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The Heart of the Christian Message

April 14, 2018 (1,300 words)

Yesterday New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat gave an interview on National Public Radio (NPR) in support of his new book, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism. This is an elaboration of the papal critique Mr. Douthat has been conducting since at least October 18, 2015, when his column that Sunday bore the provocative tile “The Plot to Change Catholicism.”

That 2015 essay ignited a firestorm of controversy, prompting certain theology professors from highly regarded outposts such as Georgetown University and Villanova University to send an open letter to The New York Times, objecting to Douthat’s effrontery in suggesting Pope Francis favors an unacceptable liberal resolution of certain contemporary questions that runs counter to long-held Catholic belief.

Furthermore, these leading lights of the Catholic academy demanded the editors at the NYT cease publishing Mr. Douthat’s critical remarks on this papacy, on the grounds he is a layman with no specialized training, and therefore possess no professional standing upon which to base an informed opinion. In other words, Ross Douthat is simply unqualified to speak on such complex matters. (Oh, my, I had better put my pen down immediately…)

The controversy has continued ever since, with Mr. Douthart good-naturedly engaging a variety of critics in numerous forums over the course of these last few years. It appears these face-to-face encounters have succeeded in lowering the temperature of the rhetoric each side employed at the start, dispensed via heated tweeter exchanges and the like.

In one of these recent face-offs, with America Magazine’s famous editor-at-large, Father James Martin, SJ, Douthat was able to quip, with an apparent smile on his face: “Well, one of us is more wrong than the other.” Which sort of sounds like classic Ross Douthat to me.

… one of us is more wrong than the other.

During yesterday’s radio broadcast, Mr. Douthat initially came across as pleasantly self-deprecating, saying he’d really rather not comment on the raging controversies unleashed by this papacy, but since he has written an entire book on the subject, he realizes he sort of has to.

He was appearing on The New Yorker Radio Hour hosted by David Remnick, who has been an editor at the flagship magazine since 1998. (To listen in, simply google “Ross Douthat New Yorker Radio Hour.” With any luck the audio transcript will still be posted on-line.)

This was my first exposure to Mr. Douthat in live conversation, since I have not attended any of his recent public appearances. I found him to be an extremely engaging speaker, who can articulate Church teaching and summarize the current moment in a down-to-earth style that makes things easy to understand.

Mr. Remnick, the magazine editor/radio host, is probably emblematic of a broad swatch of the population, who, as liberal-secular humanist-atheists are smitten with Pope Francis for rocking the boat on moribund Church thought. In other words, all the people who think the Church is hopelessly retrograde in its doctrine are the very ones leading the cheers in support of Francis’ apparent disregard for same.

“Since Francis is so popular in this country,” Mr. Remnick starts off the interview by asking, “what do you have against this Pope”? The question is posed in a friendly, cordial tone of voice, and elicits a slight chuckle out of his guest. And from there the two of them are off to the races. It’s an entertaining and educational eighteen minutes of radio.

… what do you have against this Pope?

Douthat’s elan during this broadcast is palpable. Especially appealing is the way he handles Mr. Remnick’s predictable incredulity at the Catholic idea that marriage is only supposed to happen once. And in the unfortunate event that union does not work out, one is to refrain from sexual activity thereafter.

Mr. Remnick then diplomatically asks/charges: “Repudiate sex”? To which a healthy, thirty-eight year-old Douthat gives the following forthright and unflinching answer: Catholicism has always taught that celibacy is the highest form of the Christian life.

“Marriage is there for those of us who are not up for celibacy – which, granted, is most of us. But God would not ask us to be celibate if we were not able to do so. A Catholicism that cannot ask people to be celibate is a Catholicism that cannot have much of a claim on people at all. For the Catholic message to make sense, you have to be able to make a case that celibacy is possible for people who aren’t married.”

This exchange elicited goose bumps from this particular listener. Mr. Douthat should be required listening for all of us who need a refresher course on why we believe what we claim to believe. The other hot-button issue that especially caught my ear toward the end of this broadcast was immigration.

Despite his many points of contention with our current Pope, Mr. Douthat is able to admit that maybe, just maybe, the Pope’s position on immigration – and his concern with the grinding poverty that drives the widespread migration we are currently witnessing – is closer to the heart of the Christian message than his own.

… the heart of the Christian message.

Admitting that his conservative temperament may be leading him away from the spirit of radical love embodied in the Gospel is a prime example of what makes Ross Douthat different from other high-profile commentators. If only more of Francis’s many critics could bring themselves to consider just such a possibility.

In defense of his own position, however, Mr. Douthat is quick to note the following: A responsible Christian leader must find a balance between two extremes. A legitimate concern for the plight of the refugee cannot be allowed to outweigh the real danger that changing the ethnic make-up of a population in a short period of time represents. Any such swift demographic re-structuring can effectively balkanize a nation, destroying its internal stability. This sort of tumult doesn’t serve anyone’s interest, the refuge or the nativist.

So it’s not a simple matter of choosing up sides on this issue, or on any of a myriad of other issues, in my view. It’s not constructive to deride Francis as a hopeless liberal out to undermine Church doctrine. To take immigration as an example, our recent Popes have all stressed how the wealthy nations of the West need to look out for the weaker nations of the Third World.

… economic injustice that leaves the poor no choice but to migrate.

But we in the First World have yet to pay our Popes any mind, enthralled as we are with the gains we have achieved for ourselves by pursing “enlightened self- interest.” So in all fairness, one has to admit this is not a new area of Catholic emphasis, even if some of us don’t care for Francis’s tone or style.

Addressing the international nature of economic injustice that causes people to migrate far from their homeland is the real issue, isn’t it? It certainly was to John XXIII and Paul VI, as far back as the 1960s.

But getting back to Douthat’s new book, I grant that receipt of the sacraments on the part of the divorced-but-not-annulled is a thornier issue, and forms the brunt of Mr. Douthat’s brief against Francis, which I have chosen not to take up again in this short piece.

Despite politely disagreeing with Mr. Douthat over what I consider to be an overly harsh view of the Francis papacy, yesterday’s radio interview, along with his regular, weekly column-writing, demonstrates that Ross Douthat should be required listening and reading for any Catholic who believes his or her faith can continue to light the way in this apostate world.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
April 14, 2018

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