Recently, Pope Francis set in motion some changes to the Code of Canon Law with regard to annulment procedures. Interestingly, he did so ahead of the Synod on the Family. I am not sure whether or not that was to take the issue of annulment reform off the table for the Synod, or to place the focus on it. Either way, it seems very intentional.
Ed Peters wrote a good explanation of those changes in general and also of the canonical concerns about the new fast-track annulment process in particular. I think his concerns are very valid, especially given the limited time and resources Bishops tend to have these days.
If a Bishop does not have the resources to look at each case properly (which seems likely to occur), then he has a couple of options. He can delegate it by returning it to the Tribunal, which will defeat the purpose of the fast-track option for annulments by putting the parties back into the lengthier process, or he can choose to approve the declaration of nullity without proper assessment, which will defeat the purpose of having an annulment process in the first place.
These are not the only options, of course. The Bishop could just allow a long line of fast-track cases to pile up and get to them as he is able. This too, seems to defeat the purpose of the fast-track annulment option. Perhaps this problem might be solved by appointing more Bishops. This carries the risk that people will be appointed who don’t have the necessary formation or experience to handle the office well, of course.
As Ed Peters noted, it is very important that the person reviewing these cases have a background in Canon Law in order to render fair and accurate judgments. It takes time to make sure that all the Bishops of the Church have the requisite background, and as far as I know to date, the time to implement these changes is not of sufficient length to accommodate that need.
I think it’s likely that the fast-track annulment process will not accomplish what Pope Francis intends (quite understandably) to accomplish for parties seeking an annulment, at least in the U.S. I think it’s more likely to create problems here when folks think they can get a quick annulment and that turns out not be the case for any of the potential reasons. And that means more people abandoning the process or not bothering to go through it so that they end up divorced, remarried, and barred from communion.
This just puts us back in the same situation. Last year, I was concerned that what came out of the Synod on the Family might not be good for families at all. And this year seems to be bearing out my concerns, unfortunately.