Shorter Ross Douthat

All Popes are infallible, but reactionary Popes are more infallible than others.

Note especially two extraordinary claims:

* That what Douthat admits is a traditionalist minority deserves deference because of its energy. Apparently Douthat wants his faction to dominate the Church the way the Tea Party dominates the GOP.

* That it would be outrageous for Pope Francis to use the power of appointment to move the Church into the future in precisely the way his two predecessors used it to move the Church into the past.

Brad DeLong notes the historical falsity of the claim that the early modern church was prepared to lose England rather than compromise on the indissolubility of marriage. But it is worse than false: it is absurd. The granting of annulments to royal persons when politically convenient was no more controversial at the time than was granting dispensations from what otherwise would have been impediments to marriage (e.g., on grounds of consanguinity) for the same political reasons. When Louis VII of France decided he could no longer put up with Eleanor of Aquitaine – after 15 years of marriage, with two children – he had no problem getting their marriage annulled, to his own relief and to the delight of Eleanor and her lover Henry Plantagenet, soon to be King of England.

By Douthat’s announced standard – the Gospel teaching that a man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery –  the marriage of Eleanor and Henry was adulterous, and their children therefore bastards. But of course no one would have suggested that at the time. Nor does anyone suggest that about the tens of thousands of Catholic couples each year who suddenly decide that their long-standing marriages were invalid from their inception and get a church tribunal to go along with that assertion. (In some cases, that decision is mutual, but in others it’s at the instance of one party or the other, sometimes against vigorous resistance of the other party.)

If you can read this explanation by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops without laughing out loud, your facial muscles are stronger than mine:

“Annulment” is an unfortunate word that is sometimes used to refer to a Catholic “declaration of nullity.” Actually, nothing is made null through the process. Rather, a Church tribunal (a Catholic church court) declares that a marriage thought to be valid according to Church law actually fell short of at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union.

The document goes on to explain why the children of two people who were never married are nonetheless considered legitimate. It’s true: “With God, all things are possible.”


1. If you consider the practice of assigning children nasty labels based on the conduct of their parents outrageous, I’m with you all the way. But the Church has never repudiated the disgusting concept of bastardy, which unfortunately occurs in the Torah. It merely invents a way around it.

2. Having a somewhat game-theoretic way of looking at the world, I’m more sympathetic than most of my friends to the idea that marriage ought to be somewhat more difficult to escape from than it is, for example, in California under “no-fault divorce.” An easy out can easily lead to great injustice, usually against the woman.  And there are clear advantages to both parties in being able to plan as if the marriage would outlast at least any temporary and unilateral inclination to end it.

But that analysis doesn’t answer the question how much suffering it is desirable or justified to inflict on people who made a marital mistake and on their subsequent spouses and children. Douthat’s failure to mention the human costs of the current rigid policy suggests a certain hardness of heart. Perhaps he needs to meditate on the Sermon on the Mount.



Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

17 thoughts on “Shorter Ross Douthat”

  1. When Louis VII of France decided he could no longer put up with Eleanor of Aquitaine – after 15 years of marriage, with two children – he had no problem getting their marriage annulled, to his own relief and to the delight of Eleanor and her lover Henry Plantagenet, soon to be King of England.

    Which is okay because it resulted in a terrific movie:

  2. 1) Do you make it a habit of making blog posts claiming that the religious teachings of other
    Douthat may himself refer to those with traditionalist views on marriage as a minority within the Church, but its by no means clear that this is the case. Yes, the "traditionalist" view seems to command less than 50% support in the US, Canada and Western Europe. But there are hundreds of millions of Catholics in sub-Saharan Africa, South America and, increasingly, east Asia. Catholic "progressives" who have long comforted themselves with the idea that time is on their side because surely in one or two generations almost all Catholics will think like they think haven't really done the demographic math. Christians (including Catholics) in the "Global South" confound Western interpreters because they tend toward decidedly "left wing" views on economics, while holding to very conservative views on issues of human sexuality. Cardinal Kasper's ugly racist gaffe at the synod, publicized much to his chagrin and surprise, was at least a back-handed acknowledgement that the strength of the progressive faction in the Church is in part due to the continued under-representation of the Global South in the College of Cardinals, an under-representation that is slowly equalling out. Or put another way, if the proportion of the world's Bishops hailing from Germany, France and the UK was proportional to the world's Catholics in those countries (much less the proportion of Catholics who regularly attend Mass), then there would scarcely anyone at the synod who thought that the issues that have dominated headlines of late are the most important challenges to contemporary family life, Catholic or otherwise.

    P.S. In your opening you get the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility wrong, as does nearly every non-Catholic who decides that the world wants to hear their opinions on matters of Catholic teaching.

    1. Sorry, some sort of web glitch has caused the comment to be reposted over and over.

    1. Dodgy character, under remand I think, a threat to Queen and Country by any standard.

  3. Two terrific movies: Peter O'Toole as Henry and Richard Burton as Becket in "Becket." Alas, for some reason Jean Anoilh hated Eleanor.

  4. It also resulted in England having arguably her greatest king, the inventor of the Common Law.

  5. Yes, another very fine film, with O'Toole yet again

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  6. Mark, if it's any consolation, I don't think annulments hold that much influence with other Catholics. At a minimum, it might be a big eyebrow raiser if it's someone clearly working an angle. Though my guess, many people do it so they can still receive Communion, or at least, not have to worry about being refused. And I think most of us would be sympathetic to that.

    Also, most of us have heard the line about not judging, lest you get it yourself. Meanwhile, I still know people who come from families who quit the Church because x years ago, people told Grandma to stay with a man who beat her. So. Let the "traditionalists" complain all they want. I still say, today is better.

    And re: the South. What we should look at is, the relative degree of freedom for women in those countries. That will tell the tale. Women are not stupid, we just tend to have less power. And that can change too.

    1. re: the South: most of the countries in the Global South have cultures which afford women fewer opportunities than do countries in Western Europe and North America. But this is changing rapidly in many of these societies without a particularly strong drift away from "traditionalist" religious belief. The Western assumption that modernization of women's opportunities has to go hand-in-hand with abandonment of traditional faith is not being born out, or at least not being born out to the degree that one might expect. It is not uncommon to encounter women from, for example, Nigeria who are devout and very traditional Anglicans or Catholics and who are in the US pursuing an MBA or an MD.

      1. Well, … my feeling is, wait a few more minutes before you say that "modernization of women's opportunities…" – ie, having the money and freedom to make their own decisions? — won't lead to changes in religious practice. In the realm of reproduction, I am pretty sure that it *will.* I would bet a whole lot of money on it.

        To be clear… the problem isn't with Jesus or the RC church per se. The problem is with the male-dominated hierarchy and their assorted weirdo cultural traditions re bodies, sex, and women. (I am not against all traditions! Just the harmful ones.)

        But changing reproduction practices doesn't at all mean that someone is less faithful. Not at all. I hope we have some overlap on that. Neither do those male clergy embody "the Church" any more than the rest of us. (Douthat was trying to go there. Um, I don't think so, pal. Also … I don't recall Jesus saying anything like, don't give Communion to divorced people. Guess I missed that.)

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