Douthat on The End of Catholic Marriage

I’m out and about and so can’t do more than point you in the direction of Hell’s Bible (aka NYT) where the redoubtable Ross Douthat has written more about the Great Matter of what’s up with the Church’s teaching on matrimony and a raft of related moral and doctrinal issues.

The End of Catholic Marriage


I haven’t written in this space for some time, but now that the election is over some additional interventions seem necessary to capture what’s happening in Roman Catholicism’s remarkable period of controversy. My Sunday column talked a bit about the way in which varying interpretations of “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on the family, have produced variations in official Catholic teaching on marriage from diocese to diocese, region to region – a “submerged schism,” to borrow a phrase from the Vatican-watcher Andrea Gagliarducci, which thanks to the astringent words of certain bishops is no longer even that submerged.

And another…

But let’s be clear: The way out of all these difficulties proposed by the bishop of San Diego [Robert McElroy] is a way out of the traditional Catholic understanding of marriage, period. Drop the mention of annulments and the pro forma nod to “indissolubility,” replace “priest” with “pastor,” and there is nothing in his language that couldn’t be reproduced by a Protestant church dealing with the same issues and seeking to reintegrate its remarried members to fellowship and the Lord’s table. It is a plausible approach if you don’t believe what Catholics are supposed to believe about the sacraments; it is perhaps well-suited to Christian traditions that do not. It is reasonable-sounding response to modern realities; so is Episcopalianism. But it is not an approach that treats Christian marriage as actually indissoluble, actually real in a way that transcends the subjective experiences of the spouses, and a Catholicism that takes this approach can claim to believe in its historic teaching on marriage only in the most vaporous of ways — which is to say, not.



But you will note that only one of these men is a bishop, a public teacher of the faith, a Francis appointee. I am uncertain of the wisdom of the dubia offered by the four conservative cardinals, fearful (unlike certain heighten-the-contradictions traditionalists) of what might happen in the church if the pope actually clarified his teaching and intentions. But if Pope Francis does not mean his apostolic exhortation to be implemented along the sweeping, come-all-eventually-back-to-communion lines proposed by Bishop McElroy, he should say so, and soon. Because in the diocese of San Diego, there may be something called the sacrament of matrimony, but the church itself plainly does not believe in Catholic marriage anymore.

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  1. Joseph-Mary says:

    The young people coming of age in my family, if they do marry, are not getting married in the Church. And the older generations seem to go along with it just fine too. My own son lives with his fiancée and they have a child. If they marry and she goes on his insurance, it will take half his paycheck and she is not working but caring for the baby. I know that this should not be a good reason not to marry but the fiancée is a non baptized, non-Christian person and will not set a date because they ‘cannot afford’ to marry.

  2. donato2 says:

    I am quickly coming to the view that schism is coming sooner rather than later.

    I can’t see how schism can be avoided given that there are bastions of orthodoxy within all dioceses (there is an FSSP parish in San Diego for example). Consider this hypothetical: Let us suppose that there is a diocese that has a bishop who is in the mold of the current Bishop of San Diego but even a bit more “out there.” In said diocese, Mister and Mister So and So, duly “wedded” under the laws of the state, conclude, each after having duly searched his respective conscience, that, having adopted children, they must continue to live as “Husband and Husband” and therefore can in good conscience receive Holy Communion. Accordingly, holding hands, they proceed up the Communion line to present themselves to a devout and holy priest for Holy Communion. The devout and holy priest will be acting contrary to the will of his bishop if he does not give Mister and Mister So and So Holy Communion. Now it is time for said devout and holy priest to search HIS conscience. What does said devout and holy priest do?


  3. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    It’s a very important essay.

  4. ThankyouB16 says:

    This is simply amazing analysis and insight.

  5. LarryW2LJ says:

    Wow! Talk about hitting the nail on the head!

  6. hwriggles4 says:

    Full disclosure: I am a single Catholic man who is not “dead”.

    Those of you who are happily married, I urge quite a few of you to reach out to singles’ who are interested in traditional marriage. Many Catholic men and women who are practicing the Faith genuinely are having a difficult time finding spouses, and dating today (ask well adjusted single Catholics) is pretty scary. Quite a few people today are hesitant to date, and there are people between 18 and 25 who really don’t know where to begin. Most good Catholics today called to marriage are meeting through Young Adult Groups, Catholic friends, the National Catholic Singles Conference (which I recommend for singles), and/or Catholic Online Dating Sites (which from experience, online dating even on Catholic sites still requires some caution, but I met some nice ladies through one site).

    Personally, a few good priests have shared with me that they are worried about the decline in good Holy Catholic marriages. Part of it was the acceptance of divorce in our culture. Part of it was 20+ years of feel good pop psychology Catechesis, part of it was the acceptance of pre-marital relations. I recall being a 21 year old in the late 1980s and since I was saving for Mrs. Right, there were college girls (even some Catholic girls), thought I was “dead.” Even at 30 I ran into some of this too.

  7. JARay says:

    Sadly I recognise the situation which is being described above. I am one of those peculiar people whose wife divorced him long ago and who lives on his own and still regards himself as having a wife even though she does not live with him any more. My wife and I even had a conversation with a third person who asked us if we were married. I replied that we are and my wife denied that we are although she still regards herself as being a Catholic and goes to Mass and receives Holy Communion. She actually does believe that we are not married and that the divorce was real! My sons all know where I stand and that I call her my wife. Our marriage was a real sacrament and I regard it as such.

  8. Sandy says:

    It was horrifying to read yesterday about the “guidelines” from our San Diego bishop! What in God’s name is happening to the Church? One of the obvious questions about this bad advice from bishops is, what about chastity and the commandments? If unmarried people must be celibate, are they even counseled properly any more? Thank God for my strong faith and solid Catholic teaching, even in college, when it was a true Catholic college. If not for that, I would be terribly discouraged. May the Holy Spirit fall in power on our diocese and all others!

  9. wolfeken says:

    Keep an eye out for McElroy. I predict he will be made archbishop of Washington, D.C. within a year and a cardinal in two years, if Francis lives that long.

  10. Semper Gumby says:

    Always good to hear from Douthat. He writes: “the bishop of San Diego [is] entirely unconcerned with potential contradiction with the Catholicism of the ancient and very recent past.” Yep.

    Douthat wrote a book in 2012 titled “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.” Here, Douthat points out that not only the rise of contraceptives and illegitimacy, but also pop culture’s assault on monogamy and fidelity influenced and weakened many U.S. religious leaders.

    In his book, Douthat boils down modern heresies to four: God/Goddess Within, the Prosperity Gospel, Gnosticism, and Nationalism. This last one, Nationalism, works two ways. Not only can it convince some people that the U.S. is the Promised Land, but also certain Christian leaders can be convinced by pop culture that Christianity must bow to the times.

    I have one nit-pick with Douthat’s book. He almost exclusively confines his discussion of these four heresies to the 20th century. A chapter on the 19th century would have reinforced his excellent analysis.

    If I could elaborate a bit on the 19th century. New York’s “Burned-Over District,” Spiritualism, and seances were key elements of two of Douthat’s four heresies: Gnosticism and God/Goddess Within. Mormonism, also a product of the Burned-Over District, leads of course directly to Nationalism. The 1875 introduction of Eastern mysticism by the Theosophical Society and Madame Blavatsky in New York, and the various Eastern mystics who arrived in the U.S. during and after the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, all contributed to Gnosticism, God/Goddess Within, and the Prosperity Gospel.

    If I recall, Douthat in his useful book wrote little about the Rapture. The Niagra Conferences of 1883-1897 led to the 1909 Scofield Reference Bible, and to Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye.

    Then there is the occult. The 1875 Theosophical Society and Freemasonry led to the founding of the Order of the Golden Dawn in London during the 1880s, which was promptly exported to the U.S. By the turn of the century esoteric groups were established from Massachusetts to California. In Douthat’s defense, the occult and esoteric groups can be viewed as a rejection of Christianity rather than a heresy.

    That said, Douthat wrote a fine book that is insightful background to his important article in the NYT. Here is how he closed his book (paraphrasing here): “This book often makes a case for orthodox Christianity by defending institutions and moralism against worldly excess and corrupt societies. Now, seek first the Kingdom of God. That begins with a single step, through the Confessional door or into an empty church for a silent prayer.”

  11. Grumpy Beggar says:


    Thank you Father Z.

  12. WYMiriam says:

    “Drop the mention of annulments . . . ”

    This is excellent advice!! Allow me to take it one step further: get rid of the word “annulment” altogether. It suggests, usually strongly, that a valid marriage can be “annulled”, which is impossible. We desperately need to begin using accurate, precise language, and that language, in this particular matter, is “declaration of nullity”, which means that what was thought to have been a marriage was, in fact, no marriage at all.

    There’s a world of difference between “annulment” and “declaration of nullity”. Let’s take back the moral high ground by using the proper terminology.

  13. Kent Wendler says:

    I wonder how the charism of papal infallibility is “working” in all this. Is the Holy Spirit somehow restraining Pope Francis from errantly qualifying the dubia?

  14. Thomistica says:

    I usually like a lot of Douthat’s comments, but the following strikes me as quite flawed.

    “I am uncertain of the wisdom of the dubia offered by the four conservative cardinals, fearful (unlike certain heighten-the-contradictions traditionalists) of what might happen in the church if the pope actually clarified his teaching and intentions.”

    Follow out the logic of this statement. Should no one ever have come forward to challenge John XXII, or the Aryan heresy, on the grounds that this might create division within the Church?

    Unity is indeed important, but not at any cost. And it seems an awfully high price to pay for what after all is a faux unity to ask Cardinals not to ask for clarification about a deeply flawed papal exhortation.

    Those four Cardinals deserve all the support they can get. They’re merely expressing sentiments that hundreds of thousands of Catholics, probably millions, of Catholics are rightfully asking. Not just about the exhortation in question, but so many odd statements now emanating from the Pope and his circle. These statements are not the idiosyncratic theological judgment of a John XXII on a very particular doctrinal statement. Rather, they channel a whole tangled panoply of dissenting views about moral theology, conscience, and the “internal forum”.

  15. Traductora says:

    Gumby, a very interesting post. One of the forms of Modernism was “Americanism.” Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists, was accused of this. But he wasn’t a Modernist, just somebody who wanted new ways of reaching people.

    Of course, the “new” ways were actually old ways. The Paulists were famed for street preaching, even when I was a child growing up in Manhattan, but people regarded this as a Protestant tradition – although of course everybody from Franciscans to Dominicans to much lesser known religious orders had done street preaching until the 19th century. So Hecker wasn’t going Protestant, but just reviving the Catholic tradition.

    Most of the Paulists today are nothing but rank heretics and St Paul the Apostle, their mother church, has become the headquarters of America’s new religion, “gayness.” It’s horrible and makes you really pity poor Isaac Hecker, who gave up his fortune and his life to preach the Gospel.

    But such is the invasion of heresy, and now it seems to arrived all the way to the top and is being imposed all the way to the bottom. No matter how humble and insignificant you are, you must assent to it.

  16. LeeF says:

    For a footnote that is not supposed to be what AL is all about, the libs in the Church sure are making it all about that. Where instead is the emphasis on marriage formation which would (should) presumably entail refusing to marry many (many) couples?

  17. Godisgood says:

    JARay: It’s wonderful to know that I am not the only Catholic American who remains faithful to the vows I made with the spouse who obtained a civil divorce a decade ago. How lonely and painful it would be if the Church I love deserts the words of our Savior regarding marriage. Even if the official teaching abandons Jesus’ teaching, I will hold firmly to His truth.

  18. liebemama says:

    About the comments to the article in the NYT… disturbing. There is such hostility to our Catholic Faith.

  19. Grabski says:

    Perhaps the Holy Ghost is stopping Francis from teaching heresy?

  20. JARay says:

    My thanks indeed to “Godisgood”. Hold firm to the teaching of the Church. Indeed God is Good.

  21. Kerry says:

    Semper G, do I see in your comment ideas from the talk by Dr. David Campbell, at the Institute of Catholic Culture, ‘Christian Kenosis, And the Errors of Yoga, Zen, and Transcendental Meditation’?
    If not, I recommend it to you, and the Institute to all Father Z’s readers.

  22. robtbrown says:

    Kent Wendler says:

    I wonder how the charism of papal infallibility is “working” in all this. Is the Holy Spirit somehow restraining Pope Francis from errantly qualifying the dubia?


    The pope has been educated in theology based on German Existentialism (cf. Heidegger), for which any kind of clarity is inimical. That approach to theology, which starves anyone with an appetite for Truth because its foundation is anti-intellectual, insteads relies on the power of governance (Cupich in, Burke out), suggestion of exceptions to Catholic doctrine, and ad hominem attacks on those with opposing, yet Catholic, views.

  23. Matthias1 says:

    Douthat is amazing here. Thank goodness he has the guts to say it and put himself in a position where it will be heard.

    I agree with him; part of me wants the Pope to answer the dubia, part of me is glad he won’t because I am afraid of what the answer might be. Does this make me weak in the faith because it indicates that I might doubt the Holy Spirit will protect the Pope from error? Maybe- I’m human.

    People need to write to Bishops en masse.

  24. Thomistica says:

    Grabski mentions: “Perhaps the Holy Ghost is stopping Francis from teaching heresy?”
    Hasn’t Francis already taught heresy?
    People speak about the ambiguity of Amoris Laetitia. Is it really so ambiguous? Silence by the Pope just reinforces the perception that it is heretical. If it weren’t, there would be no problem replying to perfectly legitimate questions in the Dubia, without any fanfare.
    Granted, there is the question of the magisterial weight of this document. Whoever said that if this crisis is not dealt with now, it will come back at some later point.
    I’m in the camp of those who support the four Cardinals in having written the Dubia…*and* will support them if they feel it necessary to write a temperately and respectfully written subsequent document in reply to the eerie silence.
    This is not easy to say and the whole thing is tragic. This is not a conflict that anyone should want or relish.
    But action like that of the Cardinals is necessary, as this is harming the efficacy of the Church’s mission. All the endless writing and commentary by so many people. It’s sapping the Church’s vitality. If it’s not dealt with now, it’ll just appear again, later on, so might as well be dealt with now.

  25. Matthias1 says:

    Part of a letter I’m drafting to the Bishop of San Diego,

    Pope St. John Paul II taught clearly, definitely, and magisterially, that a man and woman who attempt to enter into a second marriage while one of their true spouses is still living may not receive Holy Communion; here he followed Christ who labeled such people adulterers. But now, this seems not to apply. Christ’s teaching on marriage, for which Sts. John the Baptist and Thomas More died, seems uncertain. The rock shakes.

    Your Excellency, your guidelines indicate that a man who is a persistent and unrepentant adulterer may decide that he is not in a state of serious sin and may return to Holy Communion. In brief, adultery is wrong in principle (as Christ taught), but not necessarily wrong in practice. A man may “discern” that adultery is right for him in his specific situation and that it is not a serious sin, or (maybe) even a sin at all.

    This is not development of doctrine, it is contradiction, and no amount of “mercy” can excuse it or explain it away. If adultery is wrong, intrinsically wrong, as Christ explicitly taught, then it cannot be “right” for one person. This is flat contradiction. Conscience does not make black white and discernment does not make something God has declared wrong to be right for a specific person.

  26. 4grace says:

    Regarding infallibility, check this: • Infallibility-Extraordinary Papal Magisterium vs Ordinary Papal Magisterium-

  27. Semper Gumby says:

    Traductora: Thanks, and thanks for the additional info on the Paulists. A relative once sent me a book by the Paulist Press- Celtic Spirituality I think it was. In the first five pages the “Catholic” author slandered St. Augustine and also stated that all religions are one. It is unfortunate, as you point out, that the invasion of heresy has progressed this far.

    By the way, the St. Paul the Apostle Church you mentioned is apparently hosting an art exhibit at the church called “Islamic Art and Christian Space.”

  28. Semper Gumby says:

    Kerry: Thanks for the reminder about Dr. Campbell and the ICC. I have his book title and several items from their website scribbled down but have not gotten to those yet.

    By the way, you may have heard of Kundalini Yoga. Some occultists practice it to “release coiled serpent energy from the base of the spine.” Well now, I think they would do body and soul better by enjoying a mug of Mystic Monk Coffee.

  29. Grabski says:

    Thomistica. I meant if he answers the Dubia honestly he would teach heresy explicitly. Ambiguity can be reined in; explicit teaching would be more dangerous

  30. robtbrown says:

    Thomistica asks,
    Hasn’t Francis already taught heresy?

    What is the speciific text you think is heretical?

  31. Thomistica says:

    Dear Grabski,
    My view is that the Pope has already admitted discontinuity with the tradition, just by virtue of his silence. You know that old oxymoron, a deafening silence.
    I take your point insofar that in life, more often than not, ambiguity can be reined in versus an explicit statement. But we’re now in a situation in which the Pope’s silence is for all practical purposes, and in its impact on public opinion (Catholic or not), no different in its force from an explicit heretical teaching.
    So in my view we all need to support the four Cardinals. (See Fr. Z’s posting of the lifesitenews petition.)
    As for the action of the Holy Spirit, let’s say that the Pope does explicitly — finally — concede his discontinuity with received tradition, and concedes that he actually celebrates it. Should we not then regard this as a providential action of the Holy Spirit in finally bringing honesty to a problem that has beset the Church for decades–viz., the presence of a large number of priests, and their bishops, not affirming aspects of the magisterium? It just so happens that the inevitable has now happened–finally, a Pope who holds heterodox views, and has put them into a document. Really, it was only a matter of time.
    This whole situation is really tragic, as mentioned, in sapping the energies that should otherwise be devoted to promoting the Church’s mission (care for souls, care for the unborn, care for the poor of the world, catechesis of the young, and on and on). All this confusion is such an annoying distraction and so enervating.
    But this confusion has to be dealt with, and no better time time than now, since it will come back again and again, and in fact has been a constant of Catholic life for decades.
    Douthat is a very good writer and perceptive guy, but all this hesitation about explicitly addressing the problem is only going to perpetuate a very dishonest status quo–what we can call a faux unity.
    Incidentally: personally I don’t really know why a whole exegetical industry has emerged around Amoris Laetitia. It was clear to me on one reading that this was a deeply problematic document, and I’m not a theologian.

  32. Grabski says:

    Thomistica. Beautifully put and spot on.

    Is Francis generating for us a sort of safe harbor with the SSPX?

  33. Cornelius says:

    What I can’t figure out is, when the schism comes (and barring an intervention by God, it’s coming), what the heck do I do? What are faithful Catholics doing in San Diego? The sacraments are still valid in that Diocese, aren’t they? Aren’t Communion and Confession still valid even when administered by a validly ordained, though heretical, priest or Bishop?

  34. Thomistica says:

    Grabski, thanks for the nice comment, which is undeserved!

    Re. your question about SSPX, I suspect that the Pope may permit recognition of SSPX or some aspects thereof as a soupcon to accommodate traditional persons in the Church. All in keeping with the “big tentist” coexistence he probably wants to create. This may be his way of “guaranteeing” unity in the Church.

    Just for the record, I got to a Novus Ordo parish but try once in a while to get to TLM, which though I relish it, requires something of a hike, plus my wife doesn’t know Latin. We have a good parish but probably like most persons on this board who participate in the Novus Ordo, would prefer to see more Gregorian chant, the ad orientam, etc. I really don’t know much about SSPX.

    Cornelius, I’ve had the same questions but am going to proceed as if the sacraments are still efficacious through this storm. I don’t have an argument for this stance; others are on this board are far more qualified than me to comment on the theological basis for this view. I *think* it is very sound. After all, if I’m traveling somewhere and go to Mass at a parish somewhere, the chances are very good and have been for a long time that the priest dispensing a sacrament is not fully magisterially sound, rejects Humanae Vitae, aspects of the Church’s teachings about marriage, and so on. Yet, surely the sacraments are still sound, i.e. efficacious.

    P.S. I really liked the very recent lifesitenews article that responded to Mirus. Amoris Laetitia is not an extraordinary teaching of the magisterium. I don’t accept its “authority” in those places where it is problematic, nor should anyone. If the Pope declares the content of AL as an extraordinary teaching, then we have a real mess. Right now we just have a mess of a lower order.

    Still a mess, and (I’ve been repetitive about this) Douthat (as perceptive as he is on various things) is just plain wrong in his cautionary stand toward the Dubia. This dispute has to be resolved, now, and cannot wait, lest further damage be done and lest things swing even more out of control.

    I see Providence at work in all this. Good will come out of the current crisis, but it will require being “steady on” and might take quite a while. Schism? Who knows. If it happens, it’s clear to me who the agents of schism will have been, and whom I will follow.

    In the meantime, if the situation swings out of control, I wonder who gets the Vatican in the interim. Let’s hope it doesn’t get down to something that drastic and theatrical.

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