Pope Francis speaks during an audience in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican on Sept. 5, 2015.  (Angelo Carconi/European Pressphoto Agency)

Pope Francis Tuesday will announce reforms to the Catholic Church’s marriage annulment process, the Vatican said Monday, changes experts predicted will help streamline it  – not theological shifts in how the church understands marriage and divorce. However, some theologians speculated Francis had made the surprise announcement now in order to clear the decks for a major church meeting in October when broader debates will happen about how the church views sin and remarriage.

[Update: Pope Francis simplifies marriage annulment process for Catholics]

The Vatican said nothing about what kind of changes will be announced during the midday – Rome time – news conference. However the titles of the two decrees, Latin for “The Gentle Judge, The Lord Jesus” and “The Meek and Merciful Jesus,” led experts to believe Francis is seeking to make life easier for Catholics who civilly divorce and remarry outside it to stay in the church.

Francis set the stage for these discussions soon after becoming pope and has scheduled next month’s major meeting, called a synod, in order to open dialogue about hot-button family issues such as the place of remarried and gay Catholics in the church.

The issue of divorce and remarriage is seen as a major stumbling block for Catholics in some parts of the world. The Catholic Church teaches that marriages can never be dissolved, and in order to have a second church-approved wedding you have to get a church court to nullify your first marriage, or say it wasn’t fully legitimate to begin with. Catholics who don’t receive an annulment cannot receive Communion.

One in four U.S. Catholics have gone through a divorce, and polls show half disagree that getting remarried civilly without an annulment is a sin (35 percent think it is).

At his weekly audience at the Vatican on Aug. 5, Pope Francis told his followers that divorced Catholics who choose to remarry should not be treated as if they were "excommunicated." (Reuters)

Several theologians Monday predicted that the changes coming Tuesday would be tweaks that Francis sees as less controversial – including possibly making annulments free of cost or ending a church law change from the 1980’s that requires officials from two dioceses to approve an annulment.

“Certainly Pope John Paul and Benedict wanted to tighten the way people got annulments. They thought it was too easy,” said Monsignor Kevin Irwin, a professor at the School of Theology and Religious Studies at Catholic University. “Maybe Francis is going to take [that additional layer] away.”

The debate Monday was this: If Francis is taking care of less controversial changes in rules around divorces and annulments now, what broader issues might he have in mind for the synod?

Irwin speculated that perhaps Francis would host a meeting that debated what the Catholic Church has for centuries considered the “indissolubility” of marriage. He noted that Orthodox Christianity sees divorce and the end of marriage as sinful – but a sin that can be overcome through penance.

It’s possible, he said, that such conversations will happen in October in Rome.

Patrick Hornbeck, chair of the theology department at Fordham University, predicted Francis will not open the door to the idea that marriages can be dissolved, but may focus on ways to bring people who do remarry outside the church back to Communion – a core ritual of Catholic life.

“It doesn’t mean they’d be saying divorce and remarriage [outside the church] isn’t sinful, but there is a way to reconciliation despite that,” Hornbeck said.

Francis has spoken several times of the need to reform annulments, as Catholics have complained that the process can take time and money to obtain one before they can take Communion again.

“The sacraments give us grace,” he said earlier this year to jurists of the church’s final court of appeals for annulments. “And a marriage proceeding” — like an annulment — “touches on the sacrament of marriage.”

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

Irwin said Francis may also be considering expanding church-approved grounds for annulments to include a Catholic’s lack of knowledge of the annulment process and meaning.

Irwin said that when Francis was in Buenos Aires, the then-archbishop realized that a huge percent of people were in a second marriage outside the church. “He thought, ‘Maybe they don’t know the process.’”

Robert Kaslyn, dean of the School of Canon Law at Catholic University, said that the committee working on the annulments issue is pretty diverse, so it’s difficult to predict what could come on Tuesday.

Ahead of his visit to the U.S. later this month, Pope Francis encouraged women who have had an abortions to seek forgiveness from any priest during an upcoming “year of mercy.”

 

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Pope Francis says he will give all priests discretion to formally forgive women who have had abortions and seek absolution during the Catholic Church's special "year of mercy." (Reuters)