Pope Francis on Tuesday radically revised the process by which Catholics may annul their marriages, streamlining steps that many in the church considered too cumbersome and costly.
The move is the latest in a series of reforms by Francis as he seeks to make the church more responsive to the real needs of lay Catholics, especially those who have long felt marginalized by the hierarchy. Without the annulments, Catholics who remarry are not allowed to receive Holy Communion, which many describe as a painful exclusion from the church's chief sacrament.
The Vatican announcement comes just weeks before Francis makes his first-ever visit to the United States. Americans accounted for about half of the nearly 50,000 annulments granted in 2012, the latest year for which statistics are available.
"This move is in accord with the Pope's oft-repeated image of the church as a 'field hospital' that goes out to meet people where they are most in need, and then to treat their most serious wounds first -- rather than stay at home and wait for people to come to them," said the Rev. James Bretzke, an expert on papal affairs at Boston College.
The three main changes announced on Tuesday are are:
• Eliminating a second review by a cleric before a marriage can be nullified.
• Giving bishops the ability to fast-track and grant the annulments themselves in certain circumstances -- for example, when spousal abuse or an extramarital affair has occurred.
• The process should be free, except for a nominal fee for administrative costs, and should be completed within 45 days.
The Pope's reforms came Tuesday in the form of two "motu proprio" documents, Latin for "by (the Pope's) own initiative." They become part of Catholic canon law on December 8, the beginning of Francis' declared "Year of Mercy."
While Francis reaffirmed the "indissolubility of the marriage bond," he also said in Tuesday's documents that "charity and mercy demand that the Church, as mother, be close to her children who consider themselves separated."
In the end, the church's many laws and institutions must be aimed at one chief purpose, the Pope said -- "the salvation of souls."
One prominent Catholic priest called Tuesday's announcement "an act of mercy from a pastoral Pope who listens carefully to the concerns of the people."
'People give up'
Francis has said that obtaining annulments can be too onerous, dragging on for years and costing hundreds if not thousands of dollars.
"Some procedures are so long and so burdensome," the pontiff said in 2014, "and people give up."
Here's what one former Catholic had to say: "25 years ago this would have changed my life. They wanted $8000 to process my husband's annulment! I'm a Jew now," Desirée O'Clair tweeted.
That sentiment is supported by statistics.
Just 61% of African Catholics seeking annulments in 2012 completed the process, according to a study conducted by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. In the more wealthy Western world, where Catholics can afford to hire canon lawyers, 86% received annulments.
"This is not because tribunals in Africa were more likely than those in the Americas to rule contrary to nullity," the center said in its analysis. "It is more a reflection of more people seeking annulments in Africa than in the Americas not completing the annulment process."
In the United States, 28% of Catholic marriages end in divorce, according to the General Social Survey. That's lower than the general population, but still equivalent to 11 million adults.
The Catholic Church does not recognize civil divorces. Instead, its theology holds that marital unions sanctified by God are indissoluble.
Annulments, once available only through church tribunals, state that the marriage contract was fundamentally flawed from the start, and hence invalid in the eyes of the church. In the 1980s, the church added another step to the process, requiring a second review before an annulment can be granted.
Without an annulment, a divorced Catholic who remarries is considered an adulterer and may not participate in some sacraments, including Holy Communion. Led by Pope Francis, the church is holding high-level meetings, called synods, to debate that teaching. The next synod is to be held in October.
The 'Year of Mercy'
Tuesday's announcement is yet another step in Francis' efforts to reform the church, making it more welcoming to those who may have felt excluded after running afoul of Catholic teachings.
On September 1, he announced that during an upcoming "Year of Mercy," Catholic priests around the world will be able to forgive the "sin" of abortion. Under canon law, absolution of certain serious sins, including abortion, is usually reserved only to bishops.
With the abortion and annulment announcements, Francis seems to be signaling a "third way" to govern the church through thorny issues. He's not rewriting core doctrines, but he is encouraging Catholic clergy to be more merciful and at times more flexible in how they enforce church rules.
Francis' experience in his native Argentina, where many of his parishioners were poor, gives him a different view of the church and how its complex set of rules can alienate some Catholics, said Andrew Chesnut, an expert on religion in Latin America and a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Chesnut called the Pope's annulment proposal part of an overall strategy to create a more inclusive church and reach out to lapsed Catholics who might have left the fold over issues such as divorce, abortion and homosexuality.
"The church has been in sharp decline in both Latin America and Europe," Chesnut said, "and Pope Francis sees such reforms as key to reversing the long-term slide."
It remains to be seen, though, how conservative Catholics receive the changes. Many have argued in recent years that the church should hold a firm line against what they see as widespread sexual immorality, particularly in the modern West.
Researchers have found little evidence of a "Francis effect" in the United States. According to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 89% of ex-Catholics say they cannot imagine ever returning to the church, even though they like Pope Francis.