Is the Pope Softening on Divorce?

The pope's private visit today with Prince Charles and Camilla—who was previously married to a Catholic—is raising questions about a potential shift in church doctrine.

04.27.09 12:54 PM ET

In anticipation of Prince Charles and Camilla’s meeting with the pope today, the British press had predicted that Benedict XVI would chide them for being divorced, and the royal couple would be presented with a facsimile of Henry VIII’s 16th-century request for the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Neither of those things came to pass, so observers were left to draw comparisons between this visit to Vatican City and and earlier ones made by Charles with Princess Diana in 1985.

“She’s not Lady Di,” commented a member of the crowd waiting to get a glimpse of the royal couple’s Maserati. “She looks like a strega [witch] in black.” The Duchess of Cornwall had opted for the most sober ensemble, a black veil, matronly black fitted suit, and a single strand of pearls.

While neither Camilla nor Charles are Catholic, Camilla was married to one and as such is seen as an “unforgiven” in the church. 

But if Camilla failed to supplant Diana as the queen of Italy’s heart, she nevertheless managed to set a precedent that may turn out to be important. While neither she nor Charles are Catholic, Camilla was married to one and as such is seen as an “unforgiven” in the church. The fact that she was granted a private audience, according to many Vatican watchers, may signal an easing of the church’s intransigent opposition to divorce, especially given the timing of the visit. The meeting comes just days after the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church over his own divorce, which led to the creation of the Church of England.

In fact, sources in the private meeting say that among the topics Prince Charles discussed with the Vatican’s secretary of state was the proposed change to Britian’s Act of Succession that currently forbids royalty from marrying Roman Catholics. The Vatican wants to see that ban lifted. Prince Charles has also been highly critical of the Holy See’s opposition to birth control and its effect on overpopulation—but that topic was noticeably missing from the conversation, perhaps as a concession.

Prince Charles presented the pontiff with 12 dessert plates hand-painted with flowers from the royal garden, saying he hoped they’d be “of use.” The royal couple was given an etching of St. Peter’s church before Michelangelo designed the dome. Perhaps not coincidentally, the original painting from which the etching was made is 500 years old—at the time when the English church broke away from the Vatican.

Prince Charles and Camilla are in Italy primarily to tout the prince’s eco-friendly policies. On Monday morning, he addressed members of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, greeting them in perfect Italian, then urging them to use “inspired leadership” to help save the planet by cutting carbon-dioxide emissions and reducing their individual carbon footprints. Doing so, he said, would create jobs and ensure that companies stay economically competitive while moving Italy and all of Europe toward energy independence.

But a few days earlier, the prince was taken to task for choosing to travel in a super-luxe private jet that had been converted to include extra amenities for the royal couple and their staff. His flights to Rome, Venice, and Berlin will leave a 52.95-ton carbon footprint—13 times more than going by commercial airliner—according to a study by Carbon Managers, a British organization that audits emissions.

After meeting with the pope, the royals lunched with members of the Slow Food movement and United Nations food groups, where Italian chefs prepared special cuts of British beef the royals brought from England. Later Prince Charles weathered a wind storm to tour the murals of the recently excavated Casa di Augusto on the Palatine Hill overlooking the Roman forum.

Tonight they will attend a gala dinner hosted by the British embassy in Rome. Tomorrow, while Charles addresses Italy’s influential Confindustria business lobby, Camilla will visit the Keats-Shelley Memorial House on the Spanish Steps.

Later the two will head to Venice where they will address another environmental business group and tour the recently rebuilt La Fenice Opera House. In Venice, the royal couple may also get to see the effects of global warming firsthand— acqua alta, or high flood waters—are expected to inundate the canal city.

Barbie Nadeau has reported from Italy for Newsweek magazine since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel Magazine, and Frommer's.