The Diocese of Pittsburgh has eliminated fees for annulments in keeping with comments by Pope Francis that the church should make it easier for some divorced Roman Catholics to remarry and receive other sacraments.
"My staff and I have long dreamed of this move," Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik said Wednesday. "Our dear Pope Francis inspired us to act now."
The fees in the six-county Pittsburgh diocese ranged from $50 to $650 depending on the complexity of the case, said the Rev. Thomas Kunz. As judicial vicar, Kunz heads the diocesan marriage tribunal, which investigates annulment requests and decides whether they'll be granted under church law.
"A Church annulment, which can only be sought after a civil divorce is final, is a declaration that the marriage was not spiritually binding," Zubik explained in a letter to some 633,000 Catholics that was released Wednesday. To receive an annulment, a church tribunal must determine that a spiritual marriage wasn't present from the outset, perhaps because one spouse never intended to be faithful or was too immature to understand the permanence of marriage.
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Annulments declare a marriage invalid and treat it as though it never happened. Without an annulment, Catholics cannot remarry in the church. Those who do divorce and remarry are considered adulterers by the Vatican and cannot receive Communion.
"My hope is that this decision will enable many people to participate fully in the sacramental life of the Church," Zubik wrote.
The Pittsburgh diocese is not the first in the country to stop charging fees.
The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown in central Pennsylvania hasn't charged fees in annulment cases since the late 1980s, said spokesman Tony DeGol. The Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese in northern Indiana eliminated its $400 fee in October.
Two other Pennsylvania dioceses, in Greensburg and Erie, say they won't refuse an annulment petition based on a lack of funds.
"Our tribunal has always reduced or waived the fee for anyone who cannot afford an annulment, and we intend to continue this practice," the Diocese of Erie said in a statement. "The fee we charge only covers about one-third of the actual cost of an annulment. The rest is taken care of by the generosity of the people of the Diocese of Erie."
It was not immediately clear whether other large dioceses in the state were considering similar moves.
Kunz said the Pittsburgh diocese felt the move was appropriate in light of the pope's remarks in recent months.
"I think when the pope is asking for it, then people are listening," Kunz said.
Pope Francis in November denounced various hardships Catholics can endure in seeking annulments and has since made other comments suggesting the process should be less onerous.
At that time, the pope mentioned firing an unspecified church official who demanded $10,000 to grant an annulment. Francis said, "One must be careful that the procedures don't become a business," Francis said.
The Pittsburgh diocese said it typically took in $120,000 annually in annulment fees, which only covered part of the cost of "maintaining a professional office of canon lawyers and support staff, and other expenses involved in processing the cases," the diocese said in a news release.
A recent capital campaign is enabling the church to cover two-thirds of the money previously brought in by annulment fees, with the rest coming from a program in which individual churches contribute toward diocesan administrative costs. The loss of annulment fees will be entirely covered by that program within five years, the bishop said.