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Pope Francis Announces Overhaul Of Annulment Process

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

If you are Catholic and married, it is about to be easier to annul your marriage, if you decide to make that decision. This is the news from the Vatican this morning. The pope has announced changes in the annulment process. Now, Catholics are forbidden from divorcing or remarrying, but it's sometimes possible to get an annulment. It's a kind of reset as though the marriage had never taken place. To learn more about the changes announced by the pope this morning, we reached Joshua McElwee. He is the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

JOSHUA MCELWEE: Well, the pope really widely streamlined the process. It used to be necessary for every single annulment case 'cause that goes before a church tribunal as a second decision, kind of a mandatory review process. The pope has now gotten rid of that mandatory review. And he's also giving local bishops a lot more power to step in in individual cases and issue those annulments much more quickly without having to go through the church tribunal.

GREENE: OK, so this process sounds much easier. And we should say there were many Catholics who didn't even start this annulment process because it took so long and just took so much effort.

MCELWEE: Yeah, the numbers of Catholics in the U.S. seeking annulments have really gone down in the recent years. For example, in the 1980s, it was around 60,000 couples a year tried to get an annulment. The most recent numbers suggest about 20,000 a year. Many Catholics have thought it was too lengthy, cost too much money. And really, they wanted to move forward with their lives and weren't waiting around for the church to kind of give them that decision.

GREENE: This really feels like a season of reform in the Catholic Church. I mean, this annulment announcement comes on the heels of the Vatican announcing last week that women will find it easier to seek forgiveness when they get abortions. What exactly is happening?

MCELWEE: Well, yeah, you're right. The pope issued this decision today, but it doesn't take effect until December 8, which is the day he's opening a special jubilee holy year in the church for mercy. It also comes a month before he's hosting a special meeting of bishops at the Vatican in October, which many are looking to to make some substantial decisions about struggles facing the family in the modern society.

GREENE: And so you say mercy. I mean, this is sort of the theme that he is looking at when he makes decisions about abortion, about annulment and any sorts of issues.

MCELWEE: Yeah, he's really stressing the boundless nature of God's mercy, that God wants to be connected with humanity and there's no situation in which a human can find themselves where they can't be forgiven or can't be approached by God, which is something he says the church has kind of lost track of in recent years - become a little bit too legalistic or a little bit too doctrinaire and too worried about kind of what he calls the doctors of the law.

GREENE: I mean, interesting moment for the pope - these kinds of decisions. He's also getting ready to come to the United States for a visit. I mean, how are Catholics kind of reacting to all of this?

MCELWEE: Well, many Catholics in the U.S. will probably welcome this decision on annulments just because the process had been seen as being so lengthy, especially for those who really want to move on with their lives and may have another partner waiting. But there are some Catholics who are concerned that decisions like this could particularly undermine the church's teachings on the indissolvability of marriage, the idea that two partners who commit to one another before God, you know, you can't break that bond. But the pope addressed that in his own decrees, saying he wasn't trying to affect that but just trying to offer a fair, just and prompt process for those who really think that their marriages weren't ever contracted, kind of validated from the Catholic Church.

GREENE: Joshua, thanks very much.

MCELWEE: Thank you.

GREENE: You can hear the noise behind him. Joshua McElwee is one of the reporters at the Vatican this morning who took in this news about changes in the annulment process. He's the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.