The theologians v. Douthat

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Ross Douthat

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Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat

Call me a former editorial columnist, but I didn’t think it was such a good idea for a group of distinguished Catholic theologians to write an open letter to the New York Times suggesting that its conservative editorial columnist Ross Douthat be prevented from writing about Catholicism as if it were “unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative.” Say what?

Editorial columnists have been known to be kept from writing about something — including at the New York Times. Most famously, Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Sydney Schanberg lost his New York City column 30 years ago for criticizing the Times‘ support of the Westway highway development project. The paper would have done better to grin and bear it.

It wasn’t good that the theologians pulled rank by noting that Douthat had no credentials to pronounce on the subject. And that they expected the Times to act because his calling other Catholics heretics “is serious business that can have serious consequences for those so accused.” And that, in Pope Francis’ Church of the Open Discussion, they advocated suppression of Catholic speech.

Naturally, the letter has elicited a good deal of semi-hypocritical contempt from conservative Catholics who have never hitherto been reluctant to tell their liberal co-religionists to shut up. Boston College theologian Cathleen Kaveny, who was not a signatory, notes that newly minted auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles Robert Barron has shown considerably more enthusiasm for open Catholic debate in defending Douthat than he did when formerly criticizing Times editorial columnist Maureen Dowd.

One might also mention the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue, who maintains a cottage industry denouncing anti-Catholicism at the New York Times in general and on the part of such columnists as Nicholas Kristof, Bill Keller, and of course Dowd in particular. A few years ago, Donohue declared that the Times and its opinion-mongers have no business pronouncing on a religion’s “house rules” like women’s ordination. Thus far, he has not seen fit to criticize Douthat for his house anathemas.

Belonging to an academic guild or two, I know how annoying it can be when amateurs with prominent platforms blunder into our field of expertise. Our job, however, is not to have them shut up but to embrace the opportunity to correct them as best we can.

  • Paula

    I don’t agree. Read carefully, what the letter says is

    1) Douthat doesn’t have the intellectual acumen to comment on some matters. I think these theologians realize the Times is not the place for extended theological debate — this isn’t about defense policy in the Middle East, or climate change mitigation. If a non-specialist like Douthat is offering the comment — where is the place for it to be fully challenged and discussed by those whose life-work this is? I don’t see the Times becoming the place where theological debate is invited to flourish. Douthat tried to make it about politics, but it is not, as the theologians said.

    2) He’s calling people “heretics,” — an odd position for a columnist in the Times, and one that ought not to be taken as lightly dispensed opinion.
    These theologians didn’t say Douthat can never write about Catholicism, only that he’s out of his depth. Politics he knows, and they are disappointed to see theology treated only through that…

  • Jonathan Huddleston

    I think the problem is that anyone’s arguments have to be taken on their own terms. Douthat isn’t engaging in extended theological debate, he is reporting on a debate that is occurring while (as a matter of opinion) expressing which side seems persuasive to him. When the experts come down on him, they are really just using him as a surrogate-punching bag for all of the credentialed theologians (and bishops) within the Church who have made extended theological arguments that a new policy on gender/ sexuality/ marriage is a significant departure from Roman Catholic doctrine.

    Meanwhile, “heretic” has a fairly straightforward nontechnical meaning, one which is not particularly insulting: heresy means departing from received religious orthodoxy within a given tradition. Douthat has repeatedly said that any “heretics” can be viewed as “prophets” if you agree with them, and that he is himself a “heretic” to those who define orthodoxy by different standards than his.

  • Deacon John M Bresnahan

    Any scholar who tries to buttress his arguments with “I ve got a degree you don’t have” has one big problem:: his arrogance. How many degrees did St Francis of Assisi have?? or St. Peter??? or the founder of monasticism, St. Anthony???.
    On the other hand weren’t Arius and Martin Luther regarded as scholars.
    Anyone who has visited a major college or university these days knows that campus orthodoxies reign supreme in most. Maybe that is why one critic of the closed campus mind said that to get a Phd degree you need to:” pile it higher and deeper” to please the gods of academe.

  • Because I find myself incapable of arguing on Twitter, let me reply to the complaint of Massimo Faggioli (@massimofaggioli) — the protagonist of the theologians’ letter — “that the letter’s intent had nothing to do with censorship.” Although it may be the case that Faggioli et al. did not believe they were asking the Times to censor Douthat, when you inform the editor of a newspaper ex cathedra that you expect better of the paper than what a staff member writes about your religion, you should expect people to conclude that you are asking the editor to do something about it. Jimmy Carter once wrote a letter to the editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution complaining about a story I wrote about the Carter Center in which he said that I did not reflect well on the paper. I did not doubt, nor did my editor, that he was trying to get me fired. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t.

  • Max Fenster

    The Times Technology reporting is pretty awful as well. What’s the point of making a big deal about it?

  • Michael

    Agreed, you beat me to it. Which is unusual considering Mr. Douthat isn’t covering a religion beat wherein he might be accused of being impartial, etc., but is an opinion-editorial columnist. Considering he has been opining for an entire year or more now on the Vatican’s Synod on the Family, I was confounded why these academics thought the NY Times would arbitrate a theological dispute. Why didn’t they simply submit a counterpoint letter asking that it be published as the “rest of the story” or, at the very least, another side of the story? This would have been perfectly suited for an “op-ed” column and would likely have garnered the Time’s site with additional theologically wonky readers. It does seem a puerile response. I doubt the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is following twitter to find grist for the orthodox / heterodox mill.

  • In other words, the theologians wished that Douthat had not donethat.

  • Larry

    Ross Douthat is so notorious for exaggerating facts and engaging in ridiculous arguments that it is easy to dismiss him out of hand as a matter of course.

    Facts vs. Douthat

    Sanity vs Douthaht

  • George Nixon Shuler

    Douthat can be a great read. He’s infuriating but he’s always a great read. His fote is politics though. On religion he’s the blind leading the blind. Much of it comes from his dillusionment over finding out a monastery he promoted was a hotbed of sex offenders.

  • Ben in oakland

    On religion, he is the blind leading the deaf.

    after reading a few of his columns dealing with gay people and/or marriage equality, I just decided that his errors were too errorific to bother with.

  • Alan Mitchell

    I have to disagree with how you have characterized the open letter. To say someone expects better of the Times simply means the piece is not of the quality that one expects to read in the Times. That is the plain reading of it. You and a host of other have twisted the intent of the letter on this point.

  • Ronald Sevenster

    Douthat is not out of his depth. He seems to be one of the few who have common sense to notice that what the liberals and modernists want is completely out of line with Catholic tradition. He simply notices the discontinuity here. It cannot be and never has been that the moral teaching of the Church can be changed in such a way that those who were martyred for it centuries ago now appear as risible fools. Douthat grasps that the true goal of modernism is the destruction of the faith and that it is the culmination of all heresies, as many Pope have said. The modernists under Francis are contradicting so many essentials of Holy Scripture, Catholic Tradition and the constant teaching of the Magisterium, that they’re actually creating a new religion. The most curious thing is that these modernist, who have always attacked the Popes, are now hiding behind a modernist Pope.