On the supposed silencing of Ross Douthat

Editor’s Note: The following commentary on the ongoing public debate is presented, just like the original posting of Dr. Faggioli’s letter, as a guest post here at Daily Theology, and does not presume to represent the ideas of all the contributors.

By Michael Bayer

Earlier this week, the world’s most esoteric game of ecclesiastical insider baseball took a very public turn for the decidedly disagreeable. Professional theologian Massimo Faggioli engaged New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in a Twitter debate over Douthat’s increasingly strident insistence that Pope Francis is plotting to undermine foundational teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Faggioli publicly repudiated Douthat’s analysis, with both sides mixing comparatively complicated theological concepts and smugly self-satisfied snark in equal measure. Finally, Douthat peremptorily subtweeted, “Own your heresy.”

Which was the dialogical equivalent of beaning a batter to make a point, thus leading to the bench-clearing brawl that now counts James Martin, SJ, Rod Dreher, the editorial staff of several Catholic publications, and a litany of professional academics, among its members. And like most baseball brawls, this one is a whole lot of people standing around puffing out their chests, and convincing themselves of the righteousness of their indignation.

Faggioli and Georgetown Professor John O’Malley, SJ, whom many esteem as the de facto dean of English-language Vatican II scholars, co-signed a letter to the Times Editors, objecting to Douthat’s recent spate of pieces, then posted it to social media, where it gained traction among what is very likely the world’s least intimidating lineup of actual physical pugilists… people who think, write, and teach about theology for a living. Dreher denounced the letter in a post entitled, “The McCarthyism of Liberal Catholic Elites,” before assessing today that “the pissy little letter” was less of a McCarthy-level event, and more of a “tempest-in-a-theological-faculty-teapot.” And while I do not share Dreher’s evaluation of the letter as “pissy,” I would concur with the description that this current kerfuffle is more on the level of a faculty spat than a massive Congressional investigation that overtakes all other happenings in American society. (It should be said that, although I do not agree with everything Dreher writes, I find him invariably compelling and ceaselessly essential for thinking through current topics.)

Once the backlash to Douthat began, the backlash to the backlash was inevitable. First Things Editor R.R. Reno, who recently hosted Douthat for an Erasmus Lecture (full disclosure: I’m bringing Faggioli to deliver a lecture here in a few days) and Notre Dame scholar Patrick Deneen joined Dreher in excoriating what they perceived as an illiberal attempt to “silence” Douthat. Except that the letter did no such thing.

So what is this all about?

At issue is not whether Ross Douthat, Catholic layman without a PhD in ecclesiology, has a right to comment on Church affairs. Of course he does. Nor is it about whether Ross Douthat, syndicated New York Times columnist, has that right. Once again, no one would contest this. The issue is the specific confluence of circumstances that make Douthat’s recent “strange, now year old series of Catholic critiques” (his description) so problematic, and why a cadre of academics felt compelled to issue a rejoinder.

There is a scene in A Few Good Men, in which Tom Cruise’s JAG character Lt. Kafee objects to the testimony of a supposed medical expert. The objection is overruled, and Kafee retakes his seat. But a few moments later, Demi Moore’s passionate JAG counterpart, Lt. Galloway, leaps to her feet and interjects, “Sir, the defense strenuously objects” before reciting a list of reasons that the doctor’s testimony ought to be stricken from the record. The presiding judge, clearly irritated, dismisses Galloway’s second objection and furthermore goes on to attest that the witness in question will be considered an expert for purposes of the court’s consideration. Following adjournment, the third member of the legal team sarcastically rebukes Galloway, saying,

“I strenuously object?” Is that how it works? Hm? “Objection.” “Overruled.” “Oh, no, no, no. No, I STRENUOUSLY object.” “Oh. Well, if you strenuously object then I should take some time to reconsider.”

Her colleague concludes, “You object once so they can hear you say he’s not a criminologist. You keep after it, and it looks like this great cross we did is just a bunch of fancy lawyer tricks.”

The point of the Faggioli, O’Malley, et al Letter was not to silence or suppress anyone. (You’ll notice that nothing of this sort appears in the letter itself.) Rather, it was to object, in full view of the court, that the person being held up as an expert for purposes of this deliberation is not, in fact, an expert. Even if the Editorial Board of The New York Times “overrules,” as one would fully expect they shall, the point of the objection is the objection itself. The peril, of course, as the scene above demonstrates, is that repeating it can end up having the opposite effect. Those who signed the letter, including some of the contributors on this site, may actually fear that precisely this sort of unintended consequence is occurring in real time.

Who is qualified to comment?

The signatories of this letter do not object to Douthat’s prerogative to offer observations on Vatican politics or ecclesial debates. However, many (if I may be so presumptuous to speak for a number of people whom I do not know personally) may take exception to the rather imperious, arrogant, and dismissive manner in which Douthat is advancing his comparatively uninformed analysis. Disclaimer: I do not know Mr. Douthat. I believe him to be sincere, zealous, and intelligent. Those who do know him personally attest that he possesses all of these virtues and myriad more. This is not about who he is as a person, but rather his very public comments over the course of the past year. He has presumed to lecture more than a few professional theologians about what constitutes doctrine and heresy. He has repeatedly rattled the saber of “schism” and explicitly impugned the Pope’s motives before his international readership.

The letter to the Times is a public response amounting to the rebuke: “Have some humility, Mr. Douthat.” No less than the former spokesperson for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the recently departed Sister Mary Ann Walsh, decried Douthat’s columns, remarking, “Such hubris is breathtaking, even for The Times.”

Faggioli and O’Malley are far from infallible, and even adding an impressive list of professional theologians to the letter does not guarantee inerrancy, much less constitute an authoritative response of the faithful. But O’Malley did not get to be regarded as the dean, and those co-signing faculty members do not successfully occupy exceedingly-difficult-to-attain academic positions, without having first undertaken an extraordinary course of formation that Douthat lacks.

This is not simply about credentials. It is about process. Like Douthat, I cannot boast of a PhD, and yet, in my own experience, I have never had professional academics dismiss my contributions as invalid. Nor have any of my published pieces on Church affairs been delegitimized in the eyes of sophisticated observers because I lack a tenure-track position. This is not about limiting the dialogue to a special club, much less the self-evidently silly indictment that it represents the suppression of free-speech.

Rather, it’s about the alarming alacrity with which Douthat dismisses critics and the very real damage that can be done when someone with his level of influence tirelessly asserts a particular narrative about a topic with which most people are deeply unfamiliar.

Words matter

Particularly words pronounced through an unparalleled megaphone like the pages of The New York Times. Why pick on Douthat when there are countless other observers posting on blogs and writing for comparatively parochial Catholic publications? Because The Times is, indisputably, the most influential English-language newspaper in the world, and, at the moment, its most vocal public Catholic is engaging in an inexcusable level of fear-mongering regarding the current Pope and the broader Catholic community. And perhaps because this same person does not have to worry about his columns being scrutinized by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, nor being placed under ecclesiastical censure by the local Ordinary, he is a bit too quick to throw around a very serious word like “heresy.”

Contrary to what Dreher and his colleagues might think, this is not about thin-skinned theologians having their feelings hurt. Nor is it about a bunch of liberals trying to silence someone with whom they disagree. Nor still is it, as Jim Keane and Kaya Oakes have challenged, about restricting the conversation to those with PhDs. (The specific wording of the Faggioli letter–particularly use of the word credentials–is regrettable, given how easily it leads to this completely understandable conclusion. And you should absolutely read those other pieces.)

It is, however, about Katie Grimes’ incisive critique that The Times would not hire someone to write regularly about science issues, who possesses no science background, nor about economics, foreign policy, or medicine who lacked some sort of professional qualifications in that respective area. Grimes’ is a perspective I share. Yes, columnists are given the ability to comment on a wide range of subject matters, but over the past year Douthat has issued prolific pontifications on the Holy Father, the Synod of Bishops, and the minutiae of doctrinal development. He has, effectively, styled himself as an authority on Church affairs. Is this how The Times understands his role among their set of columnists? And if so, might it benefit The Times to look for someone with a greater degree of professional experience in this particular discipline, the way they would, were the topic in question one of science or medicine?

But above all else, this seemingly frivolous little spat between a bunch of uber-privileged white dudes is about the real-world pastoral damage that can ensue when someone like Douthat is permitted to sculpt the narrative of what is taking place in the Church right now. Most people will never purchase Austen Ivereigh’s book nor have time to read all of John Allen’s columns. They rely on a handful of prominent observers to give them a concise overview of what is taking place. And if they’re reading The New York Times, they’re increasingly being led to believe that Pope Francis is leading the Church into dangerous waters.

That’s a problem. Reality becomes reified by repetition, and if enough people parrot the word schism or heresy, such an interpretation will cease to be one Catholic commentator’s personal assessment… it will gain traction as a veritable phenomenon. I do not think it is hyperbole to point to similar, recent examples in which such fear-based assertions produced real world damage. The most salient one, to my mind, was the ubiquitous insistence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, and that we needed to invade Iraq in order to eliminate this existential threat. If you genuinely believe that what is at stake in global discussions of Magisterial Christian teaching is no less than the eternal salvation of souls — and I am inclined to think that nearly everyone involved in this current brouhaha earnestly believes that this is PRECISELY what is on the line here — then you can see why the theologians felt strongly enough to issue a public rejoinder.

Dissent and Heresy

I recognize that not all will concur with my assessment. In fact, a number of my very thoughtful friends, who likewise count themselves among the collection of professional Catholic theologians, have stated publicly that they disagree with the letter for various reasons. I think they have made valid points, and I respect their decision to denounce it. But I would like to offer a different accounting of what it represents, because it most emphatically does NOT constitute an effort by its signatories to silence or marginalize Ross Douthat. (I think we can safely say there is little chance of that anyway.)

Some of Faggioli’s critics have rightfully pointed out that Ross Douthat does not have the power to place people under censure or investigate theologians for heresy. That’s true. But many bishops — especially American ones — read what Douthat writes, and I would be willing to speculate that more than a handful of them are privately grateful that Douthat is saying some things about Pope Francis, and the direction of the Church, that they, as bishops, cannot. And it would not be entirely beyond the realm of imagination that certain individuals might wish to initiate greater scrutiny of certain ostensibly “heretical” theologians, as was recently the case with Fordham Professor Elizabeth Johnson.

Heresy is heresy, and dissent is quite a different matter. The very fact that Douthat recently re-posted his response to O’Malley’s previous critique demonstrates that he does not seem to understand the distinction. By introducing his hypothetical of a Pope who appoints a bunch of Arian bishops, he places a core Christological dogma regarding the divinity of Jesus in the same classification with a relatively peripheral pastoral discipline regarding a potential penitential path to readmission of certain divorced persons to receive the Eucharist. Because, best I can tell, he, and many others, think that such a proposal represents an existential assault on the very Magisterium itself. Which is utterly untenable given a proper understanding of ecclesiology.

So where does that leave us? Well, for starters, I would encourage everyone to check out Brian Flanagan’s excellent, concise explainer on the development of doctrine. Then I would suggest reading James Martin’s post on the insidiousness of toxic rhetoric and personal attacks, and using that as a basis for prayer and reflection. But most importantly, I think we could all benefit, myself included, from practicing the Ignatian principle of finding God in all things, especially in those with whom we disagree.

Michael Bayer is the Director of Outreach and Education at The University of Iowa Newman Catholic Student Center. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and The Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley.