In recent days, an alleged quote from Pope Francis saying that “divorce can be morally necessary” has gone viral on Philippine social media.

On May 22, the House of Representatives of the Philippines approved House Bill 9349, known as the Absolute Divorce Act, which could lead to legalizing divorce in the Philippines. 

The objective of this bill is to “to provide absolute divorce as a legal remedy for irreparably broken marriages under specific grounds and judicial processes, with the goal of sparing children from the emotional strain of parental dispute and allowing divorced individuals to remarry.”

The Philippines is the only country, save for the Vatican, that has not legalized divorce. It is also the third country with the greatest Catholic population, so the Catholic Church still holds significant influence due to its historical, religious, and cultural backdrop.

The quote from Pope Francis was used to try to convince Catholics that this bill was compatible with their faith. The citation has been recycled from several articles that made headlines in 2015 (see here, here and here).

The alleged quote is from a 2015 Papal Audience. In the original citation, Pope Francis does not speak of divorce, but separation in exceptionally grave situations:

"It is true, on the other hand, that there are cases in which separation is inevitable. At times it becomes even morally necessary, precisely when it is a matter of removing the weaker spouse or young children from the gravest wounds caused by abuse and violence, by humiliation and exploitation, by disregard and indifference."

In Catholic teaching, there is a difference between divorce and separation. Divorce means a dissolution of the marriage bond, whereas separation maintains the marriage bond, even if the spouses are not living together.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1992, mentions that separation of spouses, while maintaining the marriage bond, can be legitimate in certain cases provided for by canon law, namely if one spouse poses a “grave danger” to the other spouse or their children

It must be noted that Philippine Law already allows legal separation in certain cases, like domestic violence. 

The proposed bill, however, would allow divorce, not only in cases of abuse and psychological incapacity, but also in cases of “irreconcilable differences.”

Pope Francis was also taken out of context. In his 2015 General Audience, the Holy Father explained that we have a “serious responsibility to guard the marital bond that gives rise to the human family.”

This was not the only time Pope Francis spoke out against divorce.

In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis taught that “divorce is an evil and the increasing number of divorces is very troubling.” The Pope noted that the Synod Fathers gathered in the 2014-15 Synods of Family stated that “any breach of the marriage bond is against the will of God.”

In the same document, Francis taught that the indissolubility of marriage “should not be viewed as a ‘yoke’ imposed on humanity, but as a ‘gift.’” 

According to Amoris Laetitia, even mere separation “must be considered as a last resort, after all other reasonable attempts at reconciliation have proved vain.”

Regarding the effects of divorce on children, the Holy Father explained in his 2015 General Audience that “husband and wife are one flesh. Their own little children are flesh of their flesh.” He continued: “When man and woman have become one flesh, all the father and mother’s wounds and neglect have an impact on the living flesh of their children.”

In an address to the bishops of South Africa, the pontiff lamented how the “rate of separation and divorce is high, even in many Christian families, and children frequently do not grow up in a stable home environment.”

“All these realities threaten the sanctity of marriage, the stability of life in the home and consequently the life of society as a whole.”—Francis warned.

Francis exhorted his fellow bishops: “In this sea of difficulties, we bishops and priests must give a consistent witness to the moral teaching of the Gospel. I am confident that you will not weaken in your resolve to teach the truth ‘in season and out of season,’ sustained by prayer and discernment, and always with great compassion.”

The Filipino bishops have spoken consistently against the divorce bill. “I urge members of Congress to reconsider the proposed divorce bill”—said Bishop Alberto Uy of Tagbilaran in an interview on Church-run Radio Veritas— “and instead focus on promoting policies and programs that support marriage, strengthen families, and protect the well-being of all members of society”

“It remains the duty of every Catholic to catechize and instruct fellow-Catholics and brothers and sisters in other faith-communities the reasons why we cannot support a bill that makes legal what to us is a transgression of Christ’s sovereign will”—wrote Socrates Villegas, Archbishop of Lingayen Dagupan, in his official statement.

“We already have existing legal remedies to couple separation, and yet Congress decided to add more.”—stated Fr. Jerome Secillano, the executive secretary of the bishops’ Episcopal Commission on Public Affairs.

The push for laws such as this is also promoted by international bodies and NGOs. But during a Papal Visit to the Philippines, Francis condemned what he called “ideological colonization.”

“There are forms of ideological colonization which are out to destroy the family”—Francis said in a meeting with families in Manila— “Just as our peoples, at a certain moment of their history, were mature enough to say ‘no’ to all forms of political colonization, so too in our families we need to be very wise, very shrewd, very strong, in order to say ‘no’ to all attempts at an ideological colonization of our families.”

“These are forms of ideological colonization. The family is also threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage, by relativism, by the culture of the ephemeral, by a lack of openness to life.”— Pope Francis would go on to say.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says that the “introduction of divorce into civil legislation has fuelled a relativistic vision of the marriage bond,” calling it “truly a plague on society.”

“The stability and indissolubility of the marriage union must not be entrusted solely to the intention and effort of the individual persons involved.”—says the Compendium, adding that the “responsibility for protecting and promoting the family as a fundamental natural institution… falls to the whole of society.”

Having passed Congress, the approved bill is now transmitted to the Senate. If passed, it will be sent for Presidential Action (approval or veto).

The push to legalize divorce has been going on for years now but it gets stalled due to staunch opposition from the Catholic Church and other pro-family groups in the Philippines. 

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Claire is a Filipina global IT professional, residing in Portugal with her husband, Pedro Gabriel. She provides multimedia support, coverage and website maintenance.

She wrote articles for Where Peter Is and Ignitum Today, and provided special news coverage for Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) News Media during Pope Francis´s 2015 papal visit in the Philippines.

She was an accredited press corps member for the press coverage of World Youth Day Lisbon 2023. She was active in Catholic apologetics and pro-life initiatives back in the Philippines.

She is currently taking journalism classes at the London School of Journalism. She is a member of the International Association of Religion Journalists.

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Dr. Pedro Gabriel is a Portuguese Internet journalist, having received a diploma with Honours from the London School of Journalism in 2021. He is a member of the International Association of Religion Journalists. He is currently residing in Portugal with his wife, Claire.

He is one of the co-founders of Where Peter Is, where he remains as one of its main contributors. He also won First Prize of the 2023 Catholic Media Awards in the category “Pope Francis” for his apologetics book “The Orthodoxy of Amoris Laetitia (Wipf and Stock, 2022). He has since published two other apologetics books: “Heresy Disguised as Tradition” (En Route, 2023) and “Rigidity: Faithfulness or Heterodoxy?” (En Route, 2024).

He was an accredited press corps member for the press coverage of World Youth Day Lisbon 2023.

Currently, he is taking classes in moral theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. He is also a medical oncologist, a parish reader, and a published writer of Catholic novels.

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