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I’ll leave it to others more knowledgeable than I to assess the changes Pope Francis announced this morning with respect to the procedure for granting annulments. To an outsider, the changes certainly seem sweeping. Francis has eliminated the requirement that two tribunals agree to grant an annulment—a kind of mandatory appeal procedure. Now, the ruling of only one tribunal will suffice. Moreover, unlike in the past, the tribunal need not contain an expert in canon law. Indeed, the number of judges on the tribunal has been reduced from three to one.

In addition, the reforms greatly expand the authority of the local bishop to grant annulments. (For what it’s worth, in my own Armenian Orthodox Church, divorces—we don’t have annulments—are handled by the local bishop in a more or less informal process). If there is an appeal from a tribunal’s decision, the local bishop will hear it, rather than church courts in Rome—though a second appeal would go to Rome. In some cases, where grounds for annulment are “evident,” the bishop can grant an annulment in an even more expedited process. Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh told the Washington Post that Francis’s granting these powers to local bishops is “the most-far reaching reform to the Church’s nullity process in 300 years.”

As I say, I will leave it for others to assess the effect of all this—whether the benefits that come from streamlining the process outweigh the danger that unwilling people, who don’t want their marriages annulled, will be railroaded—and what the impact will be for the upcoming synod on the family. As to that, my guess is that some of the heat has been taken off. It would only be reasonable to wait to see how these new reforms work before tackling other neuralgic issues, like communion for divorced and remarried Catholics who have not received annulments. But, as I say, I’m an outsider.

There is one thing that strikes me, however, as a professor at a Catholic law school. As a result of the new, streamlined process, canon law will be even less important to the lives of most American Catholics than it already is. In America, anyway, canon law is, in practice, mostly a matter of marriage annulments. If you don’t need canon law for that, what do you need it for? Chad Pecknold tells the Washington Post that many of his canon-lawyer friends are thinking of a new line of work. No wonder.

I do wish the Vatican had considered all this. Do they have any idea how hard it is to convince American law students to take canon law? And haven’t they heard about the employment crisis for American lawyers?

Mark Movsesian is the Frederick A. Whitney Professor of Contract Law and the Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University School of Law. His previous blog posts can be found here.

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