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Correction to This Article
A Feb. 9 article about the Vatican's revised guidelines on marriage annulments incorrectly said that divorced Roman Catholics are prohibited from taking Communion. Under Catholic Church law, civil divorce does not bar a person from receiving Communion. A person who has divorced and remarried without obtaining an annulment is prohibited from receiving Communion.

Vatican Alters Guidance on Annulments

Update Follows Warnings About Threats to Marriage

By Daniel Williams and Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 9, 2005; Page A16

ROME, Feb. 8 -- The Vatican issued revised and slightly streamlined procedures Tuesday for Roman Catholics to annul marriages but urged church tribunals to apply the rules more stringently. Church officials said an increase in annulments reflected a contemporary mentality of easy divorce that threatens the institution of marriage.

The revisions do not change the limited justifications for annulment, which is a ruling by a church tribunal that a marriage never existed. Although some procedures have been slightly liberalized, Vatican officials said the rules are mainly designed to make it easier to determine whether an annulment should be granted.


Cardinal Julian Herranz, speaking at the Vatican, said annulment cases "can be easily misunderstood." (Max Rossi -- Reuters)

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Vatican officials said that annulment procedures must not, even in appearance, contribute to matrimony's decline. "In the context of a divorce mentality, even canon annulment cases can be easily misunderstood, as if they were nothing more than ways to obtain a divorce with the blessing of the church," Cardinal Julian Herranz, who heads the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, told reporters.

Pope John Paul II and other church leaders have repeatedly cited civil divorce, hedonism, artificial insemination and demands by gay men and lesbians for marriage rights as threats to traditional marriage.

The Catholic Church prohibits divorce -- the dissolution of a valid marriage -- but permits annulment in special cases. Grounds include evidence that one or both of the partners lacked the mental capacity to marry, hid information on infertility, impotence or a previous marriage, or married under threat.

Titled "Dignity of Marriage," the 111-page guide is the work of Vatican courts and departments concerned with defending church dogma. It took 10 years to compile. The guidelines update a compendium issued in 1936 and are based on the church's 1983 code of canon law.

The U.S. church generates by far the biggest share of annulment requests. Many are filed because people who have obtained civil divorces want to remarry in the Catholic Church, an act prohibited by the church unless the earlier marriage is voided. Divorced people are also prohibited from taking communion.

Vatican officials estimate that in 2002, the most recent year for which statistics are available, about 70 percent of all annulment requests were made in the United States. Worldwide, more than 56,000 Catholics requested annulments; 46,000 were granted. "Requests have jumped enormously in the last decades," said Bishop Velasio De Paolis, a Vatican court official. As recently as 1968, fewer than 350 annulments were granted in the United States.

Eleven days ago, in a speech to the Roman Rota, the Vatican's appeals court, John Paul launched a salvo against the easy granting of annulments. Marital problems are not enough to declare that a marriage never happened, he said. "In the name of alleged pastoral needs, voices have been raised to propose that unions that have totally failed be declared invalid," the pontiff said. "Individual or collective interests can induce the parties to take recourse to forms of falsehood and even corruption."

Last fall, Joaquin Llobel, an instructor in church law at Rome's Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, told Vatican Radio that the treatment of annulment requests was wildly uneven around the world. "Some poor countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia do not even have ecclesiastical courts" to consider the requests, he said. In other countries, he said, established tribunals "equate failure of marriage with its nullity."

A rule in the new document makes an annulment slightly easier to obtain by allowing a church appeals court to uphold an annulment grant by a lower court even if the appeals court's conclusion differs slightly from the original tribunal's on why the marriage should be voided. On the other hand, the new rules still require an appeals court to rule even if all parties and the initial tribunal agree that an annulment is permissible.

The document disappointed some American Catholics who had hoped that the Vatican would dramatically tighten the rules. "In America we are swamped by a culture that treats marriage very lightly," said Charles Molineaux of McLean, who belongs to a lay group devoted to defending church orthodoxy. "The church is supposed to be confronting the culture, not floating with it."

The document also disappointed people who had hoped for procedures that would encourage truthfulness and promote healing after a marriage is annulled. Pierre Hegy, a professor of sociology at Adelphi University in New York, said the current rules result in deception, including self-deception by formerly married couples.

Among American Catholics, one of the most frequently invoked grounds for an annulment is "psychic incompetence," meaning that one or both of the spouses did not fully understand the meaning of marriage at the time of their wedding.

Hegy said he has spoken to many American Catholics who say they understood the meaning of marriage but felt compelled to lie when they went before a tribunal. Getting an annulment "can be a very healing procedure for some people," Hegy said. "But it is not for most."

Michael G. Lawler, professor of theology at Creighton University, a Jesuit school in Omaha, said the U.S. Catholic hierarchy has been operating for more than a decade under "experimental" rules that allow annulments for psychic incompetence or immaturity. Those rules are not widely accepted in other countries.

Almost every U.S. diocese has established tribunals with canon lawyers to consider annulments, he said. The U.S. waiting period is typically 10 to 14 months. In Europe, where relatively few dioceses have such tribunals, waits of several years are common.

Cooperman reported from Washington.


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