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Thin-Skinned Theologians

Liberal Catholic freakout over Douthat column a sign of weakness

The tempest-in-a-theological-faculty-teapot over the pissy letter an (ever-growing) list of Catholic theologians are sending to The New York Times to complain about the traitor-to-his-class Ross Douthat is most revealing for what it says about the rank intolerance of the Catholic academic left, and the fragility of theologians, who fall to pieces in the face of the tiniest microaggression. Note well that this conniption fit over whether or not Douthat called Massimo Faggioli a “heretic” is about an exchange that happened not on the pages of the Times, but in a subtweet. Here is a link to the entire thread whence this emerged. It started like this:

“Denzinger” is a standard, comprehensive reference work of Catholic dogma. Faggioli and Douthat went back and forth a few rounds, and Faggioli insinuated that Douthat was advocating a “fundamentalist” reading of Denzinger. Then:


That’s it. That’s what the entire blow-up is about. Well, that, as well as Douthat’s October 18 column, titled, “The Plot to Change Catholicism,” in which he outlined what was clearly Pope Francis’s orchestrations to get a certain outcome at the Synod. Douthat opposed that move, so he called it a “plot”; a more neutral word would have been “plan,” but then again, if you are a Catholic with the theological convictions of Ross Douthat, it certainly is a plot. Moreover, from the column:

And a change of doctrine is what conservative Catholics, quite reasonably, believe that the communion proposal favored by Francis essentially implies.

There’s probably a fascinating secular political science tome to be written on how the combination of absolute and absolutely-limited power shapes the papal office. In such a book, Francis’s recent maneuvers would deserve a chapter, because he’s clearly looking for a mechanism that would let him exercise his powers without undercutting his authority.

The key to this search has been the synods, which have no official doctrinal role but which can project an image of ecclesiastical consensus. So a strong synodal statement endorsing communion for the remarried as a merely “pastoral” change, not a doctrinal alteration, would make Francis’s task far easier.

Unfortunately such a statement has proven difficult to extract — because the ranks of Catholic bishops include so many Benedict XVI and John Paul II-appointed conservatives, and also because the “pastoral” argument is basically just rubbish. The church’s teaching that marriage is indissoluble has already been pushed close to the breaking point by this pope’s new expedited annulment process; going all the way to communion without annulment would just break it.

So to overcome resistance from bishops who grasp this obvious point, first last year’s synod and now this one have been, to borrow from the Vatican journalist Edward Pentin’s recent investigative book, “rigged” by the papal-appointed organizers in favor of the pope’s preferred outcome.

“Heresy” is holding an opinion contrary to settled doctrine. Douthat, like many conservative Catholics, including most of the bishops at the Synod, believes that the Kasper proposal favored by Francis and by liberal theologians like Massimo Faggioli amounted to heresy. They could be wrong about that, but there is nothing at all wrong with saying so if they believe it to be true — and in fact, if they believe it to be true, they have a strong obligation to say so in the context of a Synod. If we were talking about law, not theology, we would be debating whether or not a proposal was unconstitutional. What Douthat apparently was doing in that Twitter subthread with Faggioli is to pin him down on his doublespeak, and to compel him to admit that a position that embraces something the Church has consistently rejected is what theologians call … heresy, a word that has substantive meaning in Christian history. That’s what the great Ecumenical Councils were called to define!

In 2012, Douthat wrote an entire book saying that America is a nation of Christian heretics. His point is that we, as a whole, have drifted far from anything that resembles orthodox Christianity, as defined by the historical councils. This is as true of the Right as of the Left, he said — and it matters. One of the book’s chief arguments is that the failure of Christian institutions, both Catholic and Protestant, to hold the line on orthodoxy has led to the degeneration of Christianity into a pale imitation of itself as Christians understood it for centuries. This is no small thing. As Douthat wrote in Bad Religion:

A sign of this weakness is the extent to which the very terms orthodoxy and heresy have become controversial in today’s religious conversation — either dismissed as anachronisms, or shunned for their historical associations with bigotry and persecution. In the modern age, there’s an assumption that theological debates are really just struggles for power, that the lines between heresy and orthodoxy are inherently arbitrary, and that religious belief is too fluid and complicated to fit any sort of binary interpretation.

These assumptions aren’t entirely wrong. Any theory of Christianity, my own included, has to allow that the line between orthodox and heretical beliefs often will be apparent more in theory than in practice, and clearer in hindsight than in the heat of controversy and debate. The definition of heresy proposed by Alister McGrath is a useful one: A Christian heresy is “best seen as a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing, or even destroying the core of Christian faith.”

There is a very good reason that the Church has always been vigilant against heresy. There is nothing wrong with Douthat identifying a theological position advanced in public by a theologian as “heresy,” any more than there is nothing wrong with a newspaper columnist opining that a legal position advanced in public by a law professor as “unconstitutional.” It is a serious charge because heresy is very serious business in Church matters, especially at the Synodal level. The only real question is whether or not the accusation is true. These theologians raising a ruckus about the use of the word “heresy” are trying to discredit Douthat for using a perfectly good word and concept that has actual meaning in the world of the Church.

How do you get to be an academic theologian, yet go to pieces when a newspaper columnist says on a Twitter subthread that a position you hold is heresy — a position, by the way, that seems to be the position of a majority of the Synod fathers? Are Catholic theological faculties really that thin-skinned? Villanova theologian Katie Grimes, who lists her favorite theologian as “Tupac Shakur,” explains why she signed the anti-Douthat letter on her way to the fainting couch. Excerpts:

More than many other figures who misrepresent or oversimplify Catholic theology in the mainstream media, Mr. Douthat has tended to portray himself as one who recites Catholic teaching rather than one who interprets it, especially over the course of the past few weeks. This alone I take issue with.

Translation: he routinely writes things that I disagree with. Otherwise, what could that possibly mean? What is the difference between “reciting” Catholic teaching and interpreting it? More:

When [the Times] 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.

Oh, please. This is her sorry/notsorry over the credentialism thing. I’m sure Katie Grimes has somewhere on her hard drive letters to the editor complaining about all the columns that liberal lay Catholics Maureen Dowd and Frank Bruni have written over the years on theological matters, in which they have torn into the Church with far, far less care and nuance than Douthat takes every time he writes about Church matters. The Times does employ economist Paul Krugman to write about economics, though he ranges beyond that often, and it employs Tom Friedman to write about foreign policy. Its other columnists are all generalists. This is how newspapers work. Again, this is not about magna cum laude Harvard graduate Ross Douthat’s credentials; it’s about his holding opinions contrary to what liberal Catholic theologians wish to believe.

Prof. Grimes ends her piece delightfully:

Let’s also not forget that Mr. Douthat’s position owes in no small part to the credentials of race and gender that he has accumulated but not earned. We take white men much more seriously than we take others, even when they say very silly things.

Let’s also not forget that argumentum ad hominem is a logical fallacy. She’s throwing whatever she can at Douthat and trying to make it stick. These liberals are making fools of themselves.

A non-Catholic friend who is watching all this e-mails to say:

This brings us to CS Lewis and the concept of The Inner Ring, which he saw in its most advanced form among Oxford dons:


And a sample from CSL:

There are what correspond to passwords, but they are too spontaneous and informal. A particular slang, the use of particular nicknames, an allusive manner of conversation, are the marks. But it is not so constant. It is not easy, even at a given moment, to say who is inside and who is outside. Some people are obviously in and some are obviously out, but there are always several on the borderline. And if you come back to the same Divisional Headquarters, or Brigade Headquarters, or the same regiment or even the same company, after six weeks’ absence, you may find this secondary hierarchy quite altered.

There are no formal admissions or expulsions. People think they are in it after they have in fact been pushed out of it, or before they have been allowed in: this provides great amusement for those who are really inside. It has no fixed name. The only certain rule is that the insiders and outsiders call it by different names. From inside it may be designated, in simple cases, by mere enumeration: it may be called “You and Tony and me.” When it is very secure and comparatively stable in membership it calls itself “we.” When it has to be expanded to meet a particular emergency it calls itself “all the sensible people at this place.” From outside, if you have despaired of getting into it, you call it “That gang” or “they” or “So-and-so and his set” or “The Caucus” or “The Inner Ring.” If you are a candidate for admission you probably don’t call it anything. To discuss it with the other outsiders would make you feel outside yourself. And to mention talking to the man who is inside, and who may help you if this present conversation goes well, would be madness.

There is snobbery, but that is not the essence of this. CSL didn’t think Inner Rings were automatically bad, but they were unavoidable.

Ross D is threatening because he is part of a cultural inner ring (NYT) that ordinarily speaks the gospel to the Spirit of Vatican II inner ring, the church of progression of doctrine. Now he is speaking heresy by using the word, or the concept, of heresy.

Precisely. The pages of the Times is supposed to be their territory. And there is Ross Douthat, Times columnist, spouting … heresy. That’s one thing they cannot abide. So when Frank Bruni — liberal, gay, Catholic, untrained in theology — publishes columns that advance opinions about Church doctrine that are squarely opposed to orthodox Catholic teaching (see here, here, and here, for example), these theologians do not go into a swivet about the Times lowering its standards, as they did over Douthat. Because they no doubt agree with Bruni, or at least find his commentary to be within the range of what is acceptable. But let Douthat offer the opinion in his column that Pope Francis and his allies in Rome are trying to change something that cannot be changed without doing grave damage to the Church, and let him identify that theological position in a sub-Tweet as “heresy,” and suddenly it’s the bloody Diet of Worms.

So, we are to conclude that for liberal Catholic theologians and their fellow travelers in the clergy and Catholic press, “heresy” is a trigger word. St. Irenaeus would have reduced this lot to gibbering spasms with a side glance. This whole episode illustrates the truth of Douthat’s claim in Bad Religion:

That’s because America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it. It’s bad religion: the slow motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place. Since the 1960s, the institutions that sustained orthodox Christian belief — Catholic and Protestant alike — have entered a state of near-terminal decline. The churches with the strongest connection to the Christian past have lost members, money, and authority; the elite that was once at least sympathetic to Christian ideas has become hostile or indifferent; and the culture as a whole has turned its back on many of the faith’s precepts and demands.

To the extent which the institutions represented by the signatories to the Anti-Douthat Letter cannot withstand a journalist identifying a teaching as heretical, and the vigorous public discussion of theology that such a declaration ought to spark, they are part of the near-terminal decline. It is a sign to anyone thinking of taking up theological studies on those particular faculties of the kind of intolerant (of Catholic orthodoxy) atmosphere of inquiry they are likely to find there. They write not from a position of strength, but of weakness. I take it as a sign that Douthat hit his mark, and hit it hard. When Catholic theologians cannot be trusted to be guardians of Catholic orthodoxy, somebody’s got to take a stand to protect the Church. Might as well be a dirty scribe.

UPDATE: The hypocrisy, it burns:

“[T]he 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.” — John O’Malley, SJ, et alia, 10.26/15.

“We have a Vatican II president. Barack Obama, I am sure, does not think of himself in those terms, but when I heard his speech at Grant Park in Chicago the night he was elected, and more recently his commencement address at Notre Dame, that is what immediately struck me. On those occasions he embodied and professed in his public persona the spirit of the council. … I often hear laments that the spirit of Vatican II is dead in the church. Is it not ironic that not a bishop but the President of the United States should today be the most effective spokesperson for that spirit?” — John O’Malley, SJ, 5/25/09

UPDATE.2: Fr. James Martin, SJ, is grieved by the hatey-hatey-hate-hate, and more:

In response to this contretemps, in which my words have been twisted, and commentators have held me up for contempt, I have received hundreds of hateful tweets.  And this is where commentators who use these tactics simply egg people on, fanning more and more hate.  And if they know it, then they should stop.  If they don’t know it, they do now.  It’s a participation in sin.

So for example, Mr. Rod Dreher posted a photo of a blurb that I did for Mr. Douthat’s last book, as if that were proof of something deceitful.  Yes, I liked Mr. Douthat’s last book.  So much so that I offered a generous blurb.  And, no, I don’t like what he’s writing today.  People change their minds.  Is that really so difficult to comprehend?   But rather than giving someone the benefit of the doubt, my sincere praise for Mr. Douthat’s book was held up as evidence of my deceit.   And if you don’t think that leads to more hatred, read the comments below.

Oh, come on. It wasn’t held up as evidence of your “deceit,” only your hypocrisy. You associated yourself with a letter that denounced Douthat for “accusing other members of the Catholic Church of heresy” — but you warmly endorsed a Douthat book that’s all about identifying contemporary heresy among Catholics and other Christians (subtitle: “How We Became a Nation of Heretics”). You don’t object to Douthat calling others, even other Catholics, heretics — unless they are your friends and allies, it appears.

More from Fr. Martin:

But they and others–who are far more culpable–have engaged in enough of that kind of uncharitable behavior to have fostered an atmosphere of hate and mistrust in our church. Instead of Thomas Merton’s famous “Mercy within mercy within mercy” we get “Hate piled on hate piled on hate.”

Invective.  Disdain.  Contempt.  Attacks.  Insinuations.  And hate.  An endless river of hate that is the result of these kinds of articles and essays and speeches and tweets.

Hoo boy. Alan Jacobs snarkily responds:

I am grateful for this post by Fr. Martin, because it shows me so clearly what respectful disagreement unsullied by mean-spirited invective and ad hominem comments looks like. Verily, a model for us all.

Hatey-hatey-hate-hate! Corky St. Clair, SJ, weighs in on Fr. Martin’s side.




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