Pope Francis announced new procedures on Tuesday to make it easier for Roman Catholics to obtain marriage annulments, a change intended to streamline a process long criticised by many Catholics as too cumbersome, complicated and expensive, The New York Times reports.
Under the new rules, the process will be much faster for cases in which a couple is not contesting the annulment.
Francis is also instructing Catholic bishops to be more welcoming to divorced or separated Catholics “who have abandoned the church.” Local dioceses will be asked to establish commissions to reach out to couples seeking annulments.
Francis outlined the new rules in two papal letters, known in Latin as Motu Proprio, or personal administrative decrees. In speeding up the annulment process, Francis is trying to make the church more merciful and responsive to the needs of Catholics, yet he does not want to appear to be encouraging divorce.
Francis wrote that his new rules “do not favor the nullity of marriages, but the expedition of trials, as well as a just simplification.”
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Divorce is a topic that has long splintered many of the Catholic faithful from the church. Under church law, marriage is indissoluble, and divorce is not recognized. Yet many Catholics are divorced, especially in the Western world, and the divide between reality on the ground and church dogma has alienated many.
Many Catholics had been watching closely to see how Francis would address the issue of annulments as part of a broader debate about whether the church should allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments such as communion.
The church has long offered an annulment process in which a marriage can be declared invalid if the husband or wife can prove the union failed to meet certain requirements. In August 2014, Francis appointed a commission to study the best way to overhaul the annulment process.
The new rules allow local bishops to establish tribunals to hear annulment cases. The tribunals should consist of three members, ideally clerics, although the rules allow a bishop to appoint up to two lay members of the diocese to a tribunal.