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, 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 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 have 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. + + +