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There is intense anticipation in the Catholic Church — and no small amount of anxiety for traditionalists — over what Pope Francis will say about communion for divorced and remarried Catholics in a key document expected in the coming weeks. But Francis has already made an intriguing change in this area, albeit one that only concerns the Vatican’s arcane diplomatic protocol and a very, very select group: Catholic heads of state.

Image via Tiffany McCallen/RNS

The streamlined marriage annulment procedures unveiled by the Vatican are aimed at simplifying what is often a tedious gauntlet of red tape. But it’s not clear how much effect the reforms ordered by Pope Francis will have in the U.S., where about half of all annulments are granted even though American Catholics are just 6 percent of the global church.

That’s largely because in recent decades American dioceses have taken a number of steps to make the process less cumbersome and time-consuming, some of which were reflected in the new procedures announced Sept. 8 in Rome.

The new rules, the most sweeping reform in centuries, eliminate an automatic review of any “decree of nullity” by a second panel of church judges, and they provide for what is being called a fast-track option that allows for an annulment to be granted by the local bishop within 45 days if both spouses request an annulment or don’t oppose it.

It’s an issue that potentially affects millions of people: in the U.S., 25 percent of Catholics have been divorced; 26 percent of them say they sought annulment, according to Pew Research.

Pope Francis outside the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, Oct. 4. Photo via RNS, by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service.

In an unusual move, the Vatican has asked the world’s bishops to quickly canvas the faithful for their views on topics like gay marriage, divorce, and birth control ahead of a major meeting of church leaders set for next fall.

But it’s not clear how or whether the American bishops will undertake such an effort, or if they will only send their own views to Rome.

The letter from the Vatican to New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was dated Oct. 18 and it asked that a series of questions be shared “immediately as widely as possible to deaneries and parishes so that input from local sources can be received” in time for a February planning meeting in Rome.

Sharon Jayson 09-16-2013

T.J. Gurski and Jennifer Beltz will get remarried. RNS photo via Ryan Garza / Detroit Free Press

The invitations are in the mail. Jennifer Beltz and T.J. Gurski of Commerce Township, Mich., are defying the odds — they’re taking the plunge a second time.

“When I got divorced, I said, ‘I’m never getting married again,” says Beltz, 41, who works in marketing.

That sentiment seems to be quite common among those jaded by a failed first union: A new analysis of federal data provided exclusively to USA TODAY shows the USA’s remarriage rate has dropped 40 percent over the past 20 years.