On October 17, New York Times opinion writer and prominent Catholic conservative Ross Douthat penned a scathing critique of Pope Francis entitled “The Plot To Change Catholicism.” In it, he blasted the pope for supposedly endorsing the idea that divorced and remarried Catholics should receive communion without an annulment, and slammed the famously egalitarian pontiff for his “ostentatious humility.”
The piece is one of several Douthat has written about Pope Francis and Catholicism in recent months, most of which are deeply critical of the Church’s left wing and Francis’ relatively progressive take on various theological issues. This week, however, American Catholics are fighting back.
On Monday, a group of Catholic theologians published an open letter directly challenging Douthat, who reportedly has little if any formal training in theology or Church history. The signers took particular umbrage with his most recent article, but also appeared to decry Douthat’s larger body of work on Catholicism — especially his tendency to bat about accusations of heresy, often at Catholic theologians.
The text of the letter is below:
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.
Initial signers of the letter included prominent theology professors affiliated with major Catholic universities, such as Georgetown University, Loyola University Chicago, and Catholic University of America. Dozens of other Catholic theology professors, academics, priests, and PhD students have also signed onto the letter since Monday, most hailing from other Catholic schools such as Boston College, Fordham University, and Santa Clara University, among others. Catholic theologian Francis Schussler Fiorenza of Harvard University, Douthat’s alma mater, also added his name.
The letter should have asked the New York Times the following question: with what criteria did they determine Mr. Douthat competent to act as an arbiter of theological truth?
The letter quickly drew ire from religious conservatives who saw it as an attempt by academics to silence a Catholic layperson, since Douthat is not ordained. But the chief signer of the letter, Rev. John O’Malley of Georgetown University, told ThinkProgress that Catholic frustration with Douthat isn’t about his right to say what he wants, but his apparent unfamiliarity with crucial theological concepts — all while writing for an international news outlet.
“[Douthat] gets into very technical theological stuff, and you should have some professional background in that — studying church theology, church history, that kind of thing,” he said. “These are big issues.”
A similar sentiment was expressed on Wednesday by James J. Martin, editor at large at America magazine, a renowned Catholic publication affiliated with the Jesuit order of priests. In a lengthy treatment of the debate, Martin acknowledged that the letter itself was “poorly worded,” but defended the spirit of the theologians who are rushing to support it.
“What the signers meant, it seemed to me, was that when it comes to some theological matters Mr. Douthat has no idea what he’s talking about. And that’s true…” he said. “This does not mean [Douthat is] a bad person or a bad Catholic. Or a ‘heretic,’ to use a phrase from his lexicon. It just means that he’s not a professional theologian and on many matters, particularly church history and ecclesiology, he is out of his depth.”
Katie Grimes, an assistant professor of theological ethics at Villanova University and another signer of the letter, explained in a blog post her annoyance with Douthat’s repeated claims to theological certainty.
“More than many other figures who misrepresent or oversimplify Catholic theology in the mainstream media, Mr. Douthat has tended to portray himself as one who recites Catholic teaching rather than one who interprets it, especially over the course of the past few weeks,” she wrote. “This alone I take issue with.”
“So perhaps rather than calling Mr. Douthat ‘un-credentialed,’ the letter should have asked the New York Times the following question: with what criteria did they determine Mr. Douthat competent to act as an arbiter of theological truth?” she added.
Ultimately, several of the signers defended Douthat’s ability to write as he pleases, but insisted his theological diatribes — which often include condemnations of others — will not go unchallenged.
“I wholeheartedly support fully anyone’s right to write whatever he or she wants, including Ross Douthat,” Martin wrote. “But be sure that whenever you’re reading ad hominem comments, thinly veiled attacks on people’s fidelity to the faith, snide insinuations and malicious twisting of words, you are not reading theology. You are reading hate.”