updated 2/8/2005 3:59:07 PM ET 2005-02-08T20:59:07

The Vatican has revised its guidelines on marriage annulments, acknowledging some abuses and saying Monday that it wants the practice that some critics have dubbed “Catholic divorce” handled in a more serious way.

Publication of the compendium of canon law aspects about marriage comes on the heels of the most recent criticism by Pope John Paul II, who complained that annulments are too easily obtained and expressed worry that tribunals face the risk of corruption.

“In the context of a divorce mentality, even canon processes of annulment cases can be easily misunderstood, as if they weren’t anything more than ways to obtain a divorce with the blessing of the church,” said Cardinal Julian Herranz, head of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, who presented the new guidelines to reporters.

For Catholics who want to remarry, annulment is their only hope of being able to do so in the church, which forbids divorce.

Among the reasons church tribunals grant annulments are impotence, refusal by a spouse to have children, and psychological immaturity at the time of saying “I do.”

Critics of the annulment process contend the last reason is frequently interpreted too loosely. They also suggest U.S. diocesan tribunals are too generous in embracing canon law loopholes, pointing to the lopsided statistics: annulments decreed by U.S. dioceses account for roughly two-thirds of all those granted worldwide to faithful.

“Nobody misses the fact that human frailty can make it possible that true justice didn’t happen in a specific case or that it didn’t come swiftly,” the cardinal said, acknowledging flaws in the church’s system.

But the church is determined, Herranz said, “to persevere in the intent to improve handling both in terms of seriousness and swiftness ... and to render all the tribunal’s decisions more harmonious.”

At John Paul’s orders, experts compiled aspects of revised canon law and interpretations of the last two decades by Church courts but added no new rules. The previous such compendium dates to 1936.

Asked by a reporter about the high number of U.S.-granted annulments, the Spanish cardinal said it was too early to tell if following the updated guidelines would mean fewer of them.

The new instructions for tribunals “are aimed at ascertaining the truth” about marriages, Herranz said. “Results will be decided case by case. I can’t predict” if annulments will be harder to obtain.

Church observers note that while U.S. annulment cases far outnumber those in other countries, American dioceses have been far more diligent in setting up tribunals.

“Dignity of Marriage” — the title of the compendium — notes in some cases the tribunals can’t keep up with the annulment cases and urges bishops in dioceses with no marriage tribunals to set them up, appointing competent lay people if necessary.

In 2002, Vatican officials said, tribunals worldwide ruled on more than 56,000 requests for annulments, with some 46,000 of them granted. Of the favorable rulings, nearly 31,000 came in North America.

“Requests have jumped enormously in the last decades, especially in countries of long-standing Christian tradition,” said Monsignor Velasio De Paolis, a top Vatican court official who put some of the blame on “widespread secularization with its erroneous concepts of marriage.”

In the late 1960s, for example, the number of annulments in the United States numbered in the hundreds.

Many Catholics, especially in the United States, have been hoping the Vatican will have a change of heart on a ban on Catholics’ receiving Communion if they have remarried without annulments. The only exception on the Communion ban for such couples is if they abstain from sex with their new spouses.

Herranz appeared to dampen such hopes.

While not excommunicated, these Catholics are living in a “persistent, tenacious public state of sin and can’t receive the body of Christ,” Herranz said.

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