The Corner

Leftist Catholics Try to Silence Ross Douthat — Douthat Brushes Them Off

One of the more amusing tempests (at least for those observing from a distance) has been the unbearably self-important and silly effort by a coalition of liberal Catholics to silence Ross Douthat’s commentary on Catholic controversies because he has “no professional qualifications to write on the subject.” Dozens of Catholic academics from some of the nation’s most prestigious universities signed a letter to the New York Times that reads in full:

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.

I’m sorry, but this letter represents a dumpster fire of idiocy and elitism. Rod Dreher has been having entirely too much fun on his blog pointing out the absurd and partisan ”scholarship” from some of the signatories — including an assertion from one of the signatories that rapper Tupac Shakur was a “theologian.” The only thing funnier than reading what passes for leftist theological scholarship is reading about their towering regard for this nonsense. Consider this response to Dreher:

Reading academic, peer-reviewed journal articles is hard work. Often in our own work, when preparing to cite a particular article at length, it is necessary to spend many days very carefully reading a single article. The reasons are fairly obvious: the article is advancing a thesis that is often complex; said thesis may cause you to re-think your own work, or lead it in a new direction; the research for the article leads the reader into an almost-endless array of theological insight (most of which the reader will be at least somewhat unfamiliar with). Grimes’s articles that Dreher cites in his post are no different from the generic peer-reviewed essay we cite above. They are meticulously researched, or else they never would have been accepted for publication. This is key in this debate, which has focused so much on orthodoxy: acceptance of these articles does not rely on whether the reviewers agree with Grimes but whether she makes a thorough argument and supports it with ample evidence. It would hardly be possible to give any one of these articles a fair reading in a short time. So, what we get from Dreher are some selected quotations without attending to Grimes’s more complex theses in these articles. Of course, such proof-texting of a text would lead to a failing mark in most introductory theology courses, so, as teachers, we can’t let it go by the wayside here.

“They are meticulously researched, or else they never would have been accepted for publication.” Now that’s hilarious. I’ve spent my time in “elite” institutions of higher education, and I see how the sausage is made. What’s “meticulous” isn’t the research, but rather the dedication to the progressive cause, reason and research be damned. 

At any rate, this Saturday Ross responded, and his response is excellent. I particularly enjoyed the conclusion:

[W]e 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.

That’s exactly the right response. Go ahead, progressives, make your argument, but understand that it will be vigorously opposed. When you can’t even get the New York Times to silence social and religious conservatism, you know it’s time to cowboy up. You’re going to have to win an actual theological debate with authentic believers.

Good luck. You’ll need it.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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