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The theologians v. Douthat

They should have grinned, borne it, and administered a substantive correction.

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.