With the ruckus over the Pope’s encyclical on the environment settling down, papal watchers are turning their attention to Francis’s visit in September and, in particular, to the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. Many people are speculating about whether or not the Pope will advocate for receiving divorced and remarried Catholics back into the Church. On Wednesday, those looking for clues about this got a potential hint about what is to come.
Speaking to the crowds in St. Peter’s Square, Francis said that in some marriages “separation is inevitable” and in some instances “can even become morally necessary.”
Even though his remarks came in the context of a discussion of the damage done to families when parents argue, Francis was clear that he did not mean to suggest that separation is a cure for domestic squabbles over the remote. When he spoke of the moral necessity of separation, he was describing specific extreme cases, “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.”
Francis’s remarks are important because they seem like a foretaste of the meeting in Philadelphia. Some might argue that if Francis is willing to endorse separation in cases of “indifference” as a “moral necessity” then perhaps he will be willing to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to be readmitted into full communion with the Church in the future.
Perhaps, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. While the Pope’s comments are surprising for the way that they frame marital separation as a potential good, the Catholic Church already supports separation in cases where domestic violence is an issue. The language of “lack of involvement and indifference” is certainly broader than we might expect, but nothing has changed doctrinally here. There’s no mention of actual divorce.
This is the reality of the Francis effect: His pastoral tone makes traditional teaching more palatable to those turned off during the Benedict years, but he isn’t (not yet anyway) saying anything new.
So what do we make of all of this? There are two ways to read the tea leaves on this.
First, Francis’s public discussion of the moral necessity of separation may well be paving the way for bolder decision-making come the fall. After all, his remarks include his key strategy for dealing with those in the Church who think he is too easy-going.
Call it the “think of the children” move. Whenever Francis advocates for compassion and understanding for irregular families, he refers to the potential damage done to the innocent children that are the products of these relationships. On Wednesday he talked about his concern for children whose parents fight or are violent.
Of course this isn’t just rhetoric; Francis genuinely cares about children and makes them a focal point of much of his theology. But in general, the appeal to the future of children works on those who find Francis’s teachings a bit too open and forgiving. Perhaps Francis is steeling them for a more decisive statement on divorced Catholics.
The other way to read the remarks on separation is that they are just the first part of Francis’s established pattern of delivering a one-two liberal-conservative media punch. The savvy Pontiff has often made headlines talking about compassion for groups traditionally marginalized in the Church—think the famous “who am I to judge” conversation on homosexuality—only to reassert Church teaching on things like abortion and contraception the following day. If it seems like the Pope swings wildly from left to right, bear in mind that Francis is a compassionate Catholic, not a political candidate.
If this is what is happening, then in September we might expect Francis to express a great deal of pastoral concern for struggling families while standing his ground on Church teachings about the sacrament of marriage. That seemed to be the official position at the last Synod of Bishops on the Family, in October 2014.
Amid all of this speculation, we might have lost sight of what is important about the Pope’s message. Whether or not anything doctrinally novel was actually said on Wednesday, something important has happened. The Pope voiced concern for and defended the choices of those in emotionally and physically destructive marriages. Some psychologists and sociologists have suggested that the more religious a family is the less likely a battered wife is to leave her abusive spouse (there is opposing evidence to this theory). Even though the Church supports marital splits in this situation, there is a lot of religiously grounded pressure to stay.
There is no shortage of New Testament passages encouraging Christians to embrace undeserved mistreatment just as Jesus did and exhorting women to be obedient to their husbands. Read in a certain way, these can promote acceptance of physical and emotional violence. Even if individual priests, pastors, friends, and family members are supportive, those who grow up valuing marriage highly find it difficult to leave dangerous marriages. It’s a cultural thing.
It is only when religious leaders explicitly endorse separation as the moral course of action that those suffering in harmful marriages can feel supported by their religious communities. For people like this, changing culture rather than doctrine is the pressing need.