The National Catholic Review

Back in the ancient days of 2005, a year before Twitter was founded and a year after Facebook was conceived, St. John Paul II died and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope. If you were a Catholic working in media or who was media-savvy (I was a Jesuit scholastic at the time, interning at America and writing occasional articles for Busted Halo while I studied theology at Fordham University), then you might remember that it was one of those moments where it became obvious the communications landscape had changed; conversations about the new pope that would have taken place around the water cooler and in the church parking lot were to some degree supplanted by something much stranger: namely, The Blog.

There are still plenty of blogs around today, but it’s nothing like it was in 2005 in Catholic land, where every time you turned around someone was hanging out their own shingle, usually with a fanciful Latin title and sometimes with a terrifying one. St. Blog’s, the wags called it. Some of the Catholic blogs—actually the majority of them, and several of the most popular—were of a markedly traditionalist bent, both in authorship and readership. Who knows why, but some of this was surely a reaction against several decades of “progressive” control over many chanceries and diocesan newspapers.

One of the chief sports at a number of these blogs in 2005 was heresy hunting—denouncing others for their supposed lack of orthodoxy. And one of the most popular Catholic blogs—the ominously named “The Cafeteria Is Closed”—did little else but take morose delight in others’ supposed lack of fidelity to the Holy Father. The author, a recent convert, included a picture of himself flexing his bicep, with the tagline “you said WHAT about the pope?” Once a target was identified (at that blog or elsewhere), inevitably someone would post the name and address of the local bishop (sometimes they’d post your name and address, too, because, you know, we’re known by our love), so readers could write to complain.

Others were more subtle but no less noxious. At one point someone asked Cardinal Arinze in Rome why he never acted on complaints about liturgical abuses, and his response was perfect: because only Americans complain about this, and because they never stop sending complaints. I found myself on the receiving end more than once of a sudden, unexpected and unwanted amount of attention from people whose honey-do list for the weekend included calling my Jesuit superiors to tell them I was a heretic.

I was small potatoes, so none of it amounted to much. And most of the time, random complaints to a bishop are treated for what they are—food for thought. For other people in the church, that was not the case. Accusations of heresy and anonymous delations to the Congregation for the Doctrine for the Faith did have real consequences for many theologians through the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and some of those consequences continue today. Men and women lost their jobs, lost their reputations, lost their privilege to teach and to publish. One of the defining moments of my Catholic life was at a meeting in 2004 when I listened with dismay and rage as the blameless and holy Jacques Dupuis gave the details of a years-long campaign against him at the C.D.F.

What does this trip down memory lane have to do with anything? Let me explain.

During the course of the Synod on the Family taking place over the past few weeks in Rome, the Internet was the cause of another minor revolution in Catholic land: instead of blogs, this time it was Twitter. One hundred forty characters in which to relay notes, comment on the proceedings of a synod fraught with controversy and, you guessed it, accuse your ideological opponents of heresy.

Many of the heresy-hunters on Twitter are the same ilk as those who were heresy-hunters in 2005 in the world of St. Blog’s: angry young men with a limited notion of what it means to be Catholic. Often what they mean by “heresy” (an obstinate denial of a defined truth that has to be believed) is actually dissent, and sometimes what they mean by heresy is simply “I disagree with you.” Every now and then, instead of a heretic, you’ll be called more puerile names, as if you were back in grammar school. But these days as much as in 2005, people’s lives and careers can be on the line.

This might explain why a group of Catholic scholars and theologians, headed by the dean of English-language Vatican II scholars, John O’Malley, S.J., and his worthy protégé, Massimo Faggioli, have been working on a letter to The New York Times complaining about columnist Ross Douthat. The signers of the letter can be found elsewhere, but the text 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.

Some background: In addition to his column in The New York Times, Mr. Douthat also is a frequent commenter on Twitter, and in recent weeks has been a biting critic of Pope Francis, the synod process and sometimes his fellow journalists. Much of this commentary has sounded painfully obtuse and parochial, as if Pope Francis were a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination of the United States, and the 2,000-year-old church nothing more than a D.C. think-tank that had lost its way. During one back-and-forth with Mr. Faggioli on Twitter, where it became clear Mr. Douthat was significantly out of his depth in terms of ecclesiology and theology (Mr. Faggioli is a professor of theology and a native Italian), Mr. Douthat responded (right before signing off), “Own your heresy.” 

And there it is again: the accusation of heresy against a professional Catholic theologian. Why? Because that theologian disagreed with Mr. Douthat.

I personally thought Mr. Faggioli’s letter a mistake, first because there is no such thing as a professional qualification for writing on this subject (see below), and second, because of what Mr. Douthat is (and isn’t): an op-ed columnist. The New York Times hired him to be partisan. I think him wrong pretty much all the time, to be sure, but if we’re going to ban partisan narratives about Catholicism from the Old Gray Lady, I’d start with his fellow columnists Maureen Dowd and Frank Bruni, who have been in a race to the bottom vis-à-vis their depictions of Catholicism for the better part of a year.

One of my colleagues in the world of theology (and, full disclosure, a former student of mine, and also currently under contract with me and my employer, Orbis Books), Dan Cosacchi, disagreed with me on Facebook about this, in terms that are worth repeating here, because he makes an interesting case. I’ve modified his comment for context, with his permission. 

Just so we all know what we are in for, if Douthat can write whatever he wants in the Times, he will soon be a Vatican analyst on a major news network, and even more Catholics will think he is an expert, because he will be billed as one. The problem is that he isn't an expert at all. We would never take seriously my writings on biology, for instance, and I hope that if I showed up to operate on you, you would run out of the hospital as quickly as you could. If we sit idly by and watch as Douthat pretends to be an expert now, he will be christened an expert later.

It’s a fair point. There are enough examples out there of people who became an expert without the slightest bit of understanding of church history or teaching. So Dan and I have agreed to disagree on the rest, and many of our peers agree with him. As of tonight, that open letter is out there.

Another thing…

Which brings me to my second point. The following phrase in the letter from Mr. Faggioli, et al: “Aside from the fact that Mr. Douthat has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject…”

Well. One could argue that the greatest scourge to face the Catholic Church in the centuries since the French Revolution was not the widespread defections from the faith, not the increasing irrelevance of religious practice for many in the modern world and not even the monstrous acts of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests and religious over the years: in fact, the greatest scourge may have also been the cause of all these things: clericalism. The instinctive habit of protecting your fellow priests because you’re part of a special club immune to consequences and privy to special grace.

Once you think you’re part of a special club that no one else can join, you’ll do whatever you can to keep that club intact—including enforcing strict rules about who is in and who is out, including stout defenses of those already in, no matter how monstrous their crimes, including a willful denial about the world around you.

When we try to exclude Mr. Douthat and his ilk from the conversation on the grounds they don’t have the professional qualifications, we are no better than Rome’s worst clerical gatekeepers. We are setting up a self-validating club that protects its own and refuses to listen to anyone lacking the proper magic touch. I’ve a personal perspective on this, too, because a decade of Jesuit life (I left the order in 2012) showed me exactly what it’s like to have the temptation to exercise clerical privilege wherever you go. Answer? It’s awesome, and it’s a sin. 

Let us avoid clericalism in all its forms, including casting those without Ph.D.s into the outer darkness. Even the self-appointed Jeremiahs.

Ross Douthat doesn’t have a Ph.D. Actually, I don’t either. Nor does Jim Martin. Or Matt Malone. Or Kerry Weber. Or Grant Gallicho. Or David Gibson. Or Kaya Oakes. Or Ken Woodward. Or Robert Ellsberg. I want to say Peggy Steinfels doesn’t, either, but in fact I have no idea. Which is kind of the point, right? Because it didn’t make much of a difference. We’ve all been getting our Catholic news and commentary from folks whose hard work and talent made them who they are, not their membership in an imagined elite. 


Guillermo Reyes | 11/3/2015 - 5:21pm

What gets no mention by anyone is the obvious:

The NY Times, like most publications, are about revenue. NYT is a private, for-profit corporation.

Ross D. is supplying fodder for the NYT demand chain - readers who like a fight, enjoy drama, conflict, intrigue and mystery, especially if it means attacking the Catholic Church. Ross is being used willingly, since he is "so smart" (per Robert Barron), by the NYT for making revenue and for attacking their enemy - the upholders of morals and Christian-centric thinking. Given that Ross holds himself as a mighty pontificator, he shows intelligent people that "the emperor has no clothes". He's making money (silver pieces, if you will) while enrichening NYT coffers, by spewing throwing darts and flames at the Church. Robert Barron calls his "dialogue". Canon Law calls it causing others to scandal. Since Barron is now an Aux. Bishop, he should be more mindful of CIC and private organizations causing scandal. No authentic convert to Catholicism would dare attack the Church to which they converted nevermind the Pope. Most converts we all know would be very careful to not elevate themselves as knowledegable Catholics and especially above the Pope. In a word: hubris. Yet Ross did it again onTwitter by elevating himself to attack a Theologian with his visceral attack - "own your heresy". Ross is no pious Catholic.
But what happens if non-converts or some with a Baltimore Catechism education call foul play?

Enter Auxillary Bishop Robert Barron, like a drama scripted by the Bard himself:

"Anyone even casually familiar with Douthat knows that he is exceptionally smart, articulate, careful in his expression, and a committed Catholic" in his Word On Fire blog

Given Barron's scholastic bent (at the expense of citing Early Church Fathers every once in a while), Barron betrays St Thomas Aquinas in the most obvious way. Barron often laments the loss of reason in societal discourse and regularly suggests our society adopt Thomas in our studies precisely to have the ability to reason. And yet, Barron throws a whopper statement like the above: "exceptionally smart, articulate, careful". What malarchy. So much for reasoning skills from the disciple of the Dumb Ox. This from the super star Barron. Reminds me of another former super star Catholic author: Father Alberto Cutie, of South Beach. He had a mighty fall to be sure.Barron would do well to stick to smelling his stinky sheep

What of Barron's polemic against the Catholic theologians? Breathtaking!

"Anyone even casually familiar.....careful in his expression....committed Catholic"

where does one begin?

Suffice to say that since Barron throws his (?) theologian colleagues under the bus "official academy" is proof positive that even the Dumb Ox would agree that Barron needs to smell more like the Smelly Sheep he is now supposed to feed. He should be concerned as a Bishop, not as blogger and commercial media apologist, that Ross is leading the smelly sheep astray. Yet alas, the NYT relishes a good slaughtering. Apparently so does Barron. Would that Barron be more concerned for the smelly sheep who comment on the NYT website how they will never believe anything the Church teaches.

Way to go Ross / Barron. You both earn the millstone award for leading the smelly sheep astray. Where is Raymond Burke with his "confusion" trope?

"In point of fact, it is often the case that those outside of the official academy often have the freshest and most insightful perspectives, precisely because they aren’t sequestered in the echo-chamber of politically correct faculty lounge discourse." again, Bobby Barron's webpage

Completely agree Bobby. Get out of your echo-chamber, put away the Summa, stop collecting monies from your web congregants and take a whiff of us...your smelly sheep. Ross D. needs a desperate bath and youre the one to wash him down first. Meanwhile the NYT readers, many of them "recovering Catholics" are gleeful about Ross because he proves what they believe - the Church is corrupt and no different than any other patristic organization

Well done Bobby. You just made your work harder by empowering Ross! You probably dont care because your flock is online and you never get a chance to smell them up and close and personal

Thomas wouldnt be amused. Hopefully the Los Angeles See has other bishops who are concerned about their sheep being led to the slaughter while Bobby writes on his keyboard yet another scholastic article, and abdicating scholastic practicum

Talk about a missed opportunity

Tim O'Leary | 11/2/2015 - 4:50pm

I would think that being charged with endangering children is far worse than heresy in today's world. And, several internet sites use innuendo and hearsay to libel and destroy clerics, who are later found innocent (or not guilty).

For example, keeps a large database of priests who were accused in a court case or just in a media report. While the site has the legal disclaimer at the top of the page (the database contains “merely allegations,” and “innocent until proven guilty”), once on the list, it is very hard for a priest to get taken off it. On their policy page, they say they keep a priest on the list even if they have been acquitted in a court, or exonerated after an investigation and returned to ministry. The only sure way to get removed is if the victim recants or withdraws the allegation, or is himself convicted of a false accusation. The database includes people who were no longer priests when an alleged event occurred and they include priests who were dead when the accusation surfaced. Same problem with accusations of bishops. No concern for due process, contemporary best-practices or standards of law.

joseph o'leary | 11/2/2015 - 12:21am

Thanks for a great personal history on the Catholic Blog phenomena – have been recently wondering how this all started.

emma clery | 11/1/2015 - 9:54am

Mr. Douthat's undermining of Pope Francis (not only in the NYT) has been going on for over a year. I heard him speak at St Charles Seminary two years ago (the same that just hosted Pope Francis during his visit). Douthat's speech occurred on the very evening of America Magazine's release (along with other journals) of Pope Francis's first interview. I listened to James Martin on NPR as I drove to the sem. Douthat, who introduced himself as a convert to Catholicism inspired by Pope John Paul II, then responded to questions about Pope Francis with a fear about what he called "a cult of personality." (!?) Around this time last year, Mr Douthat wrote a critique of the pope in the NYT which ended with an ominous reminder that there is still another pope out there. (???) I shared the oped and my concern with Abp Chaput of Phila. Father O'Malley (one of the recent signers) refuted Douthat in America at the time. We all have a right to think and speak -- but Douthat's very public voice carries responsibilities above those of a private citizen/Catholic. His pattern of raising doubts about Pope Francis and the far-reach of his voice (as opposed to those of us typing in small font here) carries potential for unholy division and deserves to be countered vigorously by the theological community. A dose of humility -- not seen in Douthat's invitation to "battle" in today's NYTimes-- would go far.

Richard Murray | 11/1/2015 - 3:00pm

This is fascinating, Emma. Thank you for sharing this.

William Rydberg | 10/30/2015 - 2:01pm

I am sorry but in my opinion, any reference to qualifications and such makes one think of the Lord's complaint about Doctors of the Law, people not entering in themselves. Catholicism is a mass movement, and folks with a reasonable knowledge of Catholic teaching and a relationship with the Lord, ought to be heard.

Finally, nobody seems to value teachings of Popes and the Magisterium, and few suggest that they have read them In my humble opinion.. With one sentence, the German Head of that particular Church during the Synod compared the Trinity (Dogma) with Doctrine. It seems that unless one is an innovative Scripture Scholar, or a "Professional Theologian" they will not be heard.

On another point, Imagine mixing up the meaning of the feeding of the 5,000 with Eucharist, yet such commentary gets a pass without even a serious challenge. Doesn't anybody know what Communion means?

Steven Schloeder | 10/28/2015 - 6:28pm

>>Mr. Douthat responded (right before signing off), “Own your heresy.”

>>And there it is again: the accusation of heresy against a professional Catholic theologian. Why? Because that theologian disagreed with Mr. Douthat.

Good grief, Mr. Keane. That was a throw away comment to no one in particular. In Twitterland it wasn't even explicitly directed at Faggioli - which if he wanted to call out Faggioli he would have tagged it @MassimoFaggioli

"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." is materially false. Douthat called no one in particular a heretic, or accused anyone of heresy.

For Faggioli and everyone else to pig pile on Douthat, as if this was an inquisitional charge of formal heresy or that it could truly damage Faggioli's professional reputation or academic advancement, is absurd and only shows Faggioli in a bad light.

Douthat's point is clear: Arius owned his heresy. Nestorius owned his heresy. Luther owned his heresy. They accepted that their respective cutting edge views differed from the orthodox position. That is a general point -- if anyone wants to assert something opposed to the teachings of the Church, they should own it with integrity and bravely. If Faggioli or any of the signatories think it applies to them, they ought to have the integrity to do the same, instead of writing public letters of complaint to the man's employer.

Richard Murray | 10/28/2015 - 8:36pm

The "heresy" tweet from Douthat was most definitely aimed at Professor Faggioli.
That is a serious error committed by Douthat, who resorted to that cheap shot when Massimo Faggioli was pointing out Douthat's errors, and explaining mature theology to him.
See also James Martin's explanation of it:"
He also sees clearly that Douthat's parting backstab was aimed directly at Professor Faggioli.

Steven Schloeder | 10/30/2015 - 1:49pm

It was not "obviously" aimed at anyone, Richard. In the parlance of Twitterland, one would addresses someone specifically with @MassimoFaggioli.

The idea to "own your heresy" is entirely general. It was separate from the heated thread where they were speaking directly to each other, and it is a separable thought.

Faggioli had no reason to take it personally (nor do Frs. Martin or O'Malley need to presume to be able to read the soul of Douthat over the internet in support of Faggioli).

Given that D and F were already in correspondence, if D want it "most definitely aimed at Professor Faggioli" he would have done so. Everything else is pure partisanship speculation here.

Richard Murray | 10/30/2015 - 6:09pm

Well, Steve, you are wrong. Insistent, but wrong.
Everyone who has looked into this incident sees with great clarity that Ross Douthat fired a nasty dart at the back of Professor Faggioli, as Douthat was fleeing the argument that he was losing badly.
I invite you to read Fr. Martin's account of it for further evidence.
Have a nice weekend.

Steven Schloeder | 11/1/2015 - 6:58pm

Well, Richard -- you actually have to demonstrate your assertion. The evidence does not support your conclusion, but that simply might not matter to you.

And the fact that you recommend Fr. Martin, as if he were an unbiased chronicler of these events, suggests that you are not interested in letting the facts get in the way of the narrative.

Or perhaps you don't understand that "By the way, just to make sure that tweet could be plausibly denied to refer to Mr. Faggioli, it was tweeted out separately." does not constitute "evidence".

Jason C | 10/28/2015 - 5:12pm

Three things:
(1) Douthat is obviously well-read and has thought a lot about the majority of topics he discusses. He's a Catholic, and is therefore qualified to discuss Catholic things through the medium of Twitter or the NYT. If I want to read theology I know where to find that--not on Twitter and not in the editorial pages of the NYT.
(2) Cosacchi's fear is misplaced because no one will be confused: if he's the partisan hack you fear he is, then Douthat, if he ever became appointed an "expert" in the media, would only be called by conservative media to represent conservative views: Fox isn't going to call James Martin and MSNBC won't call James Schall.
(3) The "Cafeteria is Closed" guy is now......a pornographer.

Michael Maiale | 10/28/2015 - 3:39pm

Amidst this ridiculous insider-baseball brouhaha, it should be noted that it was the letter from O''Malley, Faggioli, et al, that brought the word "heresy" into this.

KC Mulville | 10/28/2015 - 1:38pm

It isn’t that we are discounting Ross Douthat’s opinion because he doesn’t have a PhD. Instead, we’re denying that Ross Douthat has any insight or wisdom (as he portrays) about what’s really going on behind the scenes. Douthat is the one who is presenting himself as a superior observer of Vatican intrigue. Douthat is tossing off accusations of heresy, based on nothing more substantial than his own political prejudices and assumptions of what’s really going on behind the Vatican walls – about which he has absolutely no information.

It amazes me when ordinary Catholics assume that when bishops (even cardinals) say things that conflict with their personal understanding of the faith, that it obviously means that the bishop is the one who must be mistaken.

Anne Danielson | 10/28/2015 - 1:32pm

With all due respect to Mr. Douthat, my degree is in Elementary Education, but that does not change the fact that one can know through both Faith and reason, that denying that God, The Ordered Communion of Perfect Love, The Blessed Trinity, Is The Author of Love, Life, and Marriage, is apostasy, not heresy.

Rodolfo Soriano-Nuñez | 10/28/2015 - 11:41am

Douthat is unable to participate in any reasonable discussion of the faith. He is the one casting those who are in his league (the Times Op Ed page) into the outer darkness of idiocy... Douthat's is the worse kind of clericalism, because he adheres to a Gospel of exclusion... Moreover, he assumes the experience of the Church in the US is truly universal. There are many dioceses all over Latin America where the canonical annulment process is almost non-existent... It is an afterthought available only for those with big pockets and the "right-to-walk-in" into their bishops' offices. He is unwilling to admit or to even consider other experience than the US or British experiences when it comes to how the Church systematically excludes from an already established practice of mercy to many people, especially those who are already poor and marginalized...
Pope Francis has admitted that in Argentina there were cases in which an annulment process required spending more than a thousand US dollars... That is a lot of dough for people living with very small and uncertain incomes... I can tell you that in Mexico the bill for an annulment is much higher than a thousand US dollars, and there are many LatAm dioceses where the ecclesiastical tribunals exist only in paper, and it comes down to the larger archdioceses to do the job if at all. Douthat is not even willing to consider those realities, and when confronted in Twitter (in English) he is unwilling to even argue his case... He is trapped in a US-centric idea of the Catholic church that is ultimately useless, because (again) it excludes many people...
Moreover, Douthat and many writing in British Catholic journals, especially in The Catholic Herald, always assume that whatever crap went wrong in the Anglican Church will unavoidably happen in the Catholic Church... The issue is not only if Douthat knows his theology (he doesn't) or his Ecclesiology (he doesn't)... He doesn't know the most basic elements of history and sociology of religions. Regardless of the similarities that one can find between the Anglican and the Catholic churches, the differences are much more important to understand what needs to be done now...
It is not about having or not a PhD (I have one, in Sociology). It is about Douthat's arrogance...

Guillermo Reyes | 11/2/2015 - 7:23pm

agreed Dr Soriano-Nuñez. Felicidades

Anthony Ruff | 10/28/2015 - 7:56am

"Professional qualification" and having a PhD are two different things. The letter correctly calls into question Douthat's professional qualifications, but I don't read it as saying you have to have a PhD to be qualified. It says you have to be qualified to be qualified - i.e., learn enough to know what you're talking about. Plenty of non-PhD'ed journalists have succeed in that, and Keenan lists many of them. But Douthat is lacking in qualifications, as his writing shows.
Anthony Ruff, OSB

Richard Murray | 10/28/2015 - 12:15pm

Some of the other names you mention at the end of your article, Mr. Keane, are Catholics who love the Church, although I'm not familiar with all of them.
They don't have PhD's, perhaps, but they really care about the Church.
Can we say the same about Ross Douthat? The NYT has been against the Church for decades, or more. And they chose to hire Mr. Douthat, who, frankly, writes against the Church and muddies the water pretty badly.

Mr. Douthat is a neocon zionist, who has Twitter jokes with Bill Kristol and the Washington Free Beacon. But it's not just that . . . When I read Mr. Douthat writing about the Church, I get the same feelings of ennui as when I'm reading, say, Matthew Schmitz' hack-job on Laudato Si' in the Washington Post.
What are they up to?

Robert Little | 10/28/2015 - 1:28am

Of course, the first thing you should do is correctly identify the text you are criticizing. O'Malley, et al., identify a column in the New York Times, which never uses the word heresy nor mentions a single theologian. Nor does it seem to deal at all with "a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is." Without identifying it, we are supposed to be concerned about a Ross Douthat sub-tweet. Alas, writing to Twitter-qua-publisher is something of a fool's errand, so they seek to sic the New York Times onto Douthat, that being his employer. All this in the name of avoiding professionally damaging writers' careers.

Now the blogosphere is filled with analysis and interpretations of this four-sentence letter to the editor. Of course, if your letter to the editor needs extensive third-party analysis, perhaps your sacred credentials shouldn't be the basis for admitting one into the theology Mandarinate.

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