Ross Douthat and the Theologians

November 3, 2015 at 1:30 pm | Posted in Catholicism, Vatican | 3 Comments
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Well, on Hallowe’en New York Times columnist Ross Douthat fired off another rocket in the Catholic culture wars with his “Letter to the Catholic Academy.” Douthat had, in recent months, published a series of Times columns and blogs about the Catholic Church under Pope Francis, culminating in his October 18th “The Plot to Change Catholicism.” On October 26, a number of Catholic theologians, led by Massimo FaggioiIi and the highly regarded Vatican II historian John O’Malley, S.J.,wrote a letter to the Times calling Douthat’s statements “unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is.” A number of conservative columnists and a few theologians rebutted the theologians’ letter, accusing them of trying to silence Douthat, especially since their letter states that Douthat does not have the credentials to make such assertions. Douthat’s October 31column is also a response to the letter.

Quite a lot has been written about this kerfuffle, and you may not have time to read all of it, so let me tell you what I think. Words like “heresy” and schism,” as well as “plot,” are very strong words, and have precipitated lots of nasty events throughout the history of the Catholic and other Christian churches. Consider, for example, the execution of Michael Servetus, founder of the Unitarian Church, at the order of John Calvin in 1553.  It’s also worth noting that even the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’, in their harsh condemnation of Elizabeth A. Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God, do not use the word “heresy” even once.

More to the point, as Michael Bayer of The University of Iowa Catholic Center argued persuasively even before Douthat’s latest broadside, the main issue in this debate is not the theologians’ supposedly despicable attempt to silence poor Ross (though Bayer admits the wording of the theologians’ letter could have been more careful in this regard). The main issue is that an article in the New York Times–the world’s most influential English language publication–has the potential to do enormous harm, much as the media’s “ubiquitous insistence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, and that we needed to invade Iraq in order to eliminate this existential threat” did after 9/11.

Indeed, as Bayer argues, a number of conservative Catholic bishops no doubt read Douthat’s column, and may well adopt his erroneous identification of heresy with dissent. In my reading, Douthat is actually doing everything he can to bring about a schism, a schism of the very kind that his conservative forebears Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X initiated after Vatican II. (And the Vatican did use the word “schismatic” in condemning their actions).

This is so because Pope Francis’s teaching of mercy, and his argument, in Laudato Si’ and elsewherethat the destruction of God’s creation and the oppression of the poor are sins as grievous as abortion, contradict the absolute, sexual-morality-based Catholicism that led Douthat and others to the Catholic Church in the first place. God willing, Francis will continue to communicate that the Church is more that the Nicene Creed and the condemnation of abortion, as an unhappy respondent to the Commonweal blogpage once claimed. Maybe, before long, even what Jesus has to say about the poor, and the Catholic social teaching  rooted in his words, will be once again acknowledged to be the heart of Catholic doctrine as much as the defense of human life is.

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3 Comments »

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  1. Were you the unhappy respondent to the Commonweal blog?

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    • Lord, no. I was unhappy with the respondent. S/he was serious. Sorry I didn’t provide the link,but I couldn’t find the comment because I couldn’t remember which article it was responding to.

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  2. Thank you for explaining the history behind Douthat’s column. When I read it I found many confusing threads so it’s interesting to reread it in light of that backstory.

    I find the whole focus on divorce and annulments mystifying and confusing and will never take the Church’s position seriously–that a marriage is annulled on the basis that it was never valid in the first place. If that is the Church doctrine he is talking about it is pretty flimsy and might I say, scandalous, though the Church bends over backwards to avoid scandal, and we all know how that has played out in the sex abuse scandal.

    Also he states, “…the development of doctrine is supposed to deepen church teaching, not reverse or contradict it.” That leaves no room for new interpretations or critique of past incorrect Church teachings, one example being the condoning of slavery in past generations.

    He writes that, “Liberal Catholics don’t want to admit that the pope might be leading the church into a crisis.” The fact is the Church is in a full crisis mode already–way before Pope Francis came on the scene. It is naive to think otherwise.

    I find it hard to accept that doctrine trumps the pastoral needs of people living in today’s world. Can we somehow get beyond this impasse? Is it really valid to say that the Church loses face if it changes its positions, that all its doctrines are then negated?

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