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Pope Francis simplifies marriage annulments with new fast-track process

Pope Francis reformed the Catholic Church's process for annulling marriages Tuesday.

Pope Francis reformed the Catholic Church's process for annulling marriages Tuesday, allowing for fast-track decisions and removing automatic appeals in a bid to speed up and simplify the procedure.

He issued a new law regulating how bishops around the world determine when a fundamental flaw has made a marriage invalid. Catholics must get this church annulment if they want to remarry in the Church.

But the process has long been criticized for being complicated, costly and out of reach for many Catholics.

"It reduces the bureaucratic process, makes it a lot simpler," Vatican spokesman Greg Burke told NBC News.

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Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large for the National Catholic Review, wrote on Twitter that the change was "an act of mercy from a pastoral pope who listens carefully to the concerns of the people."

The biggest reform involves a new fast-track procedure, handled by the bishop himself, that can be used when both spouses request an annulment. It can also be used when other proof makes a more drawn-out investigation unnecessary.

Details were unveiled at a Vatican news conference on Tuesday morning.

The Vatican said Monday that the pope had written a document known as a Motu Proprio, Latin for "by his own initiative," that set out the changes.

Catholics in the U.S. are likely to be least affected by the reforms, according to one observer, because the number of annulments granted there is already higher than in other countries.

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"The United States accounts for at least half, and sometimes more, of all the annulments granted by the Catholic Church every year, even though it represents only six percent of the global Catholic population," wrote John L. Allen Jr., associated editor of Catholic news site, Crux. "As a result, the United States is likely to be the country where the reforms decreed by Francis have the least immediate impact, though some of the changes will have consequences here, too, such as eliminating the need for a second review in uncontested cases."

Allen added: "For those in the States who've been involved in the annulment process, the move may produce a sense of vindication by seeing the pontiff steering the global Church in the direction of what might loosely be called an 'American' approach."

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