I haven't written about Pope Francis' two recent motu proprios which have altered some bits of canon law dealing with annulments. This is because I tend to think that lay Catholics shouldn't comment too much about things dealing with canon law unless they are lay canon lawyers, in which case it's fine. I have not always thought that, but having had some experiences in trying to figure out what canon law really means about something I've learned it's best to leave it to the canonists.
And I respect that some canon lawyers of my acquaintance, both clergy and lay, have some reservations about how the pope's motu proprios will work out in real life. But the beauty of changes to merely ecclesiastical laws is that those changes are not necessarily permanent. One of the provisions changed by Pope Francis, for instance, dates only from some time in the 1980s. If the change doesn't work out as planned, either Pope Francis himself or a future pope (given that it may take a while to see how these changes work out on the ground) can fairly easily change them again.
From other lay commenters, though, I get the impression that these changes are seen as somehow earth-shaking or disruptive. I honestly don't think so myself. People seem to be forgetting that it is just as bad to keep couples trapped in marriages that are quite likely invalid as it is to risk declaring a valid marriage null. Given the abysmal state of catechesis in recent years, society's present insanity regarding what marriage is and what it is for, and the horror stories of very bad marriage preparation in various dioceses throughout the United States (and very possibly in many other nations as well), we may have reached a point where it will become rather necessary for a couple seeking the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony to give some positive evidence that they have at least the slightest clue what that sacrament is, why it is not only nothing like civil "marriage" but is becoming diametrically opposed to it, and why the Church requires it of her children as opposed to just letting them shack up or something (or, let us be honest, continue shacking up, as a scandalous number of young couples each year go straight from cohabitation to a Catholic wedding without even being required to separate for a time).
It is clear that we need to do a lot to improve the state of Catholic marriages. But I think we sometimes forget that annulments weren't invented sometime after Vatican II. People in the past had some difficulties too, and I'd like to share a story of some of those people.
About a century ago, a young woman, an Eastern Rite Catholic, arrived in America from Eastern Europe. She was all of 16 years old, and she came to live with extended family members. Her mother had died when she was 12, but her father had abandoned the family even before that.
Some time later, a marriage was arranged. There was a Catholic wedding. And on this young girl's wedding night, she fled from the house of her new husband in terror. No one, it seems, had properly explained to this motherless girl what marriage was really all about.
Time passed. She met a Catholic immigrant from Italy and they fell in love and married--outside the Church. You see, they took it for granted that her first marriage was valid. Of course it was, they thought. Catholics married for life--everybody knew that, and you couldn't get away from it.
They raised their daughters Catholic, even sending them to Catholic schools. The older daughter became a nun. But her parents pretty much accepted that they were cut off from the faith both of their ancestors and their children, primarily because of that marriage.
Luckily someone eventually asked the right questions, and the woman's first marriage was annulled. After spending much of their life apart from the Church and the sacraments this couple was able to reconcile and return. But like so many people of their time, they didn't really understand that it was possible to have a Catholic wedding in a Catholic Church and still not be validly married (for what were, in this woman's case, excellent reasons pertaining to that consent which is at the heart of matrimony!).
These people were my husband's maternal grandparents. It might be tempting to think, "Oh, but surely that sort of thing doesn't happen today!" I am not sure it doesn't. There are remote dioceses where a priest is only available to marry people once every so many years (I met a mission priest who talked about this problem once)--who knows what level of understanding some of those couples may bring to matrimony? Even here in America, I have heard of some well-meaning Catholic parents who have decided that the best way to raise their children while preserving their innocence is to teach them nothing at all regarding the "facts of life" until they are married. Assuming any of their children actually do marry without having the slightest idea until after the vows are exchanged as to what it is they have just consented to, how can such a marriage be valid? And that's before we even begin to talk about the "open and shut" cases involving defect of form and so on.
There is a temptation in all of these matters to see justice and mercy as being on opposite sides of the fence, so to speak. They are not. It is not merely merciful to make sure that invalid marriages can be annulled while preserving and strengthening valid ones, but it is just, as well.