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Francis to create reformed annulment process Tuesday, stressing mercy

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Vatican City

Pope Francis will be decreeing Tuesday new reformed procedures for those seeking annulments of marriages in the Catholic church, in his latest move to emphasize God’s merciful nature less than one month before the opening of a hotly anticipated global meeting of Catholic bishops on family life.

The pontiff will be reforming the procedures with two decrees known as motu proprios, the Vatican announced in a brief press note Monday. The decrees will be made public during a press conference at mid-day in Rome Tuesday.

While the content of the reformed procedures is unknown, the announced names of the two decrees -- given in Latin as Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus and Mitis et misericors Iesus -- suggest the reforms put a special focus on Jesus’ qualities of being merciful and meek.

An annulment in the Catholic church is a decree from a church tribunal that a marriage between two persons was invalidly contracted. Such a decree is often sought by persons who are seeking to celebrate a different marriage.

The process to procure an annulment has been under special consideration in the past year, following the discussions of a worldwide meeting of bishops known as a Synod of Bishops.

Francis has called two back-to-back synods for 2014 and 2015, to focus on issues facing families in contemporary society. The discussions have centered partly on the Catholic church’s pastoral practice towards those who have divorced and remarried without first obtaining annulments, who are currently prohibited from taking communion in the church.

Announcement of the reform of the annulment process comes with unusual speed for the Vatican, as the pope only first appointed a commission to study the matter in August 2014.

The 2015 synod will be held in Rome Oct. 4-25 and is expected to see hundreds of Catholic bishops converge from around the world for the discussions.

The Vatican said Monday that six prelates will present the new annulment procedures during a press conference Tuesday and that the full text of the decrees will be made publicly available at 12:30 PM in Rome.

Among those presenting Tuesday will be:

  • Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto, who led the special commission appointed by Francis to study annulment reform and is also the dean of the Roman Rota, the highest appellate tribunal in the Catholic church beyond the pope himself;
  • Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts;
  • Dimitri Salachas, the Apostolic Exarch of the Greek Byzantine Catholic Church;
  • Archbishop Luis Ladaria, the secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith;
  • Msgr. Alejandro Bunge, a prelate auditor of the Roman Rota; and,
  • Franciscan Fr. Nikolaus Schöch, the Substitute Promotor of Justice of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest judicial authority in the Catholic church.

Francis has pointedly spoken several times about his desire for reform of the church’s annulment process, which has been criticized by some for being too costly and taking too much time to come to a final decision for the persons involved.

In January, the pontiff told the jurists of the Roman Rota in a special audience that the process should be free and that the judges should not “lock the salvation of persons within the straits of legalism.”

"This is a point I want to emphasize: the sacraments are free," the pope said then.

"The sacraments give us grace," said Francis. A marriage proceeding, like an annulment, "touches on the sacrament of marriage," he said.

"How I wish all marriage proceedings were free of charge!" he added.

In November 2014, Francis made similar remarks in a meeting with diocesan officials and canon lawyers participating in a course offered by the Rota.

"Some procedures are so long and so burdensome, they don't favor [justice], and people give up," the pope said then. "Mother church should do justice and say: 'Yes, it's true, your marriage is null. No, your marriage is valid.' But justice means saying so. That way, they can move on without this doubt, this darkness in their soul."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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