I admit that I have been biting my tongue during the post-Synod 2015 firestorm about New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and the large army of liberal Catholic academics who have expressed their displeasure that such a theological lightweight has been allowed to comment on the Catholic faith in the world's most influential op-ed space.
Surely readers will join me in being shocked, shocked that a Times columnist has published controversial commentary about the Catholic Church. Can I get an "Amen"?
I mean, this is the same editorial setting in which a columnist named Bill Keller -- a few months after 9/11 -- compared the Catholic leadership, in the era of Pope St. John Paul II, with al-Qaeda. Readers may, or may not, recall the outcry from Catholic progressives in the wake of these words from Keller's May 4, 2002, column entitled "Is the Pope Catholic?"
What reform might mean in the church is something I leave to Catholics who care more than I do. ... But the struggle within the church is interesting as part of a larger struggle within the human race, between the forces of tolerance and absolutism. That is a struggle that has given rise to great migrations (including the one that created this country) and great wars (including one we are fighting this moment against a most virulent strain of intolerance).
The Catholic Church has not, over the centuries, been a stronghold of small-c catholic values, which my dictionary defines as "broad in sympathies, tastes, or understanding; liberal." This is, after all, the church that gave us the Crusades and the Inquisition.
So what happened to Keller after that theological outburst? A year later he was named executive editor of the Times.
Back to Douthat and his theological commentary about Pope Francis and the 2015 Synod of Bishops. You see, there is a journalistic issue here that affects reporters covering hard news events and trends, as well as commentary writers who are free to write their own opinions.
Religion writers past and present: Have you ever written about arguments inside religious institutions and, after quoting academics involved in these nasty fights, faced letters to your employer saying that you were not smart enough, or theological skilled enough, to understand what people were saying?
This has happened to me on the theological right and left, first in the Southern Baptist civil war era (while at The Charlotte Observer) and then covering fights among old-line Protestants over gender-neutral language for God (while at The Rocky Mountain News, RIP). In both cases, it didn't matter that my quotes were accurate, coming from audio recordings or even printed documents. What mattered was that arguments these insiders wanted to conduct in private were suddenly printed, and thus debated, in public.
In Douthat's case, the crucial fact is that he -- as a pro-Catechism Catholic -- has offended members of the liberal Catholic establishment by voicing opinions, and quoting key church documents, in an intellectual space that they have had every right to think of as their own. (If you want to catch up on the firestorm surrounding Douthat, click here for some heated commentary by Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher. The key is that Rod's piece contains plenty of URLs to tweets, columns, letters and other writings linked to the case.)
Now, veteran religion-beat professional Kenneth Woodward -- best known for his decades of work at Newsweek -- has offered his thoughts on the Douthat affair at First Things. You will need to read it all, but here is a large sample:
Because the flare-up touches on who is qualified to write about matters Catholic, I took interest. After all, I was no more qualified as Newsweek’s religion editor than is Douthat as a columnist for the Times: neither one of us has a degree in theology, which seems to be what the Catholic scholars are demanding. Or are they?
For me, it is the second of the letter’s four sentences that is troubling. This, the key accusatory sentence, is so bumbling in construction that any effort at exegesis has to take it in parts. Part one reads: “Aside from the fact that Mr. Douthat has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject…” What exactly is the subject he is not qualified to write about? He has has already published a very substantive journalistic book on Catholicism that has been generally well received by Catholics of various stripes. If the subject is Catholic sacramental marriage, he is a husband and a father, an experiential credential that some of his academic critics, being priests, do not. If nothing else, it gives him a personal stake in the outcome of the church’s deliberations.
It is hard not to conclude from the way this sentence begins that what the offended scholars mean by “professional qualifications” is a doctorate in theology or in some degree kindred to “the sacred sciences.” But neither did G. K. Chesterton, or C.S. Lewis, or Thomas Merton, I believe. What they did is read widely and write well. A doctorate is the one credential Douthat’s critics own that he does not. This smacks of the academic virus that Frank O’Malley, my old English professor at Notre Dame, identified as “PhDeism” -- i.e. credential worship. ...
But then if a doctorate were required of journalists, there would be no writers, editors or columnists (save one) at the New York Times. Real journalists do not even get PhDs in journalism, thank God, just as real journalists do not drink bottled water.
What's the big problem? It appears to be that Douthat insists on documenting a debate between the theological left and the theological right. Shocking? Woodward notes that the Times has always, in news coverage and editorials, jammed Catholic life into precisely this kind of a framework in the era following Vatican II. So what's new?
Oh, and there is this:
The last sentence is a doozy: “This [Douthat’s first column] is not what we expect of the New York Times.” Really. How ingratiating. Surely when it comes to informed reporting and analysis of religious issues these offended Catholic scholars set their collective expectations much too low. I would venture that they reason the letter signers don’t expect to see in the Times the view that Douthat takes is because it is so out of sync with the paper’s newsroom culture. As for the other regular Times columnists…
Like I said, read it all. There is much here for journalists -- editorial columnists and hard-news reporters -- to ponder.