The Roman Catholic Church's Synod of Bishops will gather in Rome next month to discuss how church policies impact families, and will address topics such as divorce, remarriage and the process for annulment.
Although the conversation is only the warm-up for a larger conference next year, commentators are pointing out potential implications for American Catholics, who have high rates of annulment and divorce.
Current policies strongly favor annulment over divorce. Catholics who remarry without an annulment are barred from receiving communion, "teaching in a Catholic institution and holding certain parish or diocesan offices," Catholic News Service explained.
But even if altered traditions could improve many American Catholics' standing in the church, they are not united around proposed changes. In 2013, the Public Religion Research Institute reported that "nearly 4 in 10 (37 percent) American Catholics say that their church should preserve its traditional beliefs and practices."
Critics of American Catholic attitudes toward divorce have been known to refer to the country as an "annulment factory," according to an article in Crux, The Boston's Globe's new Catholic-centric website.
"With just 6 percent of the world's Catholic population, America accounts for somewhere between 55 and 70 percent of the approximately 60,000 annulments granted each year worldwide," Crux reported.
According to the For Your Marriage initiative of the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops, an annulment is granted by the church when "a marriage thought to be valid according to Church law actually fell short of at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union."
For example, an annulment could be granted if lawyers considering the annulment request determine the bride or groom was mentally unfit to consent to the marriage at the time of the wedding.
Annulment reform, noted Crux, could be a compromise between Catholics who resist any change and Catholics who seek to update church doctrine to allow divorced and remarried members to receive communion.
"A 2007 study found that in the United States, nearly 10 percent of Catholics are divorced and remarried 10 years after their first marriage, a figure that rises to 18 percent after 20 years," Crux reported.
A separate study, discussed in 2013 by America magazine, noted that, of those who are divorced, 85 percent did not seek an annulment.
Although no reforms are guaranteed, a massive marriage ceremony led by Pope Francis in Vatican City on Sunday has some predicting that the church's leader is in favor of change.
Twenty couples were wed in St. Peter's Basilica on Sunday, Time reported.
"From a distance, the group seemed fairly typical: the couples ranged from ages 25 to 56 and were all from the Diocese of Rome. But the underlying storyline is far more telling: one bride was already a mother, some of the couples had already been living together and others had previously been married."
The ceremony signaled "new openness to including married people who have been divorced" in the sacrament of communion, Time's Elizabeth Dias concluded.
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