POPE Francis has announced measures to make it easier and quicker for Roman Catholics to achieve an annulment or divorce within the church.
The pontiff has radically reformed the church’s process for annulling marriages, allowing for fast-track decisions and removing automatic appeals in a bid to speed up and simplify the procedure.
In order to separate, Catholics must have their marriage annulled by showing it was flawed from the outset as the church does not recognise divorce, teaching that marriage is forever.
Until now the procedures have been seen as arcane, expensive and bureaucratic.
In the decree released yesterday, the Pope said “the impulse for reform is fed by the enormous numbers of the faithful who are too often alienated from the juridical structures of the church.”
Catholics seeking an annulment previously needed approval from two church tribunals. The reforms will reduce this to one, although appeals will still be allowed.
The new fast-track procedure will allow bishops to grant annulments directly if both spouses request it.
Due to their complicated nature, couples normally require experts to guide them through annulment procedures, meaning that gaining one can be expensive.
Without an annulment, Catholics who divorce and marry again are considered adulterers and are not allowed to receive communion.
Writing about the changes, Pope Francis said it was unfair that spouses should be “long oppressed by darkness of doubt” over whether their marriages could be annulled.
Francis had already called for annulments to be free, saying all Catholics have the right to justice from the church.
He has also said the church should take into account that ignorance of the faith can be a reason to declare a marriage invalid.
Norms attached to the new law state that the “lack of faith” can also be a cause for an annulment.
In the past Francis has said that obtaining annulments can be too cumbersome and expensive and drag on for years.
“Some procedures are so long and so burdensome,” the pontiff said in 2014, “and people give up.”
Just 61 per cent of African Catholics seeking annulments in 2012 completed the process, while in the west, where Catholics can afford to hire canon lawyers, 86 per cent received annulments.
Last week Francis made it easier for women who have had abortions to receive absolution if they are truly contrite over their action and confess it to their local priest during the church’s upcoming Holy Year of Mercy, which starts in December.
Such reforms come just before next month’s synod on the family, where various contentious issues such as the place of remarried and gay Catholics in the church will be discussed.