage between a baptized Baptist or Presbyterian person and a Catholic is also considered a sacrament. A sacrament cannot be 'undone' and so marriage, like baptism, is considered indissoluble. Even when the persons are not baptized, a marriage is a covenant when a man and a woman freely express informed consent, with no constraints. Even though the law of a country may allow divorce, the Church does not.
A person who obtains a divorce according to civil law is not said to have 'sinned' nor are they excommunicated from the Church. A civilly-divorced person remains a Catholic and can partake in the sacraments of Holy Communion. A problem only arises when a divorced person remarries because the Church considers the person already married, although living apart from the spouse.
A Catholic, who is divorced in a civil court and remarries again (without obtaining an annulment), is contravening the law and plan of God. He or she is not separated from the Church but, remaining in this state, they can no longer partake of Holy Communion.
In these cases, one can apply for an annulment. An annulment declares that the marriage in question was not valid. It is not concerned with the civil contract of the marriage, and so the children are not declared illegitimate. Of course, to declare that a marriage is not valid, a careful and thorough investigation must take place beforehand. A Marriage Tribunal is a group of people who have been chosen by that Diocese to investigate marriages and who are knowledgeable in Canon and marriage law.
Grounds for Annulments
Some of the grounds for an annulment are:
-The existence of an impediment to the marriage, such as a previous marriage that is still valid, religious vows or a close blood relationship between the couple.
-one of the persons suffered or suffers a psychological incapacity, such as a serious mental illness, at the time of the marriage.
-psychological immaturity which prevented one or both persons of understanding the nature of the marriage. An example would be a teenage couple who marry because the girl is pregnant and they have not thought about the seriousness of the commitment.
-one or both persons have been coerced to marry against their will.
-the intention of one of the couple to marry for reasons other than a lifelong commitment and intending to divorce later. One example would be a person marrying someone to obtain citizenship or a visa who is planning to obtain a divorce in the future.
-one of the persons marrying without the intention of having children.
If a baptized Catholic who has married outside the Church, without a priest and two witnesses, the marriage is considered invalid. No annulment is needed in this case.
The Marriage Tribunal considers each case separately, and the above list only gives a few examples of reasons an annulment may be granted. Note that not all applications for an annulment are granted.
Steps for Obtaining an Annulment
1. The couple should first take all possible steps (such as counselling) to save their marriage before applying for an annulment.
2. Contact your parish priest who will direct you to the next steps and the application process.
3. Details about courtship, wedding, relationship and breakdown of the marriage are provided to the representative from the Marriage Tribunal in your Diocese. You will be asked to pay a fee for administrative costs, but finances should never be an obstacle to obtaining an annulment. The Diocese should offer options for financial assistance. Pope Francis has taken steps recently to simplify the application for annulments.
4. You will be asked to provide names of two or three witnesses who can verify your information.
5. An advocate, a cleric or layperson, will be appointed by the Tribunal to safeguard the rights of the couple in the court process. A Defender of the Bond, who defends the marriage bond, is also appointed by the Tribunal.
6. The petition is submitted to the Tribunal and, having looked at all the information, they decide each case on its own merits. Their decision is submitted to another diocese to review before the applicant is informed. This process can take a few months or even years, and if the marriage does not contravene any of the requirements, an annulment will not be granted.
Annulments by the Catholic Church are, therefore, quite different than a civil divorce.
There is a move to make divorced and remarried persons feel more welcomed by the Church. However, divorced and remarried persons cannot receive Communion without first being granted an annulment. This has not changed.