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How Pope Francis has changed the rules of annulment

Last Updated Sep 8, 2015 9:11 AM EDT

ROME -- Pope Francis has made radical changes to the Catholic marriage annulment process, streamlining it in order to make it faster, easier and less expensive.

In two legal church documents released Tuesday, Francis says he overhauled the system, which has been considered by many to be overly time-consuming, complicated and expensive, out of "concern for the salvation of souls."

Underscoring his desire for the church to show greater compassion and outreach, he said his decision was motivated by a wish to "lift the darkness of doubt" from people's hearts about their marital status.

The changes were unanimously proposed by a panel of experts appointed by the pope in August of 2014 to study the matter.

An annulment means a church tribunal finds a Catholic marriage between a man and a woman was not a real marriage because it did not meet one of several requirements for validity, such as informed consent or soundness of mind.

Church law states that a divorced and remarried Catholic who does not obtain an annulment is committing adultery, and therefore cannot receive communion. So making annulment easier allows more Catholics to be remarried within the Church and have access to the Eucharist.

The new rules, which go into effect on December 8, provide for the following changes:

  • A "fast-track" option is introduced, whereby the local bishop can act as a single judge if the case is supported by particularly evident arguments
  • Even for standard trials, a single judge (who must always be a cleric) may decide on the annulment, under the supervision of the bishop. The old rules call for a three-member panel to decide on annulment cases.
  • The mandatory appeal is abolished. The old rules state that after an annulment was granted, the decision had to be confirmed by a second court, sometimes resulting in long delays.
  • If there is an appeal, it can now be handled at the diocesan level, as opposed to having to go to the Vatican.
  • Annulment process will be free of charge, eliminating the fees previously requested for administrative costs.

Despite the fact that American Catholics represent only six percent of Catholics world-wide, the U.S. accounts for approximately half of all annulments granted.

Filed by CBS Radio News correspondent Anna Matranga in Rome.