Pope Francis has appointed a group of theologians and canon lawyers to study ways to make the annulment of Catholic marriages – often a complicated and lengthy task – simpler, the Vatican announced.
The 11-member commission will attempt to "simplify the (annulment) procedure, making it more streamlined, while safeguarding the principle of the indissolubility of marriage," the Vatican said in a statement.
Because divorce is not allowed under Roman Catholic doctrine, annulment is the only way sanctioned by the church for Catholics to end marriages.
Under church law, Catholics can annul their marriages even after many years if it can be shown the marriage was never valid and did not therefore effectively take effect.
Reasons accepted include one of the spouses declining to have children, or not understanding the meaning of the wedding vows at the time he or she made them.
Annulment is far more prevalent among Catholics in the United States than in most other countries, and controversy over annulments has sometimes spilled into the political arena.
Conflict over the procedure helped end the political career of former U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, the son of Robert Kennedy. Joe Kennedy had sought an annulment of his marriage to Sheila Rauch, but she appealed to the Vatican and ultimately won when the annulment was overturned.
Kennedy's uncle, the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, divorced his first wife, Joan, but was reported to have later requested and received an annulment from the church.
Catholics often prefer civil divorce, a simpler option but one that is not recognized by the church. Divorced Catholics who remarry can be refused communion because the church considers them still married to their first partners and therefore living in sin.
The rule has provoked widespread protest among Catholics and in February, German Cardinal Walter Kasper suggested in a speech to a cardinals' consistory that the rule be relaxed.
Kasper, who is close to Pope Francis, said a period of penance could be instituted before allowing remarried divorcees to take communion.
Debate on the subject is expected at a synod on the family called by Francis, which will take place at the Vatican from Oct. 5-19. Last week, a group of five high-ranking and conservative church figures declared their opposition to changing the rules.
Led by German Cardinal Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the five have written a book arguing that relaxing the divorce rule negates Christ's teaching.
Francis has yet to declare his hand, but he did warn on Friday against "codifying faith in rules and instructions as did the scribes, the Pharisees, and the doctors of law in the time of Jesus."
Cardinal Kasper told an Italian newspaper, Il Mattino, last week that the five conservative authors were trying to stoke "ideological warfare" at the synod and suggested that while they were attacking him, their real target was Francis.
The news that Francis wants to help Catholics get easier annulments, encouraging them to avoid civil divorces, may help head off the brewing battle at the synod.
Although the decision to form the commission on streamlining annulments was made on Aug. 2, it was made public on Saturday.
No details were given on what the commission might decide, but one option would be to scrap the current two-tier church decision-making system on annulments, leaving just one tier in place, unless the annulment is contested by one of the spouses.