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Do Catholics need to seek Church permission for divorce?

May 18, 2017

Simmering in Catholic circles for some time has been the assertion that Catholics need permission from their bishop to divorce. Proponents of this alleged requirement (one that, if observed in any meaningful way, would pose an enormous practical burden on bishops or, worse, might occasion a massive and deliberate rejection of ecclesiastical authority by lay faithful) usually invoke Canons 1151-1155 and/or Canons 1692-1696 to support their claim.

Their assertion recently took on a more formal canonical aspect when an author, who had been refused an ‘imprimatur’ for a text because it claimed that ecclesiastical permission for civil divorce is required by canon law, took recourse to Rome against that refusal; moreover, part of the disagreement between the author and the diocese turns on the weight to be accorded a 2015 letter from Cdl. Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, wherein he opines against the assertion that Catholics must obtain episcopal permission prior to filing for divorce. On the dispute between the author and the diocese, and on what weight, if any, should be given Coccopalmerio’s letter, I express no opinion.

But on the wider discussion about how to read the above-mentioned canons I have ventured some thoughts as follows: Edward Peters, “Do Catholics need ecclesiastical permission to divorce?”, Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly 40/1-2 (Spring-Summer, 2017) 61-64. The current FCSQ is hitting mailboxes now and it will eventually appear on-line, but till then this PDF will serve. Readers will decide for themselves what they think about my analysis.

Here I say only this: I am not shy about criticizing Cdl. Coccopalmerio (see, e.g., here, here, and here), so, if I thought he were wrong in holding that Catholics are not obligated to seek episcopal permission prior to filing for divorce, I would have said that. But my analysis of this issue leads me to the same conclusion he reached: episcopal permission for civil divorce might sometimes be required of Catholics in ‘concordat nations’ but not in ‘non-concordat nations’ such as the USA.

Update (21 May): “Mary’s Advocates” has posted a “Rebuttal to Ed Peters” taking issue with the arguments I set out in the FCSQ, or at least, with how they understand my arguments. I don’t see much use in replying, I’ve made my case and they’ve made theirs. Readers can form their own conclusions about which presentation is more likely correct and, more importantly, Roman authorities will certainly reach theirs in due course.


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