Pope Francis announced radical changes for the Roman Catholic Church Tuesday in the complicated and costly process of annulling or dissolving marriages.
The pope gave bishops around the world authority to judge many annulment requests quickly, by themselves, and eliminated entirely a long-standing requirement for lengthy review of such cases by diocesan tribunals. An adviser to the pope said most cases should be resolved within 45 days, and the papal order said no fees should be charged to couples seeking to dissolve their marriages under church regulations.
Francis also called on bishops to provide more help to divorced couples, although he also reaffirmed traditional Catholic views on the permanence of marriage as an institution.
The dean of a Vatican court that rules on annulments told reporters that Pope Francis's pronouncements were the most sweeping changes to rules on marriage since the mid-18th century.
Francis himself wrote that his new rules do not "favor" annulments, but are an attempt to handle such cases more quickly and simply.
"The pope is seeking to respond pastorally to the tens of thousands of couples who are experiencing profound pain and alienation as a result of broke marriages," said the Reverend James Bretzke.
Bretzke, a professor of moral theology at Boston College in the United States, is a member of the Jesuit order, as is Pope Francis. He was quoted Tuesday by Reuters from Vatican City.
Although the Catholic Church does not recognize divorce, couples have been able to seek an annulment, known formally as a "decree of nullity," under some circumstances. Such appeals usually claim that a marriage was not valid in the first place, under church law, because one or both of the parties did not enter into the partnership with free will, psychological maturity or a willingness to have children.
Once an annulment is granted, the church's view is that no valid marriage occurred. This leaves the former spouses free to marry again in the Catholic church.
Conversely, Catholics who divorce - breaking up their marriages in court instead of through the church - are considered to be living in sin. Traditionally, many divorced Catholics have been banned from receiving communion and other sacraments, or even excommunicated - expelled - by bishops, but the pope has urged church administrators to take a more merciful approach to such cases where those involved seek forgiveness and try to atone for their errors.
Pope Francis entitled his directive to the world's bishops "Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus" a Latin phrase that means "Lord Jesus, the Gentle Judge."
The pontiff appointed a panel of experts to study church rules about marriage last year, commissioning them to simplify procedures while also "safeguarding the principle of the indissolubility of marriage."