This commentary first appeared on the author’s Facebook page and appears here in an edited version with his permission. –Ed.
I’m sure that many who read the New York Times “religiously” skipped the recent column by Ross Douthat on the Synod either because it is inside Catholic baseball, or because they don’t read Douthat on (political) principle.
Clearly, Douthat is one Catholic who does not regard Pope Francis as a Teflon pontiff. In his abrasive column he fingers Francis as the “chief plotter” behind a progressive effort to allow, at pastoral discretion, divorced and invalidly remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist under certain circumstances without first having their first marriages declared null. In the same column he dismisses the pope’s “ostentatious humility.” Obviously, Douthat has not bothered to ask himself, as Francis has, “who am I to judge?”
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. It is the virus that, in another context, Christopher Lasch lamented as inciting “the tyranny of experts” and is akin to what led Kierkegaard to observe that “a roomful of experts is only a crowd.”
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.
The rest of this sentence reads thus: “…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 is.”
It is hard to know what this sentence is trying to say. Does it refer to Douthat’s political conservatism or his conservative Catholicism? If it means that he views the recent synod on the family as a contest between liberal and conservative factions—well that “narrative” unfortunately has governed what every reporter and pundit has employed this and every other discussion of Catholic issues and events since Vatican Council II. And it certainly applies to the polarity that Catholic theologians have themselves exhibited time and again when gathered in solemn assembly. Unfortunately. And it is the only way the New York Times can understand what is going on in the church.
If it is a fumbling way of saying that popes (especially Francis) are above “political” maneuvers like so many other bishops, tell it to Robert Mickens or, for that matter, Garry Wills, whose narratives are as “politically partisan” as that of Douthat. Why target Douthat, and for that matter, why post this complaint to the Times? Which brings me to the letter’s last sentence.
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…
Besides Douthat there are three columnists who occasionally flash their Catholic backgrounds when opining on matters Catholic—there being nothing in their foregrounds to suggest much attachment now. Tired Maureen Dowd routinely embarrasses as well as offends by citing her Catholic grade school education (like Anna Quindlen before her) as if that makes her expert, and Frank Bruni, in the role of officially “out” gay columnist, just as routinely lectures Catholics on the church’s sexual hang-ups.
Do we ever see any of these Catholic scholars writing critical letters to the Times rebutting these onetime, sometime Catholics? Is the pope Protestant?
The letter is still circulating among the like minded in the academic ’hood. There’s something lemming-like in its lengthening list of signatures—which means we are likely to hear more rather than less from the offended. A few are scholarly bold face names but the reassuring thing is that there aren’t more. But to what purpose? They should know by now that columnists thrive on the attention critics give them. I sure did.
Apparently, much of the animosity between Douthat and his defenders, on the one hand, and the scholars and their supporters, on the other, is based on nasty charges of “heresy” fired back and forth on Twitter, a medium not fit for anything other than throwing darts. If this is the dugout level on which conservative and progressive Catholics want air their differences then I want no part of it. But do not ask the New York Times to dignify the exchange. Who are they to judge?
Kenneth L. Woodward, a contributing editor at Newsweek, was for thirty-eight years the magazine’s religion editor.