In Defense of Ross Douthat

The “laity” are not welcome in doctrinal discussions.

Perhaps I should refer to this less as a defense, and more an identification of an irony. New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat has come under fire from an unlikely source – fellow Roman Catholics. But these are Catholic academics and theologians who essentially feel that due to his status as an uncredentialed layman, he is unqualified to comment on theology and doctrine as he has done many times in his columns.  Douthat is among those I write about in my book Evangelicals Adrift, and is a prime example of a convert to Catholicism who upholds his expatriate faith with a zeal that the native-born, as it were, do not.

Before converting to Catholicism, Douthat was part of pentecostalism (my memory is Assemblies of God, but I cannot find the reference, but it is not so important). No doubt he there became accustomed to reading his Bible for himself, thinking about doctrine, and within pentecostalism, so sharp a division between clergy and laity did not exist, to the extent it does in Catholicism. To suggest, as these theologians do, that Douthat is not qualified to write on matters of theology or doctrine is simply ridiculous.

Douthat is well-educated and literate, he is a critical thinker, and therefore he has pretty much all the equipment he needs to weigh the evidence for or against various doctrinal positions within his Church. He can read the source material for these discussions just as anyone else can. The suggestion that determining these things should be left to the “professionals”, should be insulting to any and every member of the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, part of the reason for the current troubles of the church is due to this professionalizing of what belongs to everyone.

I by no means think that if the Catholic Church adopted a flatter structure, this would solve their problems. Their doctrinal issues run far deeper than a democratization of the church hierarchy can solve. But within the confines of the structure he is working with, Douthat is doing what one would think Catholic academia would want. As a layman, he is taking profound interest in what the Church teaches, and where it is going.  The pope himself said as much in his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium: “Nor do I believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world.” Ironically, Douthat is doing what the pope he often opposes is suggesting, and it is this very thing, which these theologians say is not in Douthat’s purview, that the pope they defend is encouraging.


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