Rod Dreher was the first (from where I sit) to break the news of a letter written by Roman Catholics who disagree with Ross Douthat (can’t call them liberal, I guess) to the New York Times to protest Douthat’s views on Roman Catholicism. In my estimation, this is hitting below the belt. You don’t mess with someone’s livelihood, which is how this feels — tattling to the teacher about an objectionable classmate. Here’s the letter:
To the editor of the New York Times
On Sunday, October 18, the Times published Ross Douthat’s piece “The Plot to Change Catholicism.” Aside from the fact that Mr. Douthat has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject, the problem with his article and other recent statements is his view of Catholicism as unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is. Moreover, accusing other members of the Catholic church of heresy, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, is serious business that can have serious consequences for those so accused. This is not what we expect of the New York Times.
Signatures followed by a number of historians whom I respect. They disappointed me because their scholarship had always suggested to me a breadth of outlook, not one that connoted the old days of parochial Roman Catholic history.
One of the letter’s authors, Massimo Faggioli, has his own perspective on what Roman Catholicism is. It is not John Paul II but it is Francis. (How you pick and choose among popes is anyone’s guess, since that would appear not to be a professor of theology’s paygrade):
The style of John Paul II was very different from a ‘conciliar’ style – consider, for example, the absence of episcopal collegiality in his style of governing the Church, especially in how he treated the synod of bishops and the national bishops conferences … Clearly John Paul II lacked interest in reforming structures of the Church’s central government, which in his 27-year pontificate became more centred on the person of the pope and the papal apartment and its far-from-transparent entourage.
[Francis’s] decision in October 2013 to celebrate an extraordinary synod in October 2014 and an ordinary synod in 2015 (both on the topic of family), signaled a change in the hierarchy of institutions of church government: pope, curia, episcopate. In the April 2014 message to Cardinal Lorenzo Baldiserri, secretary general of the synod, Francis spoke about the synod in terms of collegiality that is both ‘affective’ and ‘effective’ – with a significant shift in the use of these two adjectives referring to collegiality when compared with previous decades.
Nor is it clear why Dr. Faggioli (aside from being Italian) has any more right to his views of the papacy than Ross Douthat. Both men I believe are lay Roman Catholics, though I think the New York Times trumps St. Thomas University on the list of gatekeepers in American society. Call me a Northeast corridor snob.
One of the letter’s signers explained why she did and addressed the elitism that lurked behind the challenge to Douthat’s credenitials (or lack thereof):
I object not to the privileging of un-credentialed voices but to the Times’ inconsistent standard of credibility. When it wished to employ an editorialist about the economy, it selected a Nobel Prize winning professor. When the New York Times publishes articles about global warming, they trust the judgments of “credentialed” scientists. One wonders why the New York Times does not extend to the discipline of theology the same respect? In other words, while one does not need a PhD to perceive and to live God’s truth, one does need some sort of systematic training to pontificate (pun intended) about questions of church history and liturgical, moral, and systematic theology. These can be found outside of the theological academy, but they must be found somewhere.
So perhaps rather than calling Mr. Douthat “un-credentialed,” the letter should have asked the New York Times the following question: with what criteria did they determine Mr. Douthat competent to act as an arbiter of theological truth?
This is downright baffling. Do people who teach theology and church history have no clue about journalism? Do they not know the meaning of “op-ed”? Lots of people have access to op-ed pages and have never had training in a discipline. H. L. Mencken didn’t. Walter Lippmann was not an academic. Thomas Friedman apparently only has an M.Phil. in Middle Eastern Studies. So the New York Times is supposed to hire only Ph.D.’s as columnists? And did the letter writers and signers ever consider that the Times’ editors hired Douthat not so much for his writing on religion as his pieces on public policy, conservatism, and the Republican Party? Do Roman Catholics who oppose Douthat read anything other than his columns about Roman Catholicism? If not, how parochial.
The one element that stands out in this clash of professional authority — journalism vs. academics — is the letter’s appeal to Roman Catholicism. The way that most of the apologists have it, Rome’s authority rests not on the basis of academics or circulation and advertising but with the bishops and those whom they appoint. And yet, those who oppose Douthat make no reference to the authority of bishops, priests, and especially the pope.
If the papacy’s authority rested on “professional credentials” where would infallibility be?
But there’s hope for Douthat, not so much for the church’s apologists. It is that the church is wide and tolerant and in need of a conversation just like the United States:
Pope Francis represents the tiniest, most incremental steps toward shifts in doctrine that could have happened years ago, but he too is bombarded by vitriol from Catholics who see the church as a calcified, immobile monument.
Douthat is likely one of those Catholics who would prefer the altar to be turned around, the pews shoved back into rigid rows, women kicked out of the sanctuary and Latin Mass brought back to a country where Latin is rarely taught in schools. Or perhaps that’s what his supporters think he prefers. And they can defend that choice to see the church as incapable of evolution with vitriol, anger and rage. It doesn’t mean they should, and it doesn’t mean they’re right.
But the Catholic Church isn’t just the church of Douthat, Latin Mass traditionalists, or the theologians who signed the letter. It’s also the church of a billion people around the world, each experiencing it in different ways, each living out their faith individually and collectively. And each of those people is qualified to talk about how they live that faith, whether they do so in the op-ed column of the Times, at a potluck, in the middle of the desert, on CNN, or here on RD. It’s when either side tells the other to shut up that the problem starts.
The Pope has asked us to try to listen to one another. Maybe we can start there.