Annulments and Change

Martin E. Marty

September 14, 2015
“Annulments” turned up in many a recent headline in print and on blogs, referencing a new papal action. To anticipate a united response is to miss the dynamics of contemporary bi-polar Catholicism.

One typical headline-and-subheading summarized the issue and framed it in completely unsurprising ways:  Pope Francis Simplifies Rules on Marriage Annulments / His more conciliatory approach to family issues isn't likely to please church conservatives. 

What the Pope and hierarchy do about their annulments-problem is their business. Ours is to join other commentators in trying to provide a framework for understanding the case.

“Easy,” as in “Easier” annulments encourages moderate or “progressive” Catholics who have long chafed in the context of current canon law.

Their antecedents, whom we first met at the Second Vatican Council, did more than chafe. They tried to build a case against it, often by pointing to time-wasting, money-wasting, and patience-wasting mischief and scandal in the settling of efforts by Catholic couples to have their marriages annulled.

Cynicism often crowded out patience, and many, as they left marriages, suffered, or left the Church. Something had to be done. If moderates were pressing for “easier” rules, timings, and procedures, the “traditionalists,” as the headline showed, wanted the old procedures and practices to prevail once more.

It is easy to recognize why they are upset: The new rules which were foreseen and chartered last Tuesday were a challenge to the old ways, and thus were obviously an offense and goad to counteraction, whatever good that would now do.

What to the Pope is one more “act of mercy” (in the words of the pontiff) looks merciless to them.

Since Sightings does not advise the Pope and its counsel has not been solicited, we are prompted only to reflect on the meaning of such actions and suggest contexts for interpreting the reactions. We historians deal constantly with change, and this one for years has organized his thinking around three classic observations, which I will italicize.

First, from Irish statesman Edmund Burke to characterize the opinions and stands of traditionalists: “If it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”

Second, those who welcome the revised approach counter this with a recognition, sometimes motivated by empathy but often issuing in sneers, in a line informed by Anglican theologian Richard Hooker: “All change is inconveniencing, including from worse to better.”

Third, seekers of annulments, care-worn priest-counselors, and fed-up administrators of marriage-, divorce-, and annulment-canons, side with the great Cardinal John Henry Newman, our third figure: To grow is to change, and to grow much is to change often.

Pope Francis is ready to enact change when he finds it necessary (and potentially salutary). He is aware that even subtle changes—and the annulment ruling is not subtle—if they are to make things better, will inconvenience the resisters.

What is clear is that, in his mind and view, the changes he suggests, usually with nothing more than his gestures, often through his comments, and now and then—and this is a “now”—through action, is to help the Church and its members to grow.


Rocca, Francis X. “Pope Francis Simplifies Rules on Marriage Annulments: His more conciliatory approach to family issues isn’t likely to please church conservatives.” Wall Street Journal, September 8, 2015, World.

Nazaryan, Alexander. “Is The Pope Catholic? Yes, But You Wouldn’t Know It From His Press Clips.” Newsweek, September 10, 2015, World.

Gallagher, Delia and Daniel Burke. “Pope Francis makes annulment of marriages cheaper and easier.” CNN, September 8, 2015, Money.

Yardley, Jim and Elisabetta Povoledo. “Pope Francis Announces Changes for Easier Marriage Annulments.” New York Times, September 8, 2015, Europe.

Ohlheiser, Abby, Michelle Boorstein, and Sarah Pulliam Bailey. “Pope Francis announces biggest changes to annulment process in centuries.” Washington Post, September 8, 2015, Acts of Faith.

Faiola, Anthony. “Conservative dissent is brewing inside the Vatican.” Washington Post, September 7, Europe.

Paulson, Michael. “As Vatican Revisits Divorce, Many Catholics Long for Acceptance.” New York Times, January 24, 2015, U.S.

Reese, Thomas. “Simplified annulment process coming from synod.” National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2014, Synod on the Family.

Mullen, William. “Annulment Issue Is Dividing Catholics.” Chicago Tribune, October 18, 1993.

Image: Newlywed couples attend Pope Francis' Weekly General Audience (Sept. 9, 2015); Credit: L'Osservatore Romano / Pool Photo via AP.

0.jpegAuthor, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at



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