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Pope Francis Smooths Process To Annul Marriages

In a sharp revision of Catholic policy, Pope Francis rewrote the process of annulling a marriage within the church on Tuesday, issuing two apostolic letters aimed at speeding and simplifying what has often been a process lasting more than a year.

The Catholic Church still doesn't recognize divorce, but the new changes promise to make it easier to annul marriages that are deemed invalid by a church court, by using a process that is "more agile," the Vatican says.

Under the new rules, only one judgment will be required before a marriage is determined invalid and annulled. And in cases where both parties agree, an annulment can be expedited by a bishop. Pope Francis also ordered that the courts waive most of the fees that in the past have regularly cost hundreds of dollars for cases in the U.S.

As for how many people in the U.S. might be affected by the changes, Joshua McElwee of the National Catholic Reporter tells NPR's Morning Edition that there were recently as many as 80,000 annulment cases annually in America — but that the number has fallen sharply.

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"The latest statistics say about 20,000 cases of these come up a year in the United States," McElwee says. "The problem is that it takes a long time, you've got to present a lot of evidence, and there always has to be a second appeal — so whatever the first court decides, the second court has to confirm it. It can take six months to a year, or longer."

The change comes a month after Pope Francis said Catholics who divorce and then remarry should be embraced — and not excommunicated.

Last week, a Pew Research Center survey of American Catholics was released that showed 60 percent favor allowing divorced Catholics who then remarry to receive communion — contrary to current doctrine.

The Vatican says the annulment changes are "the result of an expert group" that studied the state of the church's marriage laws. But the timing of the reform announcement took some observers by surprise.

From the Whispers in the Loggia blog:

"That the release of the texts was announced only on the eve of their publication — a striking contrast to the usual week's notice for major Vatican documents — signals the Pope's intent for the move to come as a complete surprise, and as an ostensible means of short-circuiting any attempt by critics of the changes to derail whatever he's decided. In addition, that the commission completed its work in roughly a year is about the closest thing you'll see to 'lightning speed' for a process of this kind: to use a counter-example, the consultation and drafting of Benedict XVI's tightened-up global norms on sex-abuse extended over at least three years before their release in 2010."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.