Christianity,  Theology/Bible

Ross Douthat takes the Roman Catholic academy to the woodshed

Last Monday, a cadre of Roman Catholic theologians wrote a letter to the powers-that-be at The New York Times complaining about Ross Douthat’s unwashed views about Catholic theology. In particular, they were perturbed at Douthat’s remarks about marriage in the wake of the recent Synod on the Family. These theologians argued that a layman like Douthat had no business opining on things he is not credentialed to opine on. It was a snarky, elitist argument aimed at shaming the Times into silencing Douthat.

What a happy “coincidence” that Douthat chose to respond on Reformation Day. I recommend that you read his entire response. The conclusion is not to be missed, so I highlight it here. He writes:

At which point we come to the third argument, which makes an appearance in your letter: You don’t understand, you’re not a theologian. As indeed I am not. But neither is Catholicism supposed to be an esoteric religion, its teachings accessible only to academic adepts. And the impression left by this moving target, I’m afraid, is that some reformers are downplaying their real position in the hopes of bringing conservatives gradually along.

What is that real position? That almost anything Catholic can change when the times require it, and “developing” doctrine just means keeping up with capital-H History, no matter how much of the New Testament is left behind.

As I noted earlier, the columnist’s task is to be provocative. So I must tell you, openly and not subtly, that this view sounds like heresy by any reasonable definition of the term.

Now it may be that today’s heretics are prophets, the church will indeed be revolutionized, and my objections will be ground under with the rest of conservative Catholicism. But if that happens, it will take hard grinding, not just soft words and academic rank-pulling. It will require a bitter civil war.

And so, my dear professors: Welcome to the battlefield.

Welcome to the battlefield indeed.


  • Christiane Smith

    With all respect, Mr. Douthat was honest about being a provocateur, as his original article in the NY Times stated (his words), this: ” the “pastoral” argument is basically just rubbish “.

    I am all for Mr. Doubthat saying what is on his mind (opinion) openly. If anyone wants to know the position of the Church on any moral or theological issues, the Vatican website is able to help them find what they need.

    I do think Mr. Douthat appears to be quite concerned about the pastoral message of Pope Francis, as there may be ‘changes’ coming . . . but he need not as a Catholic be worried about divisions over theological changes, no . . . what is happening now in the Church involves a ‘change in tone’ that has already begun to affect the pastoral work of the Church for the sake of those who for various reasons have been estranged from a full participation within the Church and are still in need of ministry, perhaps now more than ever in their lives . . .

    The pastoral work of the Church and its ministry to ALL of its members is at the front lines of Francis’ work and this makes some people uncomfortable, I suppose. But it is not anything that the cardinals of the Church did not know about Francis before he was elected pope. Francis has always gone out as a pastor among people who were marginalized . . . Francis is old, he has one lung, and he says openly that he knows he will not be the pope for long, so I think folks who fear what he brings to the Church will not have to be worried indefinitely.

    In the meantime, let people speak of their concerns openly . . . Francis would want for Mr. Douthat to have that opportunity . . . but he would also want the clergy and professors of American Catholicism to have an opportunity to respond. It’s the TONE of conversation among Catholics that Francis would likely want to improve, as that is an integral part of his pastoral work for the Church and for the world as well.

  • Sean Dillon

    I thought it was interesting that the writers of the letter to the New York Times wrote “This is not what we expect of the New York Times.” Those men and women are not academic lightweights. How they’re not able to stand back and objectively see the rather left bias of The Times is simply beyond me.

  • James Stanton

    “The ostentatious humility of Pope Francis, his scoldings of high-ranking prelates, have changed this not at all; if anything, the pontiff’s ambitions have encouraged plotters and counterplotters to work with greater vigor.”

    Harsh words here. Douthat has earned his criticism but at least he’s giving as good as he’s getting. I don’t really care about the politics that animate Catholics but I will say that Douthat is far more outspoken on the issue of divorce and remarriage than many elite social conservatives. This is an issue that affects the church far more than the current culture war issues of homosexuality and transgenderism and yet its obvious which issues are more profitable for purposes of outrage.

  • Christiane Smith

    is possible to look at families of divorce and remarriage in different ways:

    the most prevalent is that, without seeking annulment through the proper channels, the couple is not considered validly married in the Church, and so the couple is asked not to come to the communion table and partake

    another way, a way that Pope Francis is now asking Catholics to examine, is to look at the struggle of a family of divorce and remarriage through the eyes of its children . . .
    and having considered the situation from that perspective, the Church is then asked to re-evaluate its ministry to such a family, particularly in ways that show consideration for those most deeply impacted by the situation: the children . . .

    The truth is, whether people want to acknowledge it or not, children take the brunt of suffering when there is any trouble in a family . . . it shows up in pediatricians’ offices, in counselor’s offices, in school classrooms and school administrators’ offices, in the courtrooms, in the psychologists’ offices, the psychiatrists’ offices, sometimes the foster care system, sometimes the juvenile justice system . . . the children suffer because they are the most vulnerable, and there lies the reason the pope wants for the Church to take another look at these families . . . and this time, how to help them instead of judge them

    So that is a part of the PASTORAL argument that Francis is making. And knowing what we already know about what divorce and remarriage does to our children, we can decide for ourselves if Francis has asked for us to see the situation from a different angle, and if in doing that, we, as Church, should find a better way to serve such families

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