Pope Francis wants reformation of a process long criticised for being complicated, costly and out of reach for many.
Radical rules unveiled on Tuesday speed up the annulment process, with a fast-track procedure now available, and allow for appeals to be judged by a local church official rather than the Vatican.
The pope said the changes would not encourage, or “favour” the nullifying of marriage, but instead alter the time it took to complete the process. He also emphasised that annulment ought to be free of cost.
The pontiff wrote that changes were being made so that “the heart of the faithful that wait for the clarification of their state may not be oppressed for a long time by the darkness of doubt”.
The rules were established by a panel of Vatican-appointed canon lawyers who have spent a year studying ways to simplify the process while, at the same time, ensuring that the church maintained its position that marriage is a lifelong and sacred commitment.
The man charged with overseeing the changes, Monsignor Pio Vito Pinto, said in a press conference that the reform was only the third revision of the process in the church’s 2000-year history, with the last reforms established in 1741 and 1908.
It was described as a change that served the poor and suffering whose marriages are broken.
It will make it easier for Catholics from all over the world who wish to remarry to have their second marriages recognised by the church, therefore allowing them to fully participate in church life.
While annulments are relatively easy to receive in the US, the process can be exceedingly difficult in countries like Argentina and Chile, where it can take years.
Unlike the process of divorce, in which a marriage is dissolved, a completed annulment is predicated upon the church finding that the marriage was never properly entered into in the first place. Reasons can include one or both partners not understanding the vows, not realising marriage was a lifelong commitment, or not wanting to have children.
The pope has long been a vocal advocate for easing the process, a reflection of the real-world experience he has brought to the papacy and that has given him a reformist reputation. He has repeatedly said annulments ought not to be a source of profit for the church.
The move can be interpreted as part of a broader effort to bring disillusioned and discouraged Catholics back to the church and back to faith.
The announcement on annulments comes a week after the pope announced that all priests would be allowed to offer forgiveness to contrite women who have had abortions as part of the church’s jubilee year of mercy, which begins in December. Under normal circumstances, forgiveness for abortion, which is considered a grave sin and punishable by automatic excommunication, can only be offered by priests given the power to do so by a bishop.
It also marks a turning point in a long-running debate within the church about how it ought to approach changes in the structure of the modern family, including marriage and divorce.
While the news will likely be welcomed by millions of Catholics around the world, it will also affect non-Catholics who are divorced and wish to remarry a Catholic. Under church rules, a non-Catholic would need an annulment before validly marrying a Catholic in the church.
Catholics who receive a civil divorce are not excommunicated, and the church recognises that the divorce procedure is necessary to settle civil matters, including custody of children. But divorced Catholics are not allowed to remarry until their earlier marriage has been nullified. If a Catholic has remarried civilly but not had their earlier marriage annulled, they are not allowed to receive communion.