The predicament of divorced and remarried Catholics will be a major topic of discussion when bishops from around the world meet at the Vatican in October 2014.
The Vatican announced Oct. 8 that an extraordinary session of the Synod of Bishops will meet Oct. 5- 19, 2014, to discuss the “pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.” For some in the U.S., the announcement was read as a signal that Pope Francis had some changes in mind for church teaching on divorce, declarations of nullity and remarriage and when Catholics could receive the Eucharist.
In the context of the worldwide church, the problem of pastoral care for married couples and those who are divorced or remarried is a significant issue because the United States is unique in the number of well-staffed tribunals serving dioceses here, according to Sister of Mercy Victoria Vondenberger, director of the archdiocesan Tribunal.
“In some countries, like those in South America where Pope Francis is from, they have trouble finding staff for (the most basic) pastoral functions, she said. “The church is always going to defend the ideal of a lifetime commitment,” when it comes to marriage. Changing that is not possible.”
The pope had told reporters accompanying him on his plane back from Rio de Janeiro in July that the next synod would explore a “somewhat deeper pastoral care of marriage,” including the question of the eligibility of divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.
Pope Francis added at the time that church law governing marriage annulments also “has to be reviewed, because ecclesiastical tribunals are not sufficient for this...”
But, Sister Victoria said, speeding up the process may be possible. “By Canon Law, the process should take a year to 18 months. Sometimes cases are more complicated but that time line is customary.”
Catholics can come to the Tribunal seeking help after a civil divorce and it is usually understood to be the mechanism for receiving a declaration of nullity for a marriage. Sometimes the case is simple. If a Catholic marries an unbaptized non-Catholic, by Canon Law, the marriage is not valid so it’s relatively easy to get a declaration of nullity (“annulment” is an incorrect term.)
But other cases require the collection of testimony and sometimes it takes many months to find an individual named in a case. The October 2014 gathering will be an “extraordinary general session” of the synod, which according to the Code of Canon Law is held to “deal with matters which require a speedy solution.”
By Steve Trosley (Catholic News Service contributed to this report.)