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The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat gestures to the crowd participates at FreedomFest 2018, an annual gathering of Libertarians, held in Las Vegas, Nevada, on July 11, 2018.What is intellectually honest about Mr. Douthat? He does not pretend to be a theologian (photo Brian Cahn/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News). 

Ross Douthat, a columnist for The New York Times, has been a favorite commentator for some Catholics to hate-read, most notably during the Synod on the Family (2014-2015).

But while you can disagree with Mr. Douthat’s analysis of Catholicism, you can’t ignore him. Though his prominence raises a question: Why should we pay any attention to journalists who opine about Catholic theology?

The U.S. church has a problem: As with U.S. culture in general, too much conversation in the church is driven by pundits whose main job seems to be to inflame divisions. Meanwhile, too much of Catholic theology in academia is irrelevant to today’s conversations in the church and world, as even some Catholic theologians have acknowledged. In this environment, journalists play an irreplaceable role.

You may disagree with Mr. Douthat’s analysis of Catholicism, but you can’t ignore him.

U.S. Catholics need to become more responsible in how they consume news and journalistic analysis. The U.S. church would be poorer if Catholics only read the journalists they agreed with. We need to read journalists who challenge us, who force us to both articulate our own positions to those who do not accept them a priori and engage with other’s positions as rationally defensible even if we do not accept them.

Which is why Catholics need to be reading Ross Douthat.

An Aggiornamento Without Ressourcement?

Two recent articles by Mr. Douthat on liberal Catholicism offer a point of departure for why he provokes so much reaction, but also for why he continues to be worth reading even for his critics.

If Vatican II calls the church to a twin dynamic of ressourcementand aggiornamento, Mr. Douthat is asking the question: Where is the ressourcement?

Mr. Douthat’s first article considers what is good in liberal Catholicism. The second explains why he is not a liberal Catholic, those good attributes notwithstanding. The articles generated plenty of reactions, most not very serious. His basic argument is that left-leaning Catholicism has forced conservative Catholics to accept that change in doctrine is more common than conservatives would like to believe, but that conservative Catholics have done a better job of identifying the non-negotiable things that cannot change, or at least have a clearer sense of the costs and trade-offs of such change.

To put it crudely, Mr. Douthat argues that we need conservative ressourcement and liberal aggiornamento.

(In this essay, I will be using the terms “liberal” and “conservative” in ways that America generally avoids so as not to politicize the church. I hope it is clear enough that I am using these terms advisedly.)

To put it crudely, Mr. Douthat argues that we need conservative ressourcement  and liberal aggiornamento. Better put, we need the conservative tendency toward ressourcementto interact with the liberal tendency toward aggiornamento. And right now, there do not seem to be conversations where the two converge.

The problem with the liberal’s version of aggiornamento, Mr. Douthat argues, is that it’s always chasing the culture, yet has nothing itself to offer:

It’s perpetually difficult to distinguish the specifically Catholic aspect of the liberal Catholic program—meaning the thing that distinguishes its agenda from a generic post-Sexual Revolution progressivism, the things it wants to do that don’t all just converge on making the church more like a friendly secular N.G.O.

Of course, it’s too simple to say that one “side” of Catholicism focuses on aggiornamento andanother on ressourcement. In fact, they both retrieve Catholic resources, and they both adapt them for the present. But there’s something to be said for which of these tasks gets emphasized, and how robustly and authentically the other task is accomplished. For in the vision of Vatican II, they are both important tasks, but also difficult. No wonder that so few analysts attempt to do both.

Thus stated, I have elided over what is for Mr. Douthat an asymmetry: The conservative position is more defensible for him because it holds on to essential truths of the faith, whereas he feels that the liberal position is willing to jettison anything in its efforts to keep up with the culture. But one need not agree with him on this asymmetry to appreciate his other points.

Church of Factions?

Often the best part of Mr. Douthat’s analysis is also the worst: He is upfront about treating the church as a coalition of quasi-political factions. He names the spirit of division all-too-active in the church but also risks exacerbating it by treating the church as just another political body.

This is where he gets dinged for being both a journalist and an American, a combination that some believe makes him particularly prone to “us versus them” politics.

There are a few difficulties with this criticism.

First, this sort of analysis of conflict and pluralism is key to the social sciences, which in other settings theologians are very keen to adapt for their own purposes. Sex, gender, class and race are all leading preoccupations of theologians today, and of course they are all deeply sociological.

Often the best part of Mr. Douthat’s analysis is also the worst: He is upfront about treating the church as a coalition of quasi-political factions.

Second, Mr. Douthat uses such analysis to account for how and why Catholics hold conflicting viewpoints. Rather than simply assume those with whom he disagrees are wrong and acting in bad faith, he seeks to make sense of what they are up to.

In his book To Change the Church, for example, Mr. Douthat speaks of the failures of recent popes to form a “new Catholic center.” Is this terminology too political? Probably. But what does Mr. Douthat do with his analysis? He uses it to explore the limitations and failures of his own side, a remarkable feat in 21st-century America. He also deploys it to explore why so many are drawn to narratives and dynamics in global Catholicism for which he has little sympathy. In effect, Mr. Douthat is saying: If you don’t like the “Bergoglio Papacy,” maybe you should examine the limitations of what came before it.

A more serious critique of Mr. Douthat’s political analogies is that many people feel left out of these two camps—but this is not because they are imaginary, but rather because they are real.

Journalists as Theologians

In 2015, a number of influential theologians wrote to The New York Times criticizing Mr. Douthat for lacking theological credentials, among other things. Mr. Douthat was right to push back that his job is to be a journalist. He might also have added a tu quoque: most journalists have little to no theological credentials. And yet it’s safe to say that most U.S. Catholics uncritically affirm some Catholic journalists and pundits who support their biases, and uncritically reject some who do not.

And that’s the business model of punditry: There is profit to be made in driving traffic to websites and TV channels through headlines and personalities that entertain and inflame rather than educate and move.

Moreover, many theologians are eager to play some part in this economy, even if it’s just for more Twitter followers or likes on Facebook.

But sometimes the most important realities are the ones that are the most painful to acknowledge. And one is that too much of Catholic theology in academia is irrelevant to today’s conversations in the church and world. This claim is hardly unknown to theologians, as Grant Kaplan and Massimo Faggioli have recently argued.

Michael Hanby has written some truculent words about Catholic journalism worth taking seriously (“Are We Postliberal Yet?”; “The Crisis of Catholic Atheism”). His charges are positivism and “Catholic atheism.” Too much of journalism, he argues, is a melange of social science tropes and ideological propositions that gets baptized with some reference to the Holy Spirit, what he calls “bottom-up extrinsicism.”

From Mr. Hanby’s perspective, there is something more intellectually honest about what Mr. Douthat is doing, although he has certainly criticized Mr. Douthat.

What is intellectually honest about Mr. Douthat? He does not pretend to be a theologian. He rather seeks to read the situation as he finds it. As I noted above, he explicitly seeks to account for conservative failures to explain the hunger for a progressive narrative of Catholicism.

Further, Mr. Douthat is happy to admit that his theories sometimes work against those he supports. In this way, he is not an ideologue.

A Lesson for Disagreeing Fruitfully

I regret that Mr. Douthat often reduces the church to another social body divided into interest groups. But I also am grateful for how he names genuine divisions. I am also grateful that he names the stakes of overcoming division. If we want to transcend earthly identities, we need to be able to name what they look like.

Many U.S. Catholics assume that other Catholics who do not agree with them do not understand their position or are acting in bad faith. Too many defenses of synodality, for example, assume that its critics simply do not understand what synodality is about. It is possible to disagree for substantive reasons, even if those reasons are mixed in with fear and ignorance.

The United States, and indeed the world, needs more examples of Catholics respectfully, intelligently and charitably disagreeing with each other. For that’s the deep issue with polarization: not that we disagree, but that we disagree fruitlessly.

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