The Catholic Church doesn’t recognize divorce, even though, according to a Pew Poll released last week, one in four American Catholics has gone through with one. The accepted out has long been annulment, though the process can be complicated and costly. On Tuesday, Pope Francis announced new procedures that aim to make it easier for Catholics to obtain these “declarations of nullity.” Like most of the pope’s announcements, they effect little actual change. As the New York Times noted, “The new rules demonstrate Francis’ approach to his papacy: change procedures and tone, so as to attract people back to the church, without changing doctrine.”
But also like most of the pope’s announcements, this one draws attention to an important issue—and in this case, that’s great news for religious women. The process of getting a marriage annulment through the church involves two trials and various other cumbersome procedures that can take more than a year to complete. While this affects both men and women, as the Times pointed out earlier this year, “Women in particular expressed unhappiness at feeling interrogated by church tribunals during the annulment process about failed marriages, especially when abusive or adulterous husbands precipitated the breakup.” The new rules, which take effect on Dec. 8, are expected to speed up cases and will eliminate the second church trial.
As always, there are kinks to work out, and the new rule doesn’t actually encourage the nullity of marriage. The idea is, as the pope explained in his announcement, the “expedition of trials, as well as a just simplification.” But there are still many restrictions to the process and only certain marriage are eligible for annulment, as the Atlantic points out: ones that aren’t conducted properly, ones that suffer from an “impediment” (such as the spouses being too closely related), and ones that suffer from defective consent. As a result, the new rule will mostly help in situations in which neither spouse contests the annulment.
It doesn’t directly address those situations in which one spouse wants out of a marriage—and wants to stay connected to the church—and the other doesn’t; this second kind of scenario is how annulment is typically used in Orthodox Jewish circles, where divorce is permitted but only men have the power to grant it.
You may remember when news broke two years ago that Orthodox women were hiring a gang of rabbis to kidnap and beat up their husbands because the men wouldn’t grant them divorces. But there’s a more popular—and safer—solution to the problem of agunot, or chained women, whose husbands won’t give them divorces: You can find ways to annul the marriage. In the past year, Rabbi Simcha Krauss has resolved nearly 20 cases this way. He’s introduced the idea of a get zikui, or annulling a marriage based on what is best for both parties. But Krauss isn’t the first to try to make annulment a mainstream solution: In the 1990s, a rabbi unsuccessfully tried to issue annulments on the idea of kiddushei ta’ot, a Talmudic concept that the woman never would have married her husband if she’d known he would be abusive.
While working in a religious context, it’s important to conform to the laws as they are observed, but the idea of annulment is essentially a loophole in its own right. If you dig deep enough in any of these weddings, you will likely find a problem big enough to merit annulment. The same is true for “declarations of nullity.” The grounds for “defective consent” are wide-ranging, with the result that ultimately anyone can find a reason to annul. In these contexts, religion is imprisoning people in marriages in the name of—well, it’s not clear what—so the more accessible you can make an annulment, the better.
With both nullity of marriage through the Catholic Church and annulments in Orthodox Judaism, women are the ones who gain the most power in the process. The pope hopes that the new rule will deter people who want to divorce from leaving the church. The same is true with agunot—often the parties in question will have a civil divorce; they’re just waiting for the religious corollary. In an ideal world, women wouldn’t have to fight to be free of marriages that they don’t want to be a part of anymore. But when divorce is not an option for them, annulment is the best way to preserve the sanctity of marriage.