Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Putting the "Public" back in Public Theology

Would you buy a public theology from this man?

This presents an interesting problem:  who gets to say what theology is sound theology?

A couple of points:  you can't have an intelligent discussion on Twitter.  It simply isn't possible.  You might as well conduct a discussion of theology in mime, or as characters in a Beckett play.  2:  what is "public theology"?  The last person I know who actually practiced what could be called "public theology" was Reinhold Niebuhr, and his work is far more subtle and nuanced than anyone who discusses it in public ever acknowledges.

Not that easy to have a public discussion by newspaper column and open letter, either.  Much of the commentary at RD focusses on the letter, and its tone; but I still don't understand the criticism.  I'll get back to that in a moment, because there are two issues here, and one is the forum.

There are public discussions; and there are serious discussions.  And if you are going to say that someone in a public discussion evidences "an ignorance of basic Catholic theology," you've already opened the door to explaining basic Catholic theology.  And that's almost impossible to do in a public discussion, where presumably the audience (the public) is no more learned in the subject than your opponent.

It can't be done at all on Twitter.

But the question remains: is Douthat qualified to write about Catholicism? He converted in his teens, and has practiced the religion for several decades. He wrote a book about Christianity and Catholicism in America. His columns may reveal, as Faggoli implies, problematic notions about church history and theology, but does that make him “unqualified”?

The comments at RD focus on the letter, which doesn't strike me as nearly so condescending or elitist as some claim it is:

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.
It seems to me this is addressed less to Douthat than to the New York Times, and the primary point of concern is the loose use of this word "heresy."  Lay people may toss that word around lightly and even liberally; but these Catholics take the word seriously within the teachings of the Catholic church, and any one person's relationship to those teachings.  It is true the Church no longer has the power to physically punish heretics; but the word itself, the letter writers argue, still has meaning far beyond "I don't like your theology."

As for the question of Mr. Douthat's qualifications; well, there's no question he doesn't have any.  He's not trained in Catholic theology any more than he's trained in medicine or law.  If Douthat made a claim about the law that was not only false but contrary to the idea of justice embodied in the law, I'd feel free to point out he "has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject," and that his views on the law "has very little to do with what the law really is."  Yes, we may perceive the law to be something else, but that doesn't mean it is.  We have to make that argument, we can't just say "I prefer to think of the law this way, and so I do."  If that is the basis of your argument, I think I'm on solid ground to point out your argument is based on ignorance.

But, of course, the Protestant stance is perceived as putting the believer before God directly, and so theology is unnecessary and even an obstacle to understanding.  There are some comments at RD that make this argument, more or less, based on Vatican II.  But again, that may be a popular or even pietistic stance:  it does't make it right.

I just heard a caller to Diane Rehm challenge the Rev. Barry Lynn on his Christianity because Rev. Lynn hadn't sufficiently, for the caller's taste, confirmed the importance of John 14:6.  The caller wasn't making a theological argument, but I could have responded to him with one (the Rev. Lynn was wiser than me).  Would that have changed the caller's mind?  No.  But then again, the caller wasn't, as I said, making a theological argument.  It is a popular argument in some circles, but I don't think (for many reasons) it is a sound one; nor is it at all a litmus test for Christianity (the only accepted tests are baptism in the name of the Trinity and confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior).  It sounds good, in other words, to some people; but that doesn't make it a sound argument.  And if I say that the caller doesn't understand the most accepted standards for claiming to be a Christian, am I being elitist?

On the heresy issue, I think this is a language game we don't all participate in.  Massimo says the term, rather like Godwin's law, stops all conversation:

To accuse someone of heresy is ultimate silencing= saying that the interlocutor is no longer part of the conversation
I don't have to agree with him in order to understand the concern such a term raises.  Am I to tell him to "get over it" because it doesn't raise the same concerns for me as does "Black Lives Matter"?

"Unqualified" here doesn't mean Douthat must be silenced and never speak in public again about Catholicism.  But "heresy" can mean, in the same discussion, that what you have to say is beyond discussion; indeed, that's precisely what the term means.  Suddenly the reference to Godwin's Law doesn't seem so spurious after all.

Can we still judge what Douthat has to say; can we weigh it and find it wanting?  Yes, certainly we can.  I don't find much in Douthat's column that really addresses matters of theology or church history specifically (and besides, that isn't really the problem); but that makes the complaint against Massimo's tweets valid:  you can't discuss these topics in 140 characters.  It doesn't address the issue of the letter, however, which is more concerned with "heresy" than with Douthat's thin grasp of theology.  Still, if Douthat doesn't even understand what the term "heresy" means in the context of a theological discussion (or even a discussion of theology), then why listen to him on the subject?  And if we don't understand it, shouldn't we learn, before commenting?

What am I thinking?  This is the internet!


  1. Perhaps I am no more qualified to discuss theology than Douthat, though I attended Roman Catholic schools for 16 years, and I have 8 semesters of theology to my credit at the Jesuit university I attended. What I gather from Douthat's column in the NYT is that Pope Francis is political. I am shocked! Doubthat does not like the direction the pope is taking the church, and, in his column, he implies, though he does not use the word "heresy". I have not read what he wrote at First Things, because I can bear only so much from Douthat and First Things.

    Douthat does not want his fellow Roman Catholics who marry, divorce, and remarry at the communion table with him because it's part of the plot to change the "historic faith". To invite a discussion on Twitter is madness. I was in and out of Twitter within a couple of hours. It's not for me.

    Most of what Douthat writes in the NYT is lame, and First Things is beyond the pale. I have a limited amount of time to read, and Douthat and FT are generally not on my list as must-reads.

  2. Best I can tell Douthat has aroused the ire of at least Fr. Martin because Douthat calls into question the character and person of the Pope, who is accused by Douthat of perfidy and duplicity and generally acting like a U.S. politician.

    That, at least, was in the NYT column. As usual, Jesuits really know how to tease out all parts of this story, and in two posts by Fr. Martin (buried in links the post above), I learned almost more than I wanted to know.

    The "heresy" charge came from Douthat on Twitter, which, I agree, is no place to discuss anything.

    It's a bit of a tempest in a teapot, with Douthat being the ultramontane Catholic who, to those of us less lettered in church history, makes him "more Catholic than the Pope."

    I'm interested in the responses to it all more than anything; but the controversy itself is, as usual, a deep one when you delve into it.

    Still, the question about public theology might be a fruitful one.

  3. Rmj, I'll give you this: you lead your readers down labyrinthine ways. I see that there was nothing to read at First Things, because Douthat gave a lecture. I did read the James Martin, SJ, and Religious Dispatches links. Martin was fired up. Douthat will not best the Jesuits, especially when they defend their own.
    I was rather surprised that Martin generally admires Douthat's writing, but to each his own.

    I've come to the conclusion that, in the end, many people of faith make up their own theology. One would hope that that the theology is formed through exploring and reflecting on different ideas of various respected theologians and people of faith, but that may not be the case. Or perhaps I project my formation of theology experience onto others. What I do know is that over the years I have changed, and that seems okay.

    To cry, "heresy!" or "heretic" in a theological discussion is indeed a conversation stopper.

  4. Guilty as charged.

    In my defense, when I read the post at RD, I was interested in the "public theology" angle. I'm not sure it's there anymore, though. While I was writing this a comment at RD put me on to Fr. Martin's writings on the topic, and I realized there was far more (and less) to this than the RD post had led me to believe (when, o when, will I learn to stick to original sources? OTOH, I didn't have Martin's comments as an original source without the RD post and its comments, so....).

    By that time I was in too deep to scrap the post, and yet I had misgivings about the whole contretemps. True, if you are going to discuss theology, there have to be some boundaries to it, and true, Douthat is not terribly knowledgeable about the Vatican or Catholic theology (the connection between the two being to impugn motives to the Pope, which Martin objects to, without understand how and why a Pope acts in the Church at all; that's part ecclesiology, part theology, part church history, etc., etc., etc.).

    I think Martin's primary objection was that Douthat went too far. I never saw anything that said Douthat should be silenced. And, to be fair, the "theological discussion" seems to have occurred on Twitter, leading to Douthat's "Own your heresy" remark.

    But yeah, this is a tempest in a teapot I'd have been better to leave alone. I ended up punching the tar baby with at least both hands, if not both feet as well. And nothing but a post worth disregarding to show for it.


  5. No, no. I didn't mean you should have left it alone. I was interested...obviously, since I read it all and left now 3 comments.

  6. You are kind, but I still think I made a hash of it.

    Or, more accurately, it was a hash when I got hold of it. Charlie Pierce's reprint of the original letter makes me realize that what they said was not that Douthat wasn't a proper theologian, but that he simply didn't know what he was talking about; which I think is fundamentally true.

    And then the Twitter exchange turned into a food fight, I guess, that made matters worse. In my defense, I haven't read any of the Twitter exchange, but I think the two story lines are hopeless tangled together by now.

  7. Fr. Martin first underlined it, and Mr. Pierce does it again, but Douthat's line about the Pope's "ostentatious humility" really is an amazing example of resenting the preacher for living up to what he preaches.