Don't Send Ross Douthat to His Room

by Ken Briggs

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I don't know Ross Douthat. He arrived at the Times long after I'd left. He's been taking his lumps for a column he wrote warning against liberalizing the rules that ban divorced/no annulment/ remarried Catholics from communion and proscribe non-marital sex of any kind. Easing the rules, as Pope Francis has already done in his own practice as archbishop of Buenos Aires, would plunge the church off the cliff, driving traditionalists out the door. The Pope has egged the synod on to take those measures, Douthat thinks, so opponents must push back.

Critics have pounced on him, calling him flat wrong. Some have dissected his allegedly faulty thinking as headmasters would scold errant school children. Though I claim no special ability to read those tea leaves. it's obvious that Douthat has to certain critics entered historical territory where he doesn't belong. He has encroached on matters far beyond his reach, precisely the terrain some of the critics consider privileged. A little like old-fashioned clericalism.

Joe Ferullo's earlier entry in this corner of NCR Today doesn't fall into that trap. While allowing his differences with Douthat's conclusions, he credits him for boldly, and one might also say, courageously, firing a salvo on behalf of Catholic conservatives. By comparison, Ferullo says, progressives nuance practically everything to death and hold their fire.

Excellent point. I like Douthat for reporting what conservatives think to compare with what I think. The high dudgeon reaction against him seems out of place, no matter how legitimate the arguments with his claims. In this case, it seems to me that Douthat was identifying a reaction against potential changes that is real and, for protesters at least, appears to edge closer to the "precipice" to which he refers. His highly political instincts are here applied to the Catholic church, to which he professes deep loyalty and affection  Why wouldn't observers want to know that side of things; accept it, then go on to challenge his findings instead of wanting immediately to show him a thing or two about the history of Catholicism?

That Douthat is as intent on bringing his conservative approach to church affairs strikes me as something American Catholics should be thankful for and cut him a little slack for it. Over the centuries, there has been much too much casuistry and special pleading by those who presume their understanding of the church has priority. Douthat is a welcome exception to "expertise" and self-appointed authority over true interpretation. Perhaps there's some envy here. Few Catholics writing about Catholicism get the circulation that goes with Douthat's column. He certainly touched progressive nerves this time.

It's true, of course, that journalists lack sufficient depth in most areas they write about, but that doesn't mean they can't be right about what they hear, see, ponder and regurgitate, as short as they may fall from scholarly perfection. The most common slap at journalists is that they know nothing about one's own field. That can be. But it's also the case that insiders sometimes allow their pride and insecurities to attack worthy messengers..

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