Opinion journalism isn't a career for the thin-skinned.
In the age of social media, that's truer than ever. Pundits are paid to hit hard, and their critics — frequently dozens of them, and sometimes hundreds or thousands — often hit back harder. Columnists know this. It's all in the game. When the criticism is bracing and substantive, the back and forth can be exhilarating. When it's harsh or threatening or tediously clueless, the endless stream of invective can be demoralizing. But it all goes together — the good and the bad of what is overall a pretty delightful way to earn a living.
All of which means that no one should be shedding a tear for New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who has been enduring an especially acute bout of critical abuse over the past few weeks. Douthat is a conservative and a Catholic, and he has written articles, columns, blog posts, and tweets that engage sharply with what he sees as an effort by progressive Catholics (including Pope Francis) to break from the church's historic teachings regarding marriage, annulment, civil divorce, and the preconditions for receiving the sacrament of communion.
Those on the other side of the debate disagree strongly with Douthat. That's to be expected. What's more surprising is that seven of those critics, all of them academics, have written a joint letter of complaint to The New York Times about Douthat that objects not so much to the substance of his views as to his qualifications to weigh in on such matters at all, and to the manner in which he's done so, in the Times and elsewhere.
Here is the body of the letter in full:
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.
If this story ended with a handful of academics penning that intellectually frivolous missive, none of this would be especially noteworthy. But since the letter was posted online on Tuesday, it has become a rallying point for liberal theologians and scholars of the church, with (as of Thursday afternoon) an additional 47 professors requesting that their names be added to the statement as co-signatories.
The eagerness of so many accomplished academics to attach themselves to the statement amounts to a very sad comment on the norms of disputation and debate that often prevail in the humanities today. Disagree with an argument? Instead of engaging with the issues directly and mounting a substantive counter-argument, it's become increasingly common to attack the standing of the person who had the audacity to make the argument in the first place. This is a smarmy dodge, and far too often it's becoming the illiberal norm on ostensibly liberal college campuses.
Let's take a closer at the academics' letter. Packed into this pithy 101 words are no fewer than five distinct offenses against what should be sacrosanct norms of liberal intellectual engagement.
1. Patent snobbery. Right out of the gate, the authors of the letter pull rank, denying that Douthat holds the requisite "professional qualifications for writing on the subject" of the Synod on the Family. Apparently one must possess advanced degrees and submit to the norms of academic peer review in order to form and publish opinions on whether and how the Catholic Church should be reformed. If this standard were applied in general, it would disqualify the vast run of journalists and laypeople from participating in public argument about the church. Good to know how the authors feel about the opinions of those who live and think outside the academic guild.
2. Lack of self-awareness. The closest that the letter comes to engaging with a matter of substance can be found in the phrase where the authors claim that Douthat portrays Catholicism as "subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is." This either demonstrates a dearth of self-awareness on the part of those who penned the letter or suggests that they're being willfully dishonest about their own motives in an attempt to portray themselves, unconvincingly, as above the partisan fray.
It's true: Douthat is political. But it's also political to make a public argument in favor of the church changing its long-standing views on marriage, annulment, divorce, and communion. And for more conservative writers and church officials to do their best to prevent such changes from being instituted. And for those who favor such changes to write or sign a letter to the editor of The New York Times denouncing a columnist with whom they disagree.
3. Naïveté about knowledge producing consensus. When the authors of the letter assert that they possess knowledge of what "Catholicism really is" while implying that Douthat does not, they insinuate that their disagreement with him is a product of his ignorance. If only Douthat knew what they do, then he would see the error of his overly political way of viewing the church. But this isn't the way the world works. The fact that the authors of the letter know a lot about the church doesn't guarantee that everyone who knows a lot about the church will agree with them. On the contrary, the acquisition of knowledge often fuels disagreements about its interpretation, meaning, and significance — and liberal norms of fair-minded intellectual engagement are a response to this reality.
4. Derailing debate. Although the column that is the ostensible catalyst for the letter says nothing about the "heresy" of church reformers, the letter refers vaguely to other occasions when Douthat has accused "members of the Catholic church of heresy, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly." And this, we are told, "is serious business that can have serious consequences for those so accused." In a column defending this aspect of the letter, Father James Martin, S.J., likens the charge to (falsely) accusing a journalist of plagiarism.
That sounds bad. But we should be clear about some facts. First, Douthat used the term heresy a single time, not in an edited column published in the Times, not in a blog post that ran on the Times website, but in a tweet in which he challenged theologian Massimo Faggioli to "own your heresy." Second, Faggioli himself published a column at the Huffington Post several weeks ago in which he denounced those with whom he disagrees as exemplifying "a dying clerical Leninism." (That sounds bad, too.) Third, Douthat is a journalist and Catholic layman whose three-word tweets exercise no discernable influence on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church body that polices the bounds between orthodoxy and heresy.
Fourth and finally, the charge of heresy is not at all akin to the charge of plagiarism against a journalist. A plagiarist transgresses the established professional and ethical norms of his profession — and determining whether an act of plagiarism has taken place is usually a matter of examining a set of facts. Determining heresy, by contrast, involves far more complex judgments about what Catholicism is and should be.
Douthat has strong views about these matters. He thinks those who want to reform the church's teachings surrounding marriage, divorce, annulment, and communion are wrong. Very wrong. Maybe he even thinks their wrongness rises to the level of heresy. So what? I fully understand why those on the receiving end of the charge would reject and resent it. But they should try to show that Douthat himself is wrong, not derail the debate by denying the legitimacy of him bringing the charge in the first place.
5. Selective outrage. The letter concludes with an expression of disappointment directed at Douthat's employer: "This is not what we expect from The New York Times." The statement implies that Douthat's work falls short of the standards set by the Times' usual commentary on the Catholic Church. And yet, two of the paper's op-ed columnists — Maureen Dowd and Frank Bruni — regularly write scathing columns on the church that display far less knowledge about theology and the history of the church than Douthat's columns.
Why is Douthat the only columnist singled out for rebuke? Obviously because the authors of the letter broadly agree with Dowd's and Bruni's radically reformist views about where the church should go and they passionately disagree with Douthat's stringently conservative position.
That's perfectly fine, of course. But then the task for the authors of the letter is to make an argument against Douthat, not sigh disingenuously about how they expect better from the Times — with "better" defined in blatantly illiberal terms as "uniform agreement with my views."
The latter simply isn't a serious form of intellectual engagement.