VATICAN CITY (AP) - Pope Francis radically reformed the Catholic Church's process for annulling marriages Tuesday, allowing for fast-track decisions and removing automatic appeals in a bid to speed up and simplify the procedure.
Francis issued a new law regulating how bishops around the world determine when a fundamental flaw has made a marriage invalid. Catholics must get this church annulment if they want to remarry in the church.
But the process has long been criticized for being complicated, costly and out of reach for many Catholics, especially in poor countries where dioceses don't have marriage tribunals.
In the document, Francis insisted that marriage remains an indissoluble union and that the new regulations aren't meant to help to end them. Rather, he said, the reform is aimed at speeding up and simplifying the process so that the faithful can find justice.
The overall aim of the reform, he said, "is the salvation of souls."
The biggest reform involves a new fast-track procedure, handled by a bishop, that can be used when both spouses request an annulment or don't oppose it. It can also be used when other proof makes a more drawn out investigation unnecessary.
It calls for the process to be completed within 45 days.
Another reform is the removal of the automatic appeal after the first decision is made. Appeals are still possible, but they are no longer automatic — a simplification that has been used in the United States for many years.
The reform also allows the local bishop, in places where a three-judge tribunal isn't available, to be the judge himself or to delegate the handling of the cases to a single priest-judge with two assistants.
That measure is aimed at providing Catholic couples with recourse to annulments in poorer parts of the world, or places where the Catholic Church doesn't have the resources or manpower to have fully functioning tribunals.
Francis also called for the fees to be waived, except for the "just" payment of tribunal personnel.
Catholics have long complained that it can take years to get an annulment, if they can get one at all. Costs can reach into the hundreds or thousands of dollars for legal and tribunal fees.
Without the annulment, divorced Catholics who remarry outside the church are considered to be adulterers living in sin and are forbidden from receiving Communion — a dilemma at the core of a current debate roiling the church.
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.
Francis has previously quoted his predecessor as Buenos Aires archbishop as saying half of the marriages that are celebrated are essentially invalid because people enter into them not realizing that matrimony is a lifelong commitment.
Norms attached to the new law say that the "lack of faith" can be a cause for an annulment.