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.



The Pope at Yad Vashem

I grew up in a wonderful, predominantly Jewish suburb outside Rochester, New York. The Holocaust never directly touched my family. It still cast long shadows over many lives I knew. Inscribed in a notebook at our local Jewish Community Center were names of relatives lost. On my way to shoot pool or play basketball, I could find notations for the grandparents, aunts, and uncles of my classmates and friends. Somehow the survivors managed to reconstruct their lives, enduring quietly with staggering memories of trauma and loss.

I pondered some of those experiences reading accounts of Pope Francis’s visit to Yad Vashem during his recent visit to the Middle East. I am glad that the Pope is trying to mediate in the tragic conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. So much about his efforts underscores why he is a remarkable figure on the world stage. Noting Palestinian suffering under an cruel occupation, while also noting the suffering of Israeli victims of terrorism, Francis demonstrated his remarkable ability to honor the humanity of both sides in an intractable conflict.

Photo from
Photo from

And yet, reading Gershom Gorenberg’s fantastic account of the Pope’s visit, something doesn’t sit right. At Yad Vashem, Pope Francis kissed the hands of elderly survivors. He was gracious. He said many things one might expect a religious leader to say in that place on that occasion.  His comments would have been pitch-perfect, had he been visiting (say) Gandhi’s tomb far to the east.  But that wasn’t where he was….

Continue reading “The Pope at Yad Vashem”

“The late-Soviet Scenario”

Pope Francis made news with a sort-of-private phone call to an Argentine woman, whom he permitted to take communion despite her marriage to a divorced man.

Once again, the pope has thus committed another unauthorized act of commonsense humanity. Once again, modern-day Pharisees are disturbed by the pope’s self-authorized departure from ossified dogma. Once again, Ross Douthat is on the case, with his blend of implausibly stodgy conservatism and genuinely admirable analytic insight:  Continue reading ““The late-Soviet Scenario””