Sunday, November 1, 2015

Many are called, but few are Douthat

St. Ross, Pandit and Martyr. MockPaperScissors, August 2010.
Monsignor Ross Douthat, Apostolic Nuncio to 42nd Street, is shocked! shocked! to find that the Roman Catholic Church is not a democracy like the Muslim ummah in which it's OK to toss out takfiri accusations, as he's been doing in the direction of the Pope recently, sometimes subtly as in that column, sometimes pretty out there on Twitter:
Pretty comical, considering that his complaint seems to be that the church may be heading down a path that's not authoritarian enough in its approach to sinners such as the divorced. Now a brief letter from 55 distinguished Catholic theologians at US academic institutions has appeared complaining to the New York Times about the conduct of their ill-bred and untrained employee, and today's column is a lengthy reply to that:
I have great respect for your vocation. Let me try to explain mine.
He has a vocation! Isn't that special! He didn't just fall into opinionating, he was called to it.

I believe the Blessed Virgin appeared to him in a dream: "There are many ways of serving me, Ross; yours is to kvetch about the decadence and depravity of the times in The Times, on a weekly or biweekly basis."
A columnist has two tasks: To explain and to provoke. The first requires giving readers a sense of the stakes in a given controversy, and why it might deserve a moment of their fragmenting attention span. The second requires taking a clear position on that controversy, the better to induce the feelings (solidarity, stimulation, blinding rage) that persuade people to read, return, and re-subscribe.
So you shouldn't take the harshness of his judgment too seriously. The explanation is the important part, the position-taking is just clickbait. Thanks for clarifying, Ross.
if the church admits the remarried to communion without an annulment — while also instituting an expedited, no-fault process for getting an annulment, as the pope is poised to do — the ancient Catholic teaching that marriage is “indissoluble” would become an empty signifier.
There are some surprising errors here. What is the pope "poised" to do? He has already issued two motu proprio documents that have been described as instituting "no-fault annulments", to take effect on this coming December 8. Is the Monsignor unaware of this, or is he talking about something else that hasn't been reported at all, from some secret source of his own? If the former, that's not what it is.

The reason an annulment is, technically, not a divorce is that it doesn't end a marriage but declares that a marriage has never existed, and it's not about faults because it's about "impediments" and other grounds for claiming that it was not a valid marriage in the first place. The list has changed here and there over the centuries, but it starts with Matthew 5:32 (which invalidates a marriage where one of the parties commits sexual immorality), and has gone on to include not just the standard list (consanguinity and affinity, non-consummation, impotence or insanity), but broader standards, like "an error about the quality" of one of the parties, as instantiated by St. Thomas Aquinas:

To the extent this point has developed from around the 1917 Pio-Benedictine Code through Vatican II into something like a blank check for an annulment ("Your grace, he's not the man I thought he was!"), the process was more or less finished by 1970, in spite of numerous complaints by conservative popes that it had led to too many of the damned things—
Pope Benedict XVI in his address to the Roman Rota in 2009,[18] echoing words of his predecessor John Paul II, has criticized "the exaggerated and almost automatic multiplication of declarations of nullity of marriage in cases of the failure of marriage on the pretext of some immaturity or psychic weakness on the part of the contracting parties". Calling for "the reaffirmation of the innate human capacity for matrimony", he insisted on the point made in 1987 by John Paul II that "only incapacity and not difficulty in giving consent invalidates a marriage".[19]
The only changes made by Francis in the new motu proprio documents (one for the Western church, one for the churches of the Eastern Latin Rite) are to speed up the process and make it cheaper, essentially ending its practical restriction to wealthy Catholics and making it available to more ordinary people, which is perhaps what conservatives like Monsignor Douthat really object to.

I guess you could think of the Catholic concept of "indissolubility" as an "empty signifier", but only if you acknowledge that that horse floated out of the barn centuries ago, when they started carving out the exceptions in the annulment law. ("Oops," said Eleanor of Aquitaine to Louis VII in 1152, "you seem to be my third cousin once removed! Turns out we're not married, in spite of 15 years and two daughters!" Then she flounced out to become queen of England and have some sons instead, to the great benefit of literary history.) What really became empty is "marriage", through the denial that it is a marriage unless it's indissoluble so that the dissoluble ones, however defined, would lapse into a theological nonexistence (everybody married without the sacramental participation of the Church is theologically unmarried too, of course, although most of us in that situation aren't Catholics either, so excommunicating us is not a very serious threat). Since we go on calling them marriages all the same.
The ["liberalizing" claim] is that the changes being debated would be merely “pastoral” rather than “doctrinal,” and that so long as the church continues to say that marriage is indissoluble, nothing revolutionary will have transpired. But this seems rather like claiming that China has not, in fact, undergone a market revolution because it’s still governed by self-described Marxists. No: In politics and religion alike, a doctrine emptied in practice is actually emptied, whatever official rhetoric suggests.
Except that it really is pastoral rather than doctrinal, as I've shown pretty clearly (canon law citations and all!), for one thing; and for another thing, the Chinese economy hasn't undergone a market revolution but a "Reform and Opening Up" in which the state has maintained its ultimately total control over the economy through the introduction of market mechanisms into its repertoire, as Ian Bremmer has explained:
In this system, governments use various kinds of state-owned companies to manage the exploitation of resources that they consider the state's crown jewels and to create and maintain large numbers of jobs. They use select privately owned companies to dominate certain economic sectors. They use so-called sovereign wealth funds to invest their extra cash in ways that maximize the state's profits. In all three cases, the state is using markets to create wealth that can be directed as political officials see fit. And in all three cases, the ultimate motive is not economic (maximizing growth) but political (maximizing the state's power and the leadership's chances of survival). This is a form of capitalism but one in which the state acts as the dominant economic player and uses markets primarily for political gain. 
It's as Leninist (I wouldn't say Marxist) as it's ever been. (Indeed, it follows on Lenin's excellent ideas in the New Economic Policy of 1922-28, premised on the need to open up markets to increase production, unfortunately smashed when Stalin assumed power.) In the same way, but on a much more benign plane, Francis's reforms, in making church life a little easier for the parishioners, bring a bit of flexibility into the structure that will make it in the long run more stable.

Of course if the thing Douthat fears were to come to pass that would be even better. Out here in the real world, we are aware that not every marriage is a good one, alas, and the things really do dissolve. If you and Matthew 5:32 want to explain that they weren't really marriages to start with that's very nice, and even sort of poetic; if you're trying to say that the priest knows more about it than the spouses do, and if they're being beaten or stolen from or living with someone with whom they're sexually incompatible or have nothing intellectually in common and they're a wicked person if they abandon this terrible situation to cohabit with somebody else instead of resigning themselves to the celibate life, you're just wrong. The church ought to drop this medieval idea altogether, as it has dropped the idea that lay people shouldn't be allowed to read the Bible, or the idea of the billions of unbaptized babies suffering eternal anguish in Limbo, or the condemnation of the Jews as killers of Christ. (Happy 50th birthday, by the way, to Nostra Aetate! The exculpation of the Jews was, in fact, a significant doctrinal change, though some haters insisted it wasn't, according to Rabbi David Rosen, in the hope they could ignore it; but adopting it hasn't caused the church to crumble yet.)

But nothing so radical is going to happen in the next 50 years, so in the meantime the Monsignor should try to calm down. You have to wonder why he's so bent up about this issue. You don't suppose fear of excommunication is the only thing keeping Mrs. D. home, do you? No, really, I don't either. But it is bizarre.

Update: A more purely artistic fisking at David E's Fablog.

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