A look at the recent debate over Ross Douthat’s theological musings


From the pages of the New York Times, to the Twittersphere, to an assortment of online journals and blogs, a debate arose between theologians, journalists, and other concerned Catholics. Worries over hateful dialogue, academic censorship, and heresy surfaced as the Synod on the Family was underway, and individuals expressed their opinions on the happenings and potential motives of liberal- and conservative-minded bishops in attendance.

Ross Douthat, an author, blogger, and New York Times op-ed columnist who recently gave a talk at Notre Dame, had been covering the Synod on the Family—held in Rome from October 4 to October 25—extensively through his column and on Twitter.

On October 18, Douthat’s regular Sunday column for the Times was entitled “The Plot to Change Catholicism.” In this piece and in other places online, Douthat suggested that factions had emerged among the Synod bishops, and he was concerned about the group pushing for a more liberal resolution to the issue of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, especially because Pope Francis seemed to have supported this position.

On October 26, several theologians from prominent universities and many graduate students co-signed a letter to the editors of the Times, stating that the actions of Douthat and this article in particular were “not what we expect of the New York Times.”

The letter, made public on the blog Daily Theology, in part read: “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.”

After his piece was released but before this letter was written, Douthat engaged in debate on Twitter with many different theologians and academics—professional and otherwise. In this context, on October 23 Douthat tweeted, “Own your heresy,” which seems to account for the mention of heresy in the letter submitted to the Times.

Debate centered around four topics: the issue of credentials necessary for stating theological ideas, the ideas themselves, the use of the word heresy, and the suggestion that Douthat be censored.

Some reacted to the letter simply on the grounds of what seemed to be the promotion of censoring Douthat’s work by the editors. Bishop Robert Barron, on the blog Word on Fire, spoke to this, among other things, writing, “In response to Douthat’s ruminations, a letter, signed by some of the leading lights of the Catholic academy, was sent to the editors of the Times. The professors and pundits complained that Douthat was proposing a politicized reading of Church affairs and that he was, at the end of the day, unqualified to speak on such complex matters, presumably because he doesn’t have a graduate degree in theology. Their prim closing remark—‘This is not what we expect of the New York Times’—was an unmistakable insinuation that views such as Douthat’s simply should not be allowed into the arena of public conversation.

“Are all of Ross Douthat’s opinions on the Synod debatable? Of course. Do I subscribe to everything he has said in this regard? No. But is he playing outside the rules of legitimate public discourse in such an egregious way that he ought to be censored? Absolutely not! Anyone even casually familiar with Douthat knows that he is exceptionally smart, articulate, careful in his expression, and a committed Catholic,” Bishop Barron continued.

Many people who supported the letter were quick to reply that the letter, in this respect, may have been poorly worded. Reverend James Martin, SJ, editor at large of America magazine, wrote in an article, “Inevitably, it’s been that first part that has been pounced on, since it was poorly worded, with people attacking the signatories for all sorts of things that they never said: That Mr. Douthat should never be permitted to write about theology. Which they did not say. That they wanted him silenced. Which they also did not say. That they think lay people shouldn’t speak out. Which is one of the more ridiculous things I’ve read in the last few days, since many of the chief signers are laypeople.”

Father Martin instead continued, “But it is the second part of that letter that deserves more attention. That is, Mr. Douthat’s use of slurs like ‘heresy’ and, what went unsaid, the use of ad hominem attacks.

“In the world of theology, where Mr. Douthat is more than welcome to speak and write, words have meaning. Calling someone a ‘heretic’ is like calling a journalist a plagiarist. These aren’t funny punchlines to be taken lightly. They are attacks on one’s faith, and for theologians possible career-enders,” he said.

Father Bill Dailey, CSC, a Lecturer in Law at the Notre Dame Law School who considers Douthat “something of a friend,” spoke with the Rover about this controversy:

“In short, they were objecting to his editors at the New York Times—not about his columns but about a Twitter exchange he had had with a theologian in which the word ‘heresy’ had been invoked. My first objection was that if they were going to complain about a tweet, they should have chosen some forum other than the Times and addressed Ross, not his editors.

“Secondly, they opened their attack by questioning his qualifications to write about the faith as a public intellectual—in a newspaper that contains many ridiculous falsehoods about the faith all the time, to which none of the authors has been known to object—when Douthat is perfectly qualified and indeed both careful and nuanced in what he writes about the faith. This was a group of self-styled ‘progressives’ invoking their authority to question or jeopardize the employment of a fellow traveler in the faith because of substantive and honorable disagreement—at the conclusion of a Synod that they had argued was all about airing all opinions.

“Finally,” Fr. Dailey continued, “they disingenuously claimed that his invocation of ‘heresy’ in another forum was the sort of thing that has grave consequences. I say disingenuously because they cannot possibly have believed that his tweet would, in any possible world, have grave consequences for them. One assumes they hoped their letter might have some for Douthat, of course. And consider a final point—these credentialed theologians ought to have realized that the tradition has always recognized a distinction between ‘material heresy’ (more or less, doctrinal error) and ‘formal heresy’ (more or less, obdurate and willful clinging to what one knows to be contrary to the faith). At the very most, Douthat was accusing people of holding views that were erroneous—but I could find nothing in his writings at the Times that came close to the charge of formal heresy. Surely nobody could claim that he was in any way inappropriate for saying that certain proposed views would constitute heresy—that is, would be inconsistent with essential Church doctrine—even if he was wrong on the merits.”

There are several arguments from both sides on the validity of the actual content of Douthat’s articles, that is, the extent to which doctrine may or may not be changed, and in fact Fr. Martin and Douthat have published an email debate that occurred last year on this subject.

More recently, others, such as Brian Flanagan on Daily Theology, have also made responses to the content of the issue rather than add to the turmoil. The most heated current controversy, however, centers around the idea of sending a letter to the editors of the Times, the use of ad hominem attacks, and the vitriolic nature of the debate.

John Slattery, a Ph.D Candidate in Systematic Theology and the History and Philosophy of Science at Notre Dame and a signatory of the letter to the editors of the Times, commented to the Rover, “I have seen strong support as well as harsh criticism for my signing of the letter, which was to be expected given the popularity of the discussion. What saddened me, however, was the level of rancor some took in responding to the letter, including Douthat’s closing line, ‘welcome to the battlefield,’ in his own response [Editor’s note: Douthat’s response was published in the Times on October 31]. Theological debates, I deeply believe, should be settled in dialogue with charity and hope. Douthat’s commitment to the language of war, including the naming of heresies, reduces theological dialogue to the level of political mudslinging.”

Father Dailey added some final thoughts on the matter: “I hope that students would see that the fundamental error of the letter writers was their refusal to engage the argument, preferring instead a ‘gang of resumes’ approach. Write a letter to the editor showing where and how Ross was wrong—engage the issues. Don’t write a letter ‘working the refs’ and questioning his qualifications—that’s an ad hominem unworthy of serious intellectual exchange.

“If one bothered to chase down all the various unfortunate follow-on exchanges in this episode (I don’t recommend it—life is too short!), one would see the letter writers and their defenders going to great lengths to claim that it was never about credentials, never about silencing Ross, and never about his job. But of course, the letter specifically targeted his credentials and questioned whether his work was up to the standards of the publication that employs him. It nowhere engaged the substance of his columns (as one ordinarily expects letters to the editor to do).

“So if it wasn’t at all about the only things it actually managed to argue about, it was a spectacularly bad piece of writing. I hope that students would avoid that, too!” Fr. Dailey concluded.

John VanBerkum is a senior studying theology and philosophy. He is sweeter than sweet tea. Contact him at jvanberk@nd.edu.