On the Exalted Self-Opinions of Theologians

I don’t like commenting on inter-Catholic debates. Much of the wrangling over the direction of the church strikes me as being a result of an overemphasis on papal infallibility, which is much less of a big deal in papal teaching than most Catholics make it out to be.

But now a bunch of Catholic theologians have their panties all bunched up over a column written in the New York Times by Ross Douthat.

Douthat, rightly or wrongly, accused some bishops of trying to undermine settled doctrine on the indissolubility of Christian marriage. The bishops themselves would deny it, arguing that they were only trying to change pastoral practices, but Douthat argues that if the pastoral change in question implies a change to settled doctrine, you are just changing doctrine by the back door.

Now a group of Catholic Theologians is throwing a fit for three reasons:

  1. Mr Douthat is not a Real Theologian, and therefore should shut up.
  2. His view of Catholicism is influenced by politics, therefore he (unlike the Real Theologians) does not not know what real Catholicism is.
  3. Mr Douthat insinuates that some Real Theologians are really heretics, which could hurt the careers of said Real Theologians.

Regarding point one:

Why do they insist that the same NYT which publishes the famously bad prose stylist and general ignoramus Tom Friedman should have higher standards than letting an uncredentialed layman like Douthat write on Church politics? Judging by Friedman’s long presence, I’d think Douthat is not dumb enough to write for the prestigious Grey Lady.

Maureen Dowd writes all manner of ignorant blather about the Catholic Church for the NYT, but her drivel gets a pass, while Mr. Douthat’s gets a strongly worded letter to the editor. Why?

Regarding point two:

Mr Douthat’s views on the church may very well be influenced by politics. Why does that matter? I mean, don’t we all vote, have political opinions, and sometimes let them influence other areas of thought?

Well, Mr Douthat is a special case. You see, the Real Theologians are subtly alluding to the fact that he does not only write for the NYT, but he also writes for National Review, and National Review is conservative. (The NYT is totally apolitical, of course.)

Which now sheds light on why the Real Theologians never got upset about non-theologian political activist Maureen Dowd’s writing on the church: Dowd is political, but not “political” the way Douthat is.

Having grown up in Massachusetts, I am well aware of the belief that all Catholics are Democrats and all Democrats are Catholics and John F. Kennedy is a Saint in Heaven along with ProtoMartyr Bobby and his Vicar On Earth Teddy, and so I recognize a true believer when I see one, left or right.

Patron Saint of MA with one of many mistresses.

The Patron Saint of Massachusetts with one of his many mistresses.

It is very easy in America to confuse political loyalties with supernatural, and if the Real Theologians had any self-awareness they would recognize themselves doing it even as they accuse Douthat: the problem for them is not that he is political, but that he disagrees with their politics.

Regarding Point Three:

The idea that a Real Theologian could somehow get in trouble with their University by being labeled a “heretic” by the likes of Ross Douthat is plain dumb. Sorry, it is just plain fucking stupid.

It also appeals to a tired, boring, anti-Catholic trope.


Universities don’t like being bossed by Bishops, let alone Popes. Church authorities generally do not like disciplining theologians, and avoid it when possible. For a “Real Theologian” to be disciplined by Church authorities he needs a multi-decade career of intentionally pissing off the hierarchy, Hans Kung style. Then, the Church will take the terrible step of saying “Well listen, Hans, you can still teach theology, mmkay, but you just can’t call yourself a Catholic Theologian, mmkay?” so you can keep your job, but might have to change your course description.

Academics have very boring, insular lives, so I’m not surprised some of them need to pretend that the Vatican Secret Police could cart them off to the torture chambers of the Inquisition if somebody whispered the word “heretic” in their general direction.

That would be an heroic fate more commensurable with the exalted self-opinion of a real theologian.





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