I signed the letter primarily because I wanted to support my colleague who was slurred as a heretic on the very public forum of Twitter.
Although I admire Mr. Douthat’s intelligence, piety, and passion for the faith, I signed the letter because I believe he has uttered several factual errors. I do believe that, even in its editorial pages, that the New York Times, like all publications, has a duty to the represent the truth to the best of its ability. More than many other figures who misrepresent or oversimplify Catholic theology in the mainstream media, Mr. Douthat has tended to portray himself as one who recites Catholic teaching rather than one who interprets it, especially over the course of the past few weeks. This alone I take issue with.
In other words, I have no problem with any thinker expressing on even the most public forums views about Catholic theology that differ from mine. I do not even have a problem if said thinker defends and advocates for a “conservative” interpretation of Catholicism. I have no problem admitting that I am neither objective or neutral: we all speak from a certain context, suffer under the weight of our own finitude, and perpetrate a certain sinful bias. Although I, like every Catholic, feel very strongly about my views, I am not scandalized by the fact that Catholics disagree, mostly in good faith, about many, many things.
Now here comes the hard part. Many people, rightly, have taken issue with the letter’s use of the word “credentials.” Some contend that this word makes it seem as though only those with three letters after their name are entitled to speak on questions of Catholic theology and identity. I regret the impression this word has left in the minds of those who read the letter. I regret my failure to anticipate this completely reasonable response in advance.
So let me clarify…not in order to make excuses for my error but to atone for it. I certainly do not believe that only those privileged and lucky enough to have crossed the doctoral finish line qualify as the sole authentic theologians. Nor do I think that rigorous academic theological training necessarily makes one a better disciple of the crucified Christ. In fact, human history supports the opposite conclusion: the poor and marginalized–those who sit outside of the corridors of power rather than within them–possess a superior capacity both to perceive and to life the truth.
Speaking just for myself: I object not to the privileging of un-credentialed voices but to the Times’ inconsistent standard of credibility. When it wished to employ an editorialist about the economy, it selected a Nobel Prize winning professor. When the New York Times publishes articles about global warming, they trust the judgments of “credentialed” scientists. One wonders why the New York Times does not extend to the discipline of theology the same respect? In other words, while one does not need a PhD to perceive and to live God’s truth, one does need some sort of systematic training to pontificate (pun intended) about questions of church history and liturgical, moral, and systematic theology. These can be found outside of the theological academy, but they must be found somewhere.
So perhaps rather than calling Mr. Douthat “un-credentialed,” the letter should have asked the New York Times the following question: with what criteria did they determine Mr. Douthat competent to act as an arbiter of theological truth?
But let’s be real here: some of the pushback to the letter’s use of the word “credentialed” strikes me as a bit disingenuous or self-serving. If we do not believe that academic theologians have anything distinctive to contribute to public debates, and if we believe their training makes them not experts but just self-inflated blowhards, then let’s go all the way with this. If Massimo Faggioli’s PhD and professoriate in theology does not matter, then neither does Mr. Douthat’s magna cum laude graduation from Harvard.
Let’s also not forget that Mr. Douthat’s position owes in no small part to the credentials of race and gender that he has accumulated but not earned. We take white men much more seriously than we take others, even when they say very silly things.