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Ross Douthat and the Catholic Academy

Many years ago, a local Chicago sportscaster named Howard Sudberry recounted a curious controversy surrounding a major league baseball game. Late in the contest, the team that would eventually win was up by ten runs. A player for that squad hit a single and then stole second base. The catcher of the trailing team whined after the game that this base-stealer was rubbing it in, essentially being unsportsmanlike. Well, Sudberry was having none of it. He looked into the camera and spoke, as it were, to the catcher himself: “Then throw him out!” He was implying that the base-stealer had done absolutely nothing opposed to the rules of baseball and that, if the catcher didn’t like it, he should try to beat him fair and square within the context of those same rules. 

This incident came to mind when I read, just recently, about a similarly curious controversy, this one within the groves of academe. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has been opining quite a bit about the Synod on the Family in Rome, suggesting, among other things, that clear factions among the bishops have emerged, that Pope Francis favors a more liberal resolution of the key questions, and that heretical viewpoints are afoot in Rome. 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 Timeswas 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. So he has argued that divisions at least analogous to political factions have emerged at the Synod. From the Council of Jerusalem in the first century through Vatican II in the twentieth, the Church has been marked by conflict, rivalry, and faction. If you doubt me in regard to the first, take a good look at chapters eleven through fifteen of the Acts of the Apostles; and if you’re skeptical in regard to the second, peruse any two pages of Yves Congar’s massive diary of the Second Vatican Council. And while you’re at it, read John Henry Newman’s history of the Council of Nicea in the  fourth century, or any treatment of the sixteenth century Council of Trent. When has the life of the Church not been susceptible to a political reading? 

And the suggestion that, because he doesn’t have a credential from the academy, Douthat isn’t qualified to enter into the discussion? Please. If a doctorate in theology were a bottom-line prerequisite, we would declare the following people unqualified to express an opinion on matters religious: Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, C.S. Lewis, William F. Buckley, W.H. Auden, or to bring things more up to date, Fr. James Martin, George Weigel, and E.J. Dionne. 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.

The letter to the Times is indicative indeed of a much wider problem in our intellectual culture, namely, the tendency to avoid real argument and to censor what makes us, for whatever reason, uncomfortable. On many of our university campuses this incarnates itself as a demand for “safe spaces,” where students won’t feel threatened by certain forms of speech or writing. For the first time in my life, I agreed with Richard Dawkins who recently declared on Twitter, “A university is not a 'safe space'. If you need a safe space, leave, go home, [and] hug your teddy...until [you are] ready for university.”

So in the spirit of Howard Sudberry, I would say to those who signed the letter against Ross Douthat, “Make an argument against him; prove him wrong; marshal your evidence; have a debate with him; take him on. But don’t attempt to censor him.” I understand that the signatories disagree with him, but he’s playing by the rules.