Ross Douthat's Three Mistakes

Catherine M Wallace

The predictable online conflagration has followed from Ross Douthat's broadsides against academic theologians, especially Jesuits, and his accusations that "a war of choice" is being waged by nefarious liberal-Catholic theologians and bishops. Despite the smoke, we must not lose sight of a central fact: the battle here is not whether a loving God might forgive divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment. Divorced Catholics are poster children for bigger issues.

Mr. Douthat portrays Catholicism as rigidly absolutist, fiercely judgmental, and quick to dismiss arguments from other perspectives no matter how serious. Other Catholics disagree with this portrait of Catholicism. We want no part of religion gone rigid, condemning, and close-minded. Such a faith fails to trust that in the end compassion, radical hospitality, and forgiveness trace the arc of the universe. Loving our neighbors and welcoming the stranger, the immigrant, and the outcast is not the morally mushy anything-goes narcissism that Douthat imagines. It is the Way of Jesus, who clashed in his own day with the self-righteous. the judgmental, and the exclusionary.

As I see it, Mr. Douthat makes three theological mistakes. First, he insists that the church cannot change any of its doctrines ("teachings") or dogmas ("opinions") without calling papal infallibility into question. That's a misreading of papal infallibility. Here's the backstory: in declaring the pope infallible in 1870, the First Vatican Council did not apply "infallibility" retroactively to the immense body of existing teachings on every imaginable topic. The pope is officially infallible only when he declares that a particular formal statement is being made "ex cathedra" or "from the chair of Peter." With the exception of one peculiar proclamation by Pius XII in 1950, no pope has ever issued an infallible teaching. The heritage of Catholic teachings has genuine authority, but it is not infallible. Mr. Douthat's sweeping construction of infallibility turns this heritage into an idol.

When Mr. Douthat flatly insists that the Church cannot change, he assumes a high Platonic construction of reality. Plato and Greek tradition generally assumed that the unchanging is morally superior to the dynamic, the developing, and so forth. Our culture no longer assumes that stasis is a "higher" moral state. An editorial in the National Catholic Reporter gestured toward this buried Platonism when it acknowledged that "An ongoing tension inherent in church life exists between the view of tradition as frozen, as if in holy amber, and the one that sees tradition as constantly renewing itself, expanding with new insights to meet new challenges."

One of these new challenges, needless to say, is how dramatically different marriage is today than it was in the ancient world, where marriages were arranged, a divorced woman was left homeless and destitute, and the vast majority of people died before they turned thirty. The moral reality of faithful and holy gay marriages provides an even more direct challenge to those who insist that of course Christianity cannot change.

Mr. Douthat's second mistake is portraying Catholicism as over-invested in condemning people, especially the publicly enacted judgmentalism involved in being refused Holy Communion. The Eucharist is not some special reward for the righteous—a ritual scrupulously to be denied to those who fail to meet "standards." The larger theological and pastoral tradition understands the Eucharist as a sacred communal expression of God's intimate supporting Presence to each of us and in each of us, no matter what, indelibly and incessantly. I've seen no mention anywhere of the immense spiritual harm done to faithful Catholics by proclaiming them forevermore unworthy of this sacrament. And why? Because after suffering through the legalities of a divorce, they refused to tangle with the expensive, arduous, and insanely bureaucratic process of an annulment—as if some remote Vatican committee could actually determine God's views on their failed marriage.

There's a third, even more subtle issue at stake in the confrontation between Mr. Douthat and a wide array of Catholic bishops and theologians. What is the role of critical thinking within Catholicism? Mr. Douthat and his allies in effect portray Catholic doctrines as simply deduced from unchanging and unquestionable absolutes laid down by God himself—and never mind the influence of cultural context and human fallibility upon the people who first formulated the teachings. That's one option.

There is of course another option. It's an approached centered on critical thinking, a skill famously central to Jesuit educations like the one I enjoyed some years ago. In this second approach to Catholicism, the teachings and opinions of Catholic tradition are understood to be deeply rooted in a dynamic, on-going interplay among critical thinking, scripture, biblical scholarship, cultural history, the immense heritage of theology over centuries, pastoral experience, spiritual experience, technical manuscript studies, and the best of what secular science and social science have to offer on the issue at hand. Since the 1300s, this tradition has had a name: Christian humanism.

That's not heresy. It is the high Catholic intellectual tradition. It is the heritage of all Christians who believe that critical intelligence is the light of God shining in us no less than compassion is the love of God flowing through us.

But Mr. Douthat is certainly correct in one point he makes, and I'll end with this. He recognizes that Pope Francis is calling out to the resilience of the Catholic Left, the resilience of what is in fact the centuries-old Christian humanist tradition. Francis is bringing some of us back to a church we had long despaired of. After decades floating quietly from one Protestant denomination to another, I'm astounded to find myself kneeling in the pews again at least once in a while. I marvel at how much the church really has changed, at least judging by this congregation (Old St. Pat's, Chicago). I suspect that plenty of ex-Catholics are stopping by, rejoicing in the unexpected resilience of the Catholic Left and the possibility of healthy new life in what had seemed a moribund and irretrievably decadent institution.

My own meandering spiritual journey has convinced me that reasonable, moderate Christians in every denomination understand that faith calls us to both compassion and to critical thinking alike—not to the defense of rigid absolutes and harsh condemnations. Compassion and critical thinking are values we share with morally-sensitive secular humanists and with good people in every religious tradition globally. These values are equally central to the very best of Catholic tradition, not a threat to its survival.