Over the last few days, I’ve refrained from writing about a Catholic contretemps that has directly affected me because, basically, I wanted it to go away. But now that it has not, and that my words are being twisted, my name is being dragged through the online mud, and I’m receiving an avalanche of hate tweets and emails, and moreover, that some people are saying some of the most ridiculous things I've heard lately, it’s time to say something.
To recap: Ross Douthat, a usually thoughtful and intelligent columnist for the The New York Times, has recently written some hateful things about Pope Francis, including that Francis’s “plot” against Catholicism finally is destined to be a battle between the pope or “the faith.” In that same piece, Mr. Douthat also attacked the Pope’s “ostentatious humility.” Mr. Douthat has also attacked people on his Twitter account, sending out comments about my friend Antonio Spadaro, SJ, editor of La Civilta Cattolica, like “Is Spadaro Italian for Sophist?” And calling him a “cartoon Jesuit villain.”
But it was an exchange with Massimo Faggioli, a well-respected church historian, during which Mr. Douthat randomly tweeted "Own your heresy,” which sent things over the edge. By the way, just to make sure that tweet could be plausibly denied to refer to Mr. Faggioli, it was tweeted out separately. To put it in perspective, imagine my engaging in a back-and-forth with a journalist on Twitter and then randomly tweeting out, “Don’t you just hate journalists who plagiarize?”
In response, several theologians wrote a letter to the Times saying two things. First, that Mr. Douthat wasn’t a professional theologian. Which he isn’t. (Neither am I.) Second, that a charge of heresy is a serious matter. Which it is.
I retweeted it and offered my support of the letter, mainly because I was so incensed over Mr. Douthat’s treatment of good theologians, especially the church historian John W. O’Malley, SJ, who has forgotten more theology than most of us will ever know.
The first part of the letter was poorly worded. What the signers meant, it seemed to me, was that when it comes to some theological matters Mr. Douthat is out of his depth. And that’s true, as Brian Flanagan pointed out in this piece. A conflation of dogma and doctrine, of tradition and practice, and so on makes for bad theology. This does not mean he’s 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 not an expert. He should be free to write what he wants, but we need to read what he writes through that lens. And we should be happy to engage him, as I did last year in a lengthy exchange.
But I’m not a professional theologian either. Nor do I have expertise in other areas. If I wrote an article on, say, European history, I’d be doing it as a non-specialist. That doesn’t mean I can’t write about the Treaty of Versailles. But if a professional historian took me to task about what I wrote, I’d listen. And I’d expect others to listen to the historian more.
So if I were writing that letter I’d have said things differently. Maybe I’d have written, “Of course Mr. Douthat, even though he is not a professional theologian and makes some fundamental errors, has the right to say what he wants. In fact, the Second Vatican Council’s document Lumen Gentium states that laypeople are ‘sometimes duty bound’ to speak ‘on matters concerning the good of the church.’” The signatories know that well. Many of them have not only taught about that but have written books on the Council. In fact, I first learned about that quote in a class taught by John O’Malley, SJ.
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. Others accused them of clericalism, which was also risible since most were not clerics.
Worse, as R. R. Reno, the editor in chief of First Things, ridiculously interpreted it, the theologians wanted him “purged.” That theologians who know fellow theologians who have actually been silenced would want anyone “purged” is absurd. Worse, it is a malicious twisting of words. Speaking of twisting words, Mr. Reno said, in the most absurd comment yet, that yours truly wanted anyone who didn’t have a Ph.D to “shut up.”
News flash to the editor of First Things: I don’t have a Ph.D. either. And I'm now writing an article about theology. So I obviously don't think that people without Ph.D.'s should "shut up." Again, fact checking is always a good idea. So is giving people the benefit of the doubt.
By the way, it’s ironic that so many voices are so upset about a possible “purging” when so many supported the actual silencing of theologians under the papacies of Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. (If we’re now allowed to be critical of Pope Francis, as Mr. Douthat has been, and First Things has lavishly been, and everyone else has been, I suppose it's acceptable to be critical of his predecessors on this particular point.)
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. And for those protesting that they come from a lowly New York Times columnist who is merely tweeting, one needs to ask if I casually tweeted out that Mr. Douthat had plagiarized an article, or if someone had tweeted out that I had sexually abused someone, what the response would be.
Lies are lies whether they are published in a book, appear in a newspaper or are sent out in a tweet. The Commandment “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” holds true everywhere.
Worse, calling people names is disgraceful. Especially in the name of religion. These ad hominem attacks—an attack not on the argument but on the person--has no place in theology. It doesn’t matter if you’re attacking Pope Francis, Antonio Spadaro, Massimo Faggioli, John O’Malley, me, or anyone else. It’s unchristian. Feel free to disagree with us, but questioning our fidelity is out of bounds. Speaking of doctrine, one of Jesus’s lesser known teachings, and completely ignored because it’s so hard to adhere to, is his admonition against calling people names. “If you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Mt. 5:22) Thus, saying that Antonio Spadaro’s name is synonymous with sophist is sinful.
In response to this contretemps, in which my words have been twisted, and commentators have held me up for contempt, I have received hundreds of hateful tweets. And this is where commentators whose tactics egg people on, fanning more mistrust. And if they know it, then they should stop. If they don’t know it, they do now. It’s a participation in sin.
So for example, Rod Dreher posted a photo of a blurb that I did for Mr. Douthat’s last book, as if that were proof of something deceitful. Yes, I liked Mr. Douthat’s last book. So much so that I offered a generous blurb. And, no, I don’t agree with everything he’s writing today. People change their minds. Is that so hard to comprehend? But rather than giving someone the benefit of the doubt, my sincere praise for Mr. Douthat's book was held up as evidence of my deceit. And if you don't think that leads to more hatred, read the comments below Mr. Dreher's piece.
The twisting of words. The personal attacks. The calling into question people’s faith. As these commentators know, it serves to increase hatred.
This is where Mr. Douthat can rightly be held accountable. Isn't it clever how when someone says that Pope Francis is dishonest in his humility? Yes, ha ha, and isn’t it funny when someone calls Antonio Spadaro a "sophist" and a “villain”? Ha ha. And isn’t it funny when someone calls another person a heretic? Ha ha. Can’t they take a joke? Isn’t it funny to use words like "sophist" and "villain" and "heretic"? Then the inevitable response when these people--actual people, not Twitter accounts--take issue against those kinds of attacks: you’re thin skinned.
These commentators are too smart not to know where this leads: mistrust, contempt, hatred.
Here is where the first part of the letter from the theologians is, in the end, true. Anyone who engages in mean-spirited invective is in fact not doing theology. Yes, I know that St. Jerome once attacked Rufinus, but true theology is, as St. Anselm said, fides quaerens intellectum. That’s “Faith seeking understanding.” Snide comments, veiled attacks on people’s faith and malicious insinuations are not theology because they do not proceed from our faith, which is founded on love. Nor do they not seek understanding, because they foster contempt and prevent anyone from listening.
I’m disgusted with malicious slandering that passes itself off as thoughtful theology. I’m disgusted with mean-spirited personal attacks that pass themselves off as Christian discourse. I’m disgusted with the facile use of words like “heresy” and “schism” and “apostate,” passing itself off as defenses of the faith. Basically, I’m disgusted with hate being passed off as charity. Needless to say, this is not entirely Mr. Douthat’s doing, or Mr. Reno’s doing, or Mr. Dreher’s doing. And I know that they are good and loyal Catholics (and in Mr. Dreher's case, formerly-Catholic, now Orthodox). Obviously. But they and others--who are far more culpable--have engaged in enough of that kind of uncharitable behavior to have fostered an atmosphere of hatred and mistrust in our church. Instead of Thomas Merton’s famous “Mercy within mercy within mercy” we get “Hate piled on hate piled on hate.”
Invective. Disdain. Contempt. Attacks. Insinuations. And hate. An endless river of hate that is the result of these kinds of articles and essays and speeches and tweets.
That is not theology, and it does not flow from the love of Jesus Christ. It is a malicious desire to wound people and to score points. To "win." And if you think it’s amusing, then you’re missing Jesus’s point about not calling people names and praying for our “enemies.” And by the way, if you take Jesus as your model, and feel the need to judge people, and call them names as he did, like “hypocrite,” feel free to do so when you are the sinless Son of God. We risk being so Catholic that we forget to be Christian.
So I wholeheartedly support fully anyone’s right to write whatever he or she wants, including Ross Douthat, whom I respect. And, as an educated and faithful Catholic layperson, much of what he writes is thoughtful, insightful and deserving of our full attention. 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.