Marriage reforms set to cause concern among conservatives
Pope Francis has introduced the most radical changes to Catholic marriage rules in three centuries, announcing a new fast-track system to make annulments easier.
The plans are likely to cause concern among conservatives who fear that the church may be opening the door to divorce for Catholics.
The Pontiff has frequently criticised the bureaucratic and costly system currently in place for annulments.
A new streamlined procedure will allow most cases to be managed by individual bishops, who will have the power to grant the annulment and bypass a hearings process that is currently mandatory.
Automatic appeals for annulments, which were introduced by Pope Benedict XIV almost 300 years ago, will also be scrapped. Annulment trials will be free except for the "fair compensation of the court workers", Pope Francis said in a papal letter yesterday.
In the letter, sent to churches across the world, the Pope reaffirmed traditional teaching on the "indissolubility of marriage", making it clear the reforms were not meant to end the church's traditional stance.
Nevertheless, the changes may well be regarded with suspicion by conservatives, who fear that the Pope may be opening the door to divorced Catholics.
The church currently teaches that Catholics can remarry only if their first marriage is declared invalid by a church tribunal. It does not recognise divorce.
Catholics who divorce and remarry in civil services are considered to be still married to their first spouse and living in a state of sin - which prevents them from receiving sacraments such as communion.
The streamlined annulment procedure will be available when both spouses request an annulment or do not oppose it.
It can also be used in situations where there is a clear reason to declare a marriage invalid, such as lack of faith, infidelity or a lack of desire to have children.
Candida Moss, professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, said the Pope's actions "are propelled by compassion and pragmatism".
She said that the Pope "recognises the dangers of spousal abuse and the reality that many modern marriages are undertaken without full consideration".
The Pope said the procedure needed to be made simpler and quicker, so that Catholics who sought annulments should not be "long oppressed by darkness of doubt" over whether they could have their marriages declared null and void.
He has already spoken several times about the need to reform the process and has called for annulments to be free in the past, saying that all Catholics have the right to justice from the church. A commission of canon lawyers has spent the past year studying ways to reform the process.
The reforms come a month before next month's synod on the family, where various contentious issues, such as the place of remarried and gay Catholics in the church, will be discussed.