Vatican City: Pope Francis on Tuesday made it easier, quicker and free for Catholics to have their marriages annulled under reforms regarded with suspicion by conservatives who fear he may be opening the door to Church-approved divorce.
Details of changes to a system that critics including Francis himself had attacked as needlessly bureaucratic, expensive and unfair were unveiled Tuesday with the publication of a papal letter on the issue to Catholic churches across the world.
In it, the Argentinian pontiff says annulments will henceforth require only one decision rather than having to be approved by two church tribunals, as currently.
A streamlined procedure is to be introduced with most cases to be handled by individual bishops rather than subject to a hearings process.
Appeals to a Vatican court against individual annulments will still be possible but will become the exception not the rule.
The Pope`s letter follows a year-long review by experts in canon, or religious, law. It also asks bishops conferences to ensure there are no costs involved in the process of securing an annulment.
While Francis is seeking to democratise the procedure in a way that would appear to make an increase in the number of annulments likely, his letter does not amend the exceptional conditions under which they can be granted.
In his letter, he strongly reaffirms the principle of the indissolubility of marriage while highlighting the "enormous number of believers" for whom annulment is currently not an option for various reasons.
Although the notion of marriage being for life is one of the fundamental tenets of the Catholic faith, divorce has become commonplace among believers across much of the industrialised world.
Church doctrine allows for unions to be cancelled -- effectively declared to have never existed -- when the marriage is judged to have been fundamentally flawed from the outset.
Possible justifications for reaching this conclusion include non-consummation of the marriage, one or both partners having entered into it without the intention of staying in the relationship, or one of the partners having no desire to have children.
Alcohol and drug dependency can also be taken into consideration.
In practice, access to the annulment procedure currently varies widely.
There is virtually no provision for it in many dioceses in the developing world while many ordinary Catholics in wealthier countries simply don`t understand the complex procedures or cannot afford expert legal help to guide them through them.For centuries there has been a perception that annulments are more easily obtained by the wealthy and powerful.
England`s King Henry VIII secured two and it was the Vatican`s refusal of a third that led to the creation of the Church of England in the 16th Century.
In one of the most high-profile recent cases, Princess Caroline of Monaco obtained the annulment of her first marriage, to Frenchman Philippe Junot, in 1992, leaving her free to remarry in the Church.
There was also controversy in 2006 when Australian actress Nicole Kidman married Keith Urban in a Sydney church following her divorce from Tom Cruise.
Kidman was reported at the time to have secured an annulment but it later emerged that the Church in Australia had simply confirmed that it did not recognise her first marriage because it had been conducted in Cruise`s Church of Scientology.
Without an annulment, a Catholic who divorces and remarries is deemed to be living in sin and is unable to take communion.
Critics say this exclusion of the divorced from the Church`s holiest sacrament is cruel and unfair. Why, they argue, should a murderer who confesses his sins be able to take communion while a woman who seeks a divorce to escape a violent relationship cannot.
The status of divorcees and the Church`s attitude to homosexual believers and unmarried cohabiting couples are among questions being considered as part of an ongoing review of Catholic teaching on the family.
Bishops from around the world are due in Rome in October for a synod that will seek to reach a consensus on these vexed issues before Francis decides what, if any, reforms will be made.