In October 2015, as the Vatican synod on the family reached its acrimonious finale, a debate broke out in the opinion pages of the New York Times. The newspaper’s columnist Ross Douthat had taken a line which provoked a wide range of Catholics. He stated frankly that if the Church allowed Communion for the remarried, it would jeopardise Catholicism’s link with Jesus Christ: that annoyed doctrinal liberals. He suggested that the Pope was actively, if subtly, pushing for such a change: that annoyed quite a few conservatives. And he argued that Catholic intellectuals were trying to downplay the significance of the debate, which annoyed the intellectuals.
Catholic academics wrote to his employer to denounce Douthat’s lack of “professional qualifications” and his “politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is”. They ended with some advice for the editors: “This is not what we expect of the New York Times.” Fifty-five academics, a few of them at prestigious universities, some of them outspoken supporters of gay marriage and women’s ordination, signed the letter.
Since Douthat’s new book, To Change the Church, repeats and expands the arguments he made then, does he have any regrets about the episode?
“Oh, no,” he says down the phone from Connecticut. “The petition against me was mildly hilarious. And it’s every columnist’s dream, in fact, to have a number of people demanding your… I’m not clear on what they were demanding, but demanding your silence, your reprimanding.” The academics’ letter “was not something that troubled me in the slightest”, he adds.
All this may make Douthat sound like a brawler in search of his next punch-up. But his columns, a mixture of political analysis and cultural commentary, are marked by their evenhandedness. He can sometimes be urgently polemical – he has called for a ban on pornography and for Republicans to remove Donald Trump from office – but his preferred weapons are the raised eyebrow, the ironic contrast, the carefully built conclusion offered after considering the strongest objections. To Douthat’s fans, this makes him a welcome example of intellectual independence, a conservative who can keep right-wingers honest and left-wingers on their toes. His critics suspect that it is a fence-sitting act which ends up persuading nobody. “For those of us of a more foamingly right-wing bent,” the Canadian commentator Mark Steyn once complained, Douthat “can, indeed, be excessively mindful of his readers’ sensitivities – and a fat lot of good it does him.”
To Change the Church has the same qualities. Douthat tries to tell the story impartially, to praise Pope Francis where he can, to seriously consider the claims of his opponents. In our conversation, too, he is keen to say that he might be wrong; that it is “fair enough” to criticise his lack of theological expertise; that he is “greatly appreciative” that his critics are willing to engage in public dialogue. And yet when all the concessions and qualifications and on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hands have been made, Douthat’s book has a solid core of conviction. To permit Communion for the remarried – a change which the Pope has, if not explicitly endorsed, then encouraged by his actions and his silences – wouldn’t just cut against the teaching of previous popes; it would shake the entirety of Catholic teaching.
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