Diocese of Pittsburgh waives fees for marriage annulments - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Diocese of Pittsburgh waives fees for marriage annulments

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By Peter Smith / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Diocese of Pittsburgh is seeking to make it easier for divorced-and-remarried Catholics to take a full part in church life, waiving all fees for processing requests for annulments.

The diocese had previously waived such fees -- typically several hundred dollars -- in individual cases of financial hardship. The change was effective immediately upon Wednesday's announcement.

“For people who have not taken advantage of it in the past, either because of financial reasons or out of principle, my hope is that now this opens the door for them to give it some consideration,” Bishop David Zubik said.

The church teaches that sacramental marriage is eternal. But if a church tribunal determines a spiritual bond never formed, a divorcing couple's marriage can be declared null in the church and they can remarry. Without an annulment, the church says divorced-and-remarried persons should not receive the sacraments.

Catholic leaders have been debating whether to ease or even, controversially, eliminate the annulment process in favor of a different approach. Such topics drew debate at a Vatican synod on the family last October, with a reprise expected at a similar synod this October.

Although fees for the Pittsburgh diocese's tribunal are waived, people will continue to pay fees if either party appeals to higher church courts, according to a diocesan fact sheet.

Bishop Zubik said the diocese considered the action even before Pope Francis' statement in January that if sacraments are free, “I want so much for every process to be free of charge!”

“The emphasis of the church in taking up the synod and speaking of the family is to reach out to people who feel they're in trouble and their family is suffering,” said Helen Alvare, a professor at the George Mason University School of Law who specializes in family law and is an adviser to U.S. bishops.

Waiving the fees is “part of a tone, and tone is a very large part of this pope's pastoral message,” she said.

The Pittsburgh diocese says it typically processes about 170 annulments per year. The estimated yearly cost of $120,000 will be covered by capital campaign proceeds at first and in later years through Parish Share, an annual offering for diocesan causes.

The Catholic Church granted 18,558 annulments in the United States in 2014 — down dramatically from 72,308 in 1990.

The numbers of Catholics seeking church weddings and other sacraments has also declined dramatically — prompting church officials to see annulment reform as an evangelistic necessity.

Some dioceses, such as Cleveland, Rochester, N.Y., and St. Petersburg, Fla., eliminated fees in the past year, and some have done so for years. Many continue to charge fees except in hardship cases.

The Diocese of Greensburg says it charges $275 per case but subsidizes most costs and waives fees entirely in nearly half of the cases.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh issued a fact sheet saying the church doesn't deny the reality of civil marriage and divorce, or the legitimacy of children from such marriages; it only questions whether the parties were able to enter a spiritual union at their marriage.

But such criteria don't work for everyone.

If the waiver of fees “helps some people, that's great, but I would not go through that process,” said Kathy Grabowski of Wilkins, who is divorced and remarried but who has been distanced from the church for decades. “I would still not deny that [first] marriage. It was a mistake. I moved on in my life. But the church requires you to say that marriage was invalid, and I will not do that.”

Ralph Joy of Ohio Township, a layperson who helps lead support groups at North Hills parishes for divorced-and-remarried people such as himself, said the fee waiver “certainly will help to eliminate a barrier. Whether or not that's going to result in a significant uptick, we'll have to see.”

He said streamlining the bureaucratic process would also help. “There's more things that can be done to help get a boost in the number of people applying, but this is certainly a good step,” he said.

Cecelia Hart Price, Chief Communications Officer for the Archdiocese of Louisville, released the following statement about its position on annulment fees:  ”We automatically waive fees for those coming into the Church through the RCIA process and non-Catholics who wish to marry a Catholic. For Catholics, we explain fees, and they can pay or not. We do not bill or follow up.”

(Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1416 or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.)

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