Some people seem to think so. It popped up repeatedly in headlines last week.
Huffington Post, for example, posted a story by RNS with this headline: “Pope Francis Says Divorce May Be ‘Morally Necessary’ To Protect Kids.
The New York Post also reported: “Pope Francis: Divorce can be ‘morally necessary’”
The story itself, however, is more nuanced:
Pope Francis said Wednesday (June 24) that there are times when it is “morally necessary” for couples to separate, as part of the pontiff’s broader reflection on how to protect children from quarreling parents. Speaking to crowds in St. Peter’s Square, Francis said that in some cases “separation is inevitable” and “can even become morally necessary” at times. The pontiff was clear in specifying the extreme cases in which he saw family breakdown as justifiable: “when it comes to saving the weaker spouse, or young children, from more serious injuries caused by intimidation and violence, by humiliation and exploitation, by lack of involvement and indifference.”
According to this translation, the word “divorce” was never used. Pope Francis was talking about married couples living apart.
In fact, people who were surprised or even shocked, simply shocked, at this pronouncement should know there is nothing new here. This has been the long-standing teaching of the Church.
From the catechism:
2383 The separation of spouses while maintaining the marriage bond can be legitimate in certain cases provided for by canon law.177If civil divorce remains the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance, it can be tolerated and does not constitute a moral offense.
Canon lawyer Ed Petersnoted last week:
Francis’ recent comments about the need, at times, for married couples to separate are neither imprudent nor imprecise and they should provide no solace to foes of right thinking nor occasion concern among the faithful. Francis is, I suggest, simply re-stating standard moral theology and indeed canon law in his remarks on marriage.
Canon law puts it this way:
Can. 1151 Spouses have the duty and right to preserve conjugal living unless a legitimate cause excuses them. Can. 1152 §1. Although it is earnestly recommended that a spouse, moved by Christian charity and concerned for the good of the family, not refuse forgiveness to an adulterous partner and not disrupt conjugal life, nevertheless, if the spouse did not condone the fault of the other expressly or tacitly, the spouse has the right to sever conjugal living unless the spouse consented to the adultery, gave cause for it, or also committed adultery.
Can. 1153 §1. If either of the spouses causes grave mental or physical danger to the other spouse or to the offspring or otherwise renders common life too diYcult, thatspouse gives the other a legitimate cause for leaving, either by decree of the local ordinary or even on his or her own authority if there is danger in delay.
- 2. Tacit condonation exists if the innocent spouse has had marital relations voluntarily with the other spouse after having become certain of the adultery. It is presumed, moreover, if the spouse observed conjugal living for six months and did not make recourse to the ecclesiastical or civil authority.
- 3. If the innocent spouse has severed conjugal living voluntarily, the spouse is to introduce a cause for separation within six months to the competent ecclesiasticalauthority which, after having investigated all the circumstances, is to consider carefully whether the innocent spouse can be moved to forgive the fault and not to prolong theseparation permanently.
Can. 1154 After the separation of the spouses has taken place, the adequate support and education of the children must always be suitably provided.
- 2. In all cases, when the cause for the separation ceases, conjugal living must be restored unless ecclesiastical authority has established otherwise.
Bottom line: Despite what some headline writers would have you believe, the pope has not changed the church’s timeless teaching about marriage, or suddenly given his blessing to divorce.