Pope Francis has been busy recently reworking some basic Catholic rules and procedures. On September 1, the Vatican announced the pope has changed some rules for confession (also called reconciliation or penance), one of the seven Catholic sacraments. Then, on September 8, Francis released two letters (both called a motu proprio, or “on his own impulse”) regarding annulments, which are rulings of nullity on Catholic marriages.
Francis has a reputation for shaking things up within the Catholic Church, and both of the recent announcements make it easy to see why. Below are answers to the most important questions about the rule changes.
1. What Exactly Changed?
Pope Francis, by virtue of his office as pope, changed who can give absolution to women who have procured an abortion. He also extended valid confessions to priests in the Society of St. Pius X, or SSPX, whom the Vatican considers to be in limbo. In his other announcements, the pope modified the annulment process.
Previous to this change, if a woman who had undergone an abortion wanted to go to confession, she would have had to confess directly to a bishop or to a priest who had received permission from the local bishop to absolve her and other post-abortive women.
This may sound complicated, but it stems from the importance the Catholic Church places on the sanctity of life and the deep moral and spiritual consequences of violating that sanctity. The church considers abortion such a grave sin that to procure one or carry one out incurs excommunication latae sententiae, or automatically. Thus, returning to the church requires extraordinary ecclesiastical authority, which is why a bishop or a bishop’s permission is necessary. Francis’ rule change expands that authority to ordinary priests.
The case of SSPX is a more complicated. The society broke away from the church in the 1970s, when they believed the changes the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) facilitated were harming the church. Then, in the 1980s, they consecrated bishops against the direct orders of Pope John Paul II, which triggered their excommunication (which Pope Benedict XVI lifted in 2009).
Because SSPX is considered in limbo, they are not considered licit by the Vatican, meaning the sacraments they perform and the Masses they celebrate are not in communion with Rome, even though they are performed in a way acceptable to the church. Francis modified SSPX’s relationship with Rome by considering absolution given by SSPX priests as licit and valid — just like absolution given by priests who are in full communion with Rome.
Secondly, the pope made some modifications to the annulment process. He confirmed that one judgement of nullity is satisfactory (it previously used to take two judgements for a marriage to be considered null), emphasized the importance of the bishop by placing him at the center of annulment proceedings, created a more streamlined process for annulments in especially clear cases, and changed the appeals process. For a more in-depth reading, a good reference is Jimmy Akin’s Q&A.
2. Aren’t Annulments Basically a Catholic Divorce?
No, they’re not. A decree of annulment is a determination that a valid marriage never existed in the first place. Divorce, on the other hand, is the dissolution of a marriage.
The main reason that a Catholic marriage may be declared null is if it is not contracted freely and with consent. The lack of consent could be the result of coercion or grave fear. Such a determination would have to be made by the “proper ecclesiastical authority.”
3. Do These Changes Have to Do with the Pope’s Visit to the United States?
Maybe, but not much. As I explain in the next question, all of these changes were most likely announced in preparation for the Holy Year of Mercy. Francis has not spoken as much about abortion as he has on other issues, which has drawn criticism from conservative Catholics, but the rhetoric of his announcement fits things he has said in the past:
The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails. Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe they have no other option. I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision. What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope. The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the Sacrament of Confession with a sincere heart in order to obtain reconciliation with the Father.
Nonetheless, when the pope visits the United States he will probably avoid too many specifics of the American culture wars and try to “be a pastor,” as Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington DC said. As for the changes to the annulment process, they take effect on December 8, 2015 — the same day the Year of Mercy begins.
4. Are These Changes Permanent?
Yes and no. The changes to the annulment process will remain in effect until and unless a future pope (or Francis himself) changes the rules once more. The rules regarding abortion and confession are not permanent. They will only be in effect during the Holy Year, which concludes on November 20, 2016. Francis could extend these provisions, but as of now they are temporary.
Francis announced all of these modifications in preparation for the Holy Year of Mercy that begins on December 8. Mercy has been a central theme of Francis’ papacy, so much so that he very publicly went to confession and heard confessions from the public at the 2013 World Youth Day in Brazil. Thus, despite the unexpected nature of these announcements, they fit in perfectly with Francis’ papacy.