Ross Douthat on the Pope’s phone call(s)

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has an interesting take on the phone call Pope Francis made to an Argentine woman that almost upstaged coverage of yesterday’s canonizations.

He writes:

And whatever his intentions, the phone call and the coverage of it suggest two obvious perils for a papacy that leans too heavily on the distinction between the doctrinal and the pastoral, between official teaching and its applications.

One is what you might call the late-Soviet scenario, in which Catholic doctrine is officially unaltered, but the impression grows that even the pope doesn’t really believe these things, and that when the church’s leaders affirm a controversial position they’re going through the ideological motions — like Brezhnev-era apparatchiks — and not actually trying to teach a living faith.

The other is the dashed-expectations scenario, in which the assumption that a church teaching is about to change creates widespread disaffection when it doesn’t. This happened with contraception in the 1960s, and it could easily happen with divorce and remarriage under Francis.

Indeed, it could happen even if there are some changes to church rules. The Vatican could relax procedures governing annulments, for instance, in ways that (depending on her circumstances) might address the Argentine woman’s situation, and a press expecting something more sweeping might treat the reform as a big nothing.

There is also a third perilous scenario, even if my own assumptions about the nature of the church tend to rule it out. Francis could actually be considering a truly major shift on remarriage and communion, in which the annulment requirement is dispensed with and (perhaps) a temporary penance is substituted.

Such a shift wouldn’t just provoke conservative grumbling; it would threaten outright schism. The church has famous martyrs to the indissolubility of Christian marriage, and its teaching on divorce and adultery is grounded not just in tradition or natural law, but in the explicit words of Jesus of Nazareth.

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6 Responses to Ross Douthat on the Pope’s phone call(s)

  1. EPMS says:

    Difficult to see how annulment procedures could be relaxed any further than they already are, when over 90% of petitions are granted.

    • Rev22:17 says:


      You wrote: Difficult to see how annulment procedures could be relaxed any further than they already are, when over 90% of petitions are granted.

      This may seem like splitting hairs, but the Catholic Church has yet to grant an annulment with respect to a marriage. Rather, the Catholic Church grants decrees of nullity. An “annulment” cancels a marriage, whereas a “decree of nullity” is a declaration that a marriage never existed (that is, that a relationship that appeared to be a marriage in fact never was a marriage).

      That said, the procedures are not relaxed at all. They are exactly the same as a century ago. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the petition for a decree of nullity from a party to a disputed marriage goes to a diocesan tribunal, which conducts a “trial” (on paper — there is no courtroom) and renders a verdict. If the verdict is that the marriage is null, there’s an automatic appeal to a designated appellate tribunal (usually the metropolitan tribunal of the ecclesiastical province in the United States), which conducts a de nouveau trial on the merit. If the appellate renders the same verdict as the diocesan tribunal, the case is settled — there is no further appeal. If the diocesan and appellate tribunals disagree, the case goes to the Roman Rota, which conducts another de nouveau trial to settle the matter. Only cases of heads of state and other high officials differ: they go to the Roman Rota in first instance, to the Apostolic Signatura on first appeal, and to the pope personally if the Roman Rota and the Apostolic Signatura disagree.

      What has changed, however, is three-fold.

      >> 1. The popular understanding of marriage has been corrupted so that many people no longer understand its essentials — that of permanence and that of procreation. As a result, many people enter marriage with a material defect of intent — either thinking that they can abandon a marriage if it fails to work out or that they need not satisfy their conjugal obligations to their spouses.

      >> 2. There has also been a phenomenal wave of advancement in the sociological sciences that has led to ability to identify material defects that were not known fifty years ago, but that render persons incapable of marriage or that result in material defects of intent within marriage. Abusive relationships, for example, are now understood to be psychopathic in nature and thus basis to grant decrees of nullity as incapacitating.

      >> 3. The prevalence of relatively immature young people going off to college after high school has delayed the age at which many people gain true independence and responsibility for supporting themselves and supplying their own material needs. This cascades into a similar delay in the process of maturing into true adulthood. As a result, many people who marry at relatively young ages now lack the maturity to handle the responsibilities of marriage — which is why the incidence of marital failure is much higher among those who marry in their twenties than among those who marry in their thirties.

      In reality, however, the alarming frequency of successful petitions for decrees of nullity manifests an abject failure of pastoral leadership to ensure that couples who marry in the church manifest a proper understanding of Christian marriage and that they are psychologically fit and emotionally ready for the responsibilities that it entails. Marital preparation programs also should employ modern psychological screening instruments to weed out those who are immature, abusive, or otherwise unfit for marriage before the fact.


  2. EPMS says:

    The argument here seems to be that relatively fewer people are getting validly married these days, owing to pastoral failure to counter the notion of marriage prevalent in today’s society. Is there any prospect that this will change?

    • Rev22:17 says:


      You wrote: The argument here seems to be that relatively fewer people are getting validly married these days, owing to pastoral failure to counter the notion of marriage prevalent in today’s society.

      That’s only part of what I said. I also pointed out (1) that advances in the social sciences have led to recognition of defects that are sufficient cause for granting decrees of nullity that were not understood in times past and (2) that due to societal changes, what was presumed in times past (to wit, that couples presenting themselves to celebrate Christian marriage understood and sought the essential ends thereof) is now the exception rather than the norm.

      But in this matter, there is another factor, too. In times past, it was very difficult to obtain a divorce under secular law so many couples whose marriages collapsed in real terms never sought them — and in that era, there was also a major societal stigma attached to divorce and, consequently, a lot of social pressure to remain in bad, and even abusive, relationships. And those who could not, or would not, obtain a secular divorce typically also never sought decrees of nullity from the church because a decree of nullity is objectively moot if one cannot marry under secular law anyway.

      You asked: Is there any prospect that this will change?

      Yes, but the question is when and how. The issue clearly has the attention of the magisterium of the Catholic Church, especially in western society, but the bishops are walking a proverbial tightrope because they don’t want to implement a policy that will cause people to abandon the church in droves. Marriage preparation programs clearly need to handle this in a manner that will cause young people whose relationships are abusive to realize that they are on a self-destructive path and that they need to change course, and that the church is their loving ally seeking to spare them pain in the future rather than the ogre who wants to deprive them of what they think to be pleasure. Of course, this is related to living in true Christian faith that seeks the Holy Spirit to lead us to the right spouse if marriage is God’s will for us.


  3. EPMS says:

    I recall a previous blog thread discussing the number of people baptised in the Catholic church who proceed to other sacraments, and seeing it noted that the fall-off was most marked when it came to matrimony. Not that Catholics married at a lower rate than the general population; they just don’t get married in a Catholic church. So current marriage preparation is probably already perceived as overly-demanding. Or perhaps couples are hedging their bets with delict of form.

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