Two weeks ago I had noticed the headline in my news aggregator The Plot to Change Catholicism from Ross Douthat. I didn’t read it since by that time I had pretty much had my fill my Synod related commentary. Although usually I do read his columns and find them worthwhile, even in disagreement at times.
Then the whole kerfuffle broke out this week with what columnist Rod Dreyer called The tempest-in-a-theological-faculty-teapot over the pissy letter an (ever-growing) list of Catholic theologians are.
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.
So I read the article to see what the big deal was about. I was not surprised to find that the article had little to do with the characterization of it. No fire or brimstone or charges of heresy. Douthat proposes that Pope Francis is at least favorable to the Kasper proposal and that Synod appointments reflect this. That his actions were crafted towards that end. I think it is a reasonable explanation of the facts. Others who I respect and who are not spittle-flecked Francis haters have suggested the same explanation based on available facts. I don’t happen to think that this is the only possible interpretation of the tea-leave readings of Synodal appointments, just that it seems to fit.
So as far as Ross Douthat’s column goes it wasn’t especially intemperate or over-the-top. You can either agree or disagree with his analysis. What is over-the-top is the reaction. On the left “Credentialism” is something that is often resorted to. Only some people are allowed to comment. If you are a man you can’t have an opinion regarding abortion. If you are not a left-leaning theologian or a columnist of the right type again you are not allowed an opinion. Maureen Dowd and a plethora of NYT columnists can promote abortion and other evils and this list of theologians wouldn’t bat an eye.
This is not what we expect of the New York Times.
This might be the finest compliment Mr. Douthat has ever received.
So where does the idea that Ross Douthat was calling people heretics come from? Again referring to Rod Dreyer column Thin-Skinned Theologians he lists an exchange on Twitter between Ross Douthat and Massimo Faggioli where at one point Douthat replies “Own your Heresy.” So a Twitter subtweet seems to be where much of the ire comes from. I guess these theologians haven’t been on Twitter much.
In reaction to this I have seen a couple find columns in reaction to the letter.
Bishop Robert Barron’s Ross Douthat and the Catholic Academy makes some excellent points regarding credentialism and finishes with this:
So in the spirit of Howard Sudberry, I would say to those who signed the letter against Ross Douthat, “Make an argument against him; prove him wrong; marshal your evidence; have a debate with him; take him on. But don’t attempt to censor him.” I understand that the signatories disagree with him, but he’s playing by the rules.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker weighs in with From the Fury of Liberal Theologians, Good Lord Deliver Us.
Heresy is not a charge to be bantered about casually.
Can. 751: Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith.
The whole debate regarding those divorced and remarried being allowed Communion has always seemed a nonsensical debate to me. Really it does tend towards heresy regarding the truth Jesus gave us regarding the indissolubility of marriage. Either someone is in a objectively grave state of sin or they are not. Either one is fully in communion with the Church or they are not.
The whole proposal makes adultery a favored sin given special treatment. That someone doesn’t have to repent of a sin and still to be able to say they are in communion with the Church and the will of Christ. I do wonder how I can get my own long list of sins given special treatment. The idea that you can go through a “period of penance” while not actually repenting is just bad theology.
In part I can certainly understand why this proposal has come about. In most every case where we sin we can repent of the sin, confess it, with a firm purpose of amendment regarding that sin. For those who have “remarried” there can be no full repentance until the situation is rectified. This is an exceptionally difficult situation and I have certainly empathized with the anguish of those who find themselves in this situation. Countless hours of Catholic radio have exposed me to these personal stories. I have also seen the difficulties regarding evangelism for people in this situation. Those that might be attracted towards the Church find the Catholic teaching on marriage cruel and judgmental.
So I can totally understand what leads to a misplaced sense of mercy where the truth regarding marriage is invalidated. One of the things I have noticed in the whole debate regarding the family relates to the aftermath of divorce and very little to keeping families intact in the first place. Rampant divorce is a modern phenomenon. Much more effort should be expended regarding this along with helping those in irregular marriage situations. No one is helped when you confirm them in their sin. When something is uncomfortable it is amazing the reasons we can come up with to avoid those situations (speaking from my own experience here). I think some of this false mercy is driven by that.
It is rather odd when you deny the possibility of divorce that you are denounced as Pharisees when the Pharisees permitted divorce. Jesus called them hard-hearted for not defending the truth of marriage.