Ed Peters on Pope Francis’ remarks about “separation” of spouses

Distinguished canonist Ed Peters has comments at his fine blog In The Light Of The Law. He doesn’t have a combox, but he doesn’t mind discussion of his stuff over here. Be sure to check his other posts.

The pope’s comments on ‘separation’ make canonical sense

Granting that Pope Francis has made some imprudent statements (e.g., mentioning Catholic families and rabbits breeding in the same breath) and some imprecise ones (e.g., asserting that air-conditioning is a ‘clear example’ of consumerist disregard for the common good), and granting that such comments comfort those trying to make the Church look incoherent while distressing those who value prudence and precision in ecclesiastical commentary, nevertheless, [NB] 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. I’ll draw chiefly on canon law in showing how this is true (for moral theology see, e.g. Davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology, IV: 228-230, or Häring, Law of Christ, III: 319-320, or Palazzini, “Separatio coniugum”, DMC IV: 263-266).

Canon 1151 directly states that “spouses have the duty and the right to preserve conjugal living”. Canon 1135 underscores that “each spouse has an equal duty and right to those things which belong the partnership of the conjugal life”. And the foundational Canon 1055 defines marriage as, among other things, “a partnership of the whole of life”. In these norms the 1983 Code is setting out what common sense and human nature already tend toward, namely, valuing the cohabitation of married couples.

But, that said, neither canon law or nor human nature demand the impossible. If, under certain circumstances, it becomes impossible (physically or morally) for a couple to cohabit, they are permitted to separate. Canon 1151, cited above as directing cohabitation, includes the proviso “unless a legitimate cause excuses them”, and Canon 1153 (capping a canonical tradition that reaches back at least to Gratian) expressly acknowledges the risk of “grave mental or physical danger to [a] spouse or children” as justifying the separation of spouses. Thus, Francis’ comments on the need, at times, for separation in marriage fall squarely within the parameters of canon law.

Of course, say “separation” these days and the world hears “divorce”; mention “divorce” and the world immediately assumes a “right to remarriage”. Francis, however, mentions neither divorce nor remarriage. He could have, if he so chose, reminded his audience that even civil divorce (which does not destroy a natural marriage bond, let alone a sacramental one!) is a morally licit option under certain circumstances (see, e.g., CCC 2383), but he would never has suggested a divorced person’s simply proceeding to remarriage, for such would be contrary to the plain teaching of Christ. But civil divorce and remarriage are complex topics that do not lend themselves to adequate presentation to a crowd of pilgrims standing under the hot summer sun.

In short, when Francis says “separation” he means separation, not necessarily civil divorce (though it might be licit under some circumstances) and certainly not simple “remarriage” (which is not an option for Catholics). Persons reading apocalyptic divorce and remarriage overtones into the pope’s comments on separation are, well, going apocalyptic.

So, everyone, breathe.

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  1. Pcito says:

    For us pastors, this one is a no-brainer. On some occasions, I’ve had to tell the suffering spouse that separation is permissible. On other occasions, I’ve even recommended it and seen it lead to reconciliation. As Dr. Peters said, this has nothing to do with divorce and remarriage.

  2. Mary T says:

    Thank you for posting this, Father. It is much more detailed than the responses I have been posting every time I see an article crowing that “the Pope is opening the door to divorce!” But it’s like the old Jewish story: when asked why gossip was such a bad thing, a rabbi took a student up a high windy hill and asked him to cut open a down pillow, shaking the feathers out. As they whirled away, the student said he did not see the point. The rabbi said, “Now go pick them up.”

    I sometimes think the journalists who publish this stuff (and it has been everywhere) might actually know the truth but simply don’t care – they are just scattering the feathers in the wind, knowing that they will come to land all over the place and that there will be no undoing of the problem (who reads those tiny “corrections” notices in newspapers anyway? And most newspapers don’t publish them).

  3. donato2 says:

    I had assumed that what the Pope said in this regard was correct — not because I knew the pertinent canon law (I didn’t) but simply because it made sense. But the statement nonetheless causes some concern in the focus that it reflects. Why would the Pope be singling out difficult marital situations? The possibility that jumps to mind is the setting of the stage for a change in the discipline concerning communion for the divorced and civilly remarried. When arguing about abortion, the “pro-choice” side almost always employs the tactic of focusing on the “hard” cases. My concern is that Pope Francis’s statement is part of an analogous tactic concerning the issue of communion for the divorced and civilly remarried.

  4. Traductora says:

    Certainly he didn’t say anything out of line, but why did he have to say it in the first place? His words were described in one press report as a “change in tone” in Church teaching on marriage, while the Guardian, if I recall correctly, happily proclaimed that it was “signaling a massive shift in doctrine.”

    He must have known that loose speech like this could only be throwing a bone to a press that is slavering over the idea of the Church falling apart over marriage this October. I had a relative of whom another family member said that “her mouth is in motion before her mind is in gear.” I was once again reminded of that phrase by this papal utterance.

  5. danidunn says:

    Pope Francis, like always, says something that is completely consistent with Catholic theology. The press reports what he says, maybe in a deliberate manner that leads people to misinterpret what he says. Nonetheless, people do misinterpret what he says. But, it is the Pope who is condemned for saying what he said because he should have known better to have reiterated Catholic teachings? That people would misinterpret him and it would have been better for the him not to have said anything in the first place? The poor man can not win.

  6. wolfeken says:

    Traductora asked: “Certainly he didn’t say anything out of line, but why did he have to say it in the first place?”

    This pope knows exactly what he is doing. To change policy, one must first change the tone.

    I appreciate the 4,289th installment of WDTPRS (What Did The Pope Really Say?) over the last 28 months, but let’s not kid ourselves: every one of his “imprudent” and “imprecise” statements has been part of an overall communication strategy, as sloppy as it may seem. He is a very smart man — a pope with a plan — something I fear some on the center-right do not seem to recognize.

  7. pj_houston says:

    Yes, exactly. Although rather than claiming he’s a very smart man, I’d say devious would be the better adjective.

  8. drohan says:

    Dr. Peter’s response is important. But again, I go back to the way the Vatican Press Office always seems to be out worked. There has to be a way to get people like Dr. Peters in the public eye to explain these things. The pope says something, and the liberal media goes bonkers. I know they cannot control everything (or anything for that matter) that comes out, but they can be on guard to give immediate faithful interpretation for the faithful and the media at large.

    I just get sick of having the odd, angry Jesuit or weird, heterodox LCWR doing all the interpretations from the Huffington Post and Salon.com. Is that asking too much?

  9. dans0622 says:

    Why did the Pope say this? He’s dedicating his Wednesday audiences to the topic of marriage and family life. This week, he spoke about problems that can arise in marriage and how the couple should go about resolving them. Should the Pope fear the reaction of the secular press and not discuss a part of Church teaching/practice (the possible necessity of separation)? I don’t think so. I agree with Dr. Peters: these remarks were neither imprudent or imprecise.

  10. Paulo says:

    Let me give an example of where the focus of Synod of the Family should be, and which fits very well with the topic of the post. My brother’s wife suffers from bipolar disorder. They have two young children aged 4 and 6. Currently, the medication she is in is not at adequately containing the mood cycle. While this is being slowly (and hopefully) being corrected, my sister-in-law is either severely depressed or going on shopping spree (both very common manifestations of the disorder); consequently, she is unable to hold a job. My brother, a surgeon and chief of orthopaedic traumatology at a local hospital, is acting most of the time as a single parent and unable to properly fulfill his obligations at the hospital, a source of anxiety and depression for him. Recently, the topic of separation came up, for the simple reason that both recognize that, apparently, everybody’s life would be “better” that way.

    The problem I see is: although a short term separation could be beneficial from a mental health point of view, it is currently too easy to take this further and wonder into divorce territory. Thde pastoral care we need is not that the one that assumes that they’ll drift apart, one or both may find another someone and happily join the communion line knowing that all is well. The care we need is: this is a wounded family. A real, husband and wife with kids family. And I rarely hear anything about this type of family from anyone…

  11. jacobi says:

    Father ,

    What is s sad is that Ed Peters has to go to such lengths to explain the blatently obvious.

    I have no degrees in whatever it is, but I could have explained all this at the age of 16, having done my Religious Knowledge (RK) and Apologetics classes at the excellent Catholic school, as I now can see, which I had the good fortune to attend in the 1950s.

    This whole discussion is about the utter obsession the secularists, both within and without the Church, have about getting their, well shall we say, having sex – regardless.

    I mean what is wrong with chastity, permanently or temporarily. Priests, travelling businessmen, the sick or disabled, the Military, seamen, or those whose spouses are ill, all are all required to accept it.

    Of course it, that is the obsession with sex, is also used by adulterers and sodomists to obtain social acceptance for their sinful practises.

    It would be a good thing if the Pope was absolutely clear about this at the coming session and we all moved on.

    If he is not, I suspect the African bishops will sort the whole thing out!

  12. iamlucky13 says:

    “I have no degrees in whatever it is, but I could have explained all this at the age of 16, having done my Religious Knowledge (RK) and Apologetics classes at the excellent Catholic school, as I now can see, which I had the good fortune to attend in the 1950s.”

    This echoes my thoughts as well, although my catechesis came in the 90’s and from my family, both in the home, and because my parents volunteered to teach Sunday CCD to ensure we and others were properly educated.

    I’ve been a little slow to catch on how many statements of the pope get misinterpreted because the people listening are too badly catechized to recognize the context of the statement.

  13. Gerard Plourde says:

    We might also consider that an example where separation is necessary is the presence of physical abuse of the spouse. If one spouse is beating the other, the abuser is committing a sin against the 5th Commandment. He (or she) is also acting in violation of the vow taken when the Sacrament was initiated (considering that marriage is a sacrament that is lived out for a lifetime). That said, sepaation should last no longer than necessary to ensure that the abusive behavior stops.

  14. Fr. Pius, OP says:

    Except that the phrase used was morally necessary. The Church has long held that such separation may be morally licit, but I think calling it morally necessary might be too strong.

    Can. 1153 §1 A spouse who occasions grave danger of soul or body to the other or to the children, or otherwise makes the common life unduly difficult, provides the other spouse with a reason to leave, either by a decree of the local Ordinary or, if there is danger in delay, even on his or her own authority.

    A “reason to leave” (legitimam … causam descendendi) is not the same as a duty to leave.

  15. Grumpy Beggar says:

    Dr. Peters’ perspectives can be really helpful when having to negotiate smokescreens. I’ve sometimes discovered an extra insight or two to be drawn simply from the way he words his views.

    In the OP , we are encouraged not to misconstrue the following principal (presented in nice clear, simple language ) :

    “If, under certain circumstances, it becomes impossible (physically or morally) for a couple to cohabit, they are permitted to separate.”

    Opponents (within and outside the Church) of the indissolubility of marriage would love to distort the above principle into somewhat of a mantra for, or as a point of departure in, the promotion/sanctioning of divorce and remarriage : What better way, they think, to follow through on their ideal than to allow (ahem) divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion ? When framed in such a manner , the proposal (for the abuse of Holy Matrimony) becomes further compounded by the potential abuse of at least two more Sacraments: Holy Communion, and Reconciliation.

    Dr. Peters’ key wording of that principle of the separation of spouses , can give us a window into the shrouded illogicality lurking behind the disordered ideal of the proposal of Holy Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. Opponents of the indissolubility of marriage propose, as their point of departure, a sophistical interpretation/distortion of :

    If, under certain circumstances, it becomes impossible (physically or morally) for a couple to cohabit, they are permitted to separate.

    Yet their end game , their goal, which is supposed to have logically followed – particularly through admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to Holy Communion, using these same terms , essentially becomes a proposal of the inverse :

    If, under certain circumstances, it becomes impossible for a couple to separate, they are permitted to cohabit.

    . . . doesn’t stand up to the light of reason.

  16. robtbrown says:

    Fr Pius OP

    Except that the phrase used was morally necessary. The Church has long held that such separation may be morally licit, but I think calling it morally necessary might be too strong.

    If the children are in danger, separation could be said to be “morally necessary”.

  17. Margaret says:

    If the children are in danger, separation could be said to be “morally necessary”.

    This is what comes to my mind, as well. A situation where physical or sexual abuse is occurring would be pretty much a no-brainer, but I would have to think also instances where the mother or father is deliberately, openly flaunting Catholic morality, i.e. openly bringing an adulterous partner into the home, viewing pornography in public spaces in the home in spite of the children’s presence, etc. Such an environment would cause grievous moral deformation to the children.

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