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Pope Francis Streamlines Catholic Church's Annulment Process

The pontiff released two decrees Tuesday which reform canonical law to speed up and simplify the procedure by which Catholic couples can nullify their marriages.

Posted on September 8, 2015, at 8:34 a.m. ET

Vincenzo Pinto / AFP / Getty Images

The Vatican announced Tuesday that Pope Francis has made sweeping reforms to the Roman Catholic Church's process of granting annulments, removing bureaucratic roadblocks that have made the marriage nullification process time-consuming and difficult for many Catholics.

The most significant changes to the process include the establishment of a "fast-track" process for annulments in certain situations, the removal of an automatic appeal after the first decision has been made, and a call for church officials to remove or radically lower fees for the process.

The goal of these reforms is "the salvation of souls," according to Pope Francis.

An annulment, officially known as a "decree of nullity," is a formal ruling from church officials that a union between a man and a woman was never a true marriage because it failed to meet certain prerequisites required by canonical law. Separated Catholic couples must obtain an annulment if they wish to remarry in the church, or if they wish to obtain a civil union with a new partner and continue receiving Communion.

In two legal documents issued Tuesday, Pope Francis reiterated the church's belief in marriage as an indissoluble, sacred union, and that these new regulations "favor not marriage annulments, but the speed of the processes." Through the simplification of the procedure, the pontiff said, he hopes improve the lives of those seeking annulments.

One of the biggest reforms introduced is the establishment of a "fast-track" to an annulment when both spouses agree to the process. The documents call for annulments to be issued within 45 days under these circumstances.

Previously, a marriage had to be declared invalid by two separate tribunals before the annulment could be issued due to an automatic appeal process. Pope Francis amended this regulation, declaring that only one decision is necessary.

The new regulations also grant more authority to local bishops, allowing them to serve as a sole judge in annulment decisions in some situations. Until now, all annulments had to be heard and decided by a tribunal of three judges, two of whom had to be members of the clergy.

This change, along with the pope's call for the process to be free, excluding any "just and decent" payment to the tribunal, is aimed to help Catholics seeking annulments in poorer parts of the world.