I was going to write a very different post this month.

Then, HeresyLetterGate occurred and I’ve been following along via the various posts on social media. I’m not going to recap all the arguments and social media events that occurred in this because that’s already been done.

What occurs to me in all this, however, is that there is a real question to be raised about who has the authority to teach in the modern Catholic Church. Now, this wasn’t the original issue, but it became part of the whole HeresyLetterGate discussion and it is an important question that we need to continue to think about. This question resonates not only personally but also with my own research. And, as a woman… a member of the gender who for a long time did not have the authority to teach (thanks a lot Saint Paul!)… this question is an important one to continue to think about even now that women have been granted the right to teach theology (though not, apparently, to offer any substantial input).

My main area of research focuses on a moderately obscure group of nuns in seventeenth-century France. I say moderately obscure because they were involved in the Jansenist controversy which brought them to prominence, but even still, beyond a handful of scholars, almost nobody–in the United States at least–has studied them. The question that I bring to the writings of the nuns is precisely the question of who has authority as a theologian. My argument is that although the nuns did not have the academic qualifications to be considered theologians, they very much learned, wrote, and taught theology.

Significantly, however, of the nuns from Port-Royal that most scholars focus on–with the exception of Jacqueline Pascal–all held the position of abbess at one point or another in their lives. Thus, their authority did not just merely derive from their education, writing, or teaching, but it also came from the position that provided the opportunity for them to do so.

Parallels can be drawn to the discussion over credentials for writing about theology and ecclesiology in two ways. In some ways, these nuns do represent professionals and those of us who have chosen a vocation to professional theology. Although they did not have the same academic formation that professional theologians of the Sorbonne would have had in the seventeenth century, their position in the cloister gave them access to more knowledge and education than most of the laity had at the time. On the other hand, they were not priests and they were not academic theologians, so in other ways they represent the same position that Ross Douthat occupies.

Of course, we’re not in the seventeenth century anymore and so I have two more thoughts on this controversy.

One is the same point that Katie Grimes brought up in her explanation about why she signed the letter to the New York Times. That is, when a news organization wants commentary on science (except maybe on vaccines), they ask a scientist, generally someone who has spent years getting a doctorate in the field of science in which they are an expert. So, why is the same courtesy not extended to theology?

Of course, Ross Douthat doesn’t function as the theology expert for the New York Times, writing instead for their opinion page and, yes, anyone can have an opinion about what is going on in the Catholic Church.

But, furthermore, as examples throughout history–especially the example of women–show, often it has been precisely the uneducated (in the sense of not having the academic credentials of a theologian) who have provided the church with particular and unique insights from their theological reflection.

So, I’ve come full circle in this post and unfortunately don’t really have an answer to the main question of who has–or should have–the authority to teach in the modern Catholic Church. Looking back into my historical research, an argument could be made for leaving it to the professionals and also for opening it up to everyone. And again, as a member of the gender who was not officially allowed to teach for a long time, I worry about the idea of making distinctions over who can and cannot speak out about theology. But, as someone who has dedicated many years of my life to becoming credentialed in the field of theology, there also needs to be a place where a certain amount of deference and respect is given to those who have spent the time to become experts in these topics.

21 thoughts

  1. I think there is a lot of value in touching on the different elements of this “controversy” even if we can’t come to a conclusion. Thank you for your thoughts – and for reminding me exactly what it is you are studying!

  2. It seems that the key issues have been overshadowed in this debate, muddied as it appears by the somewhat clumsy language in the theologians response. Douthat is simply wrong in many of his assertions eg that Catholic doctrine can never be changed (it has and it will change) because he lacks the proper grounding in Catholic doctrinal theology. He would do much better to listen carefully to the Holy Father, who has frequently explained these points, instead of trying to denounce and undermine him.

    The bigger picture here is the conservative plot to undermine the Pope.

    God Bless

  3. The notion that the New York Times “asked” anyone to comment on theology is wrong. Douthat is an opinion columnist, as are several other people. He has free rein to write about a lot of topics, as do other columnists. Sometimes he takes a strong view in favor of traditional Catholic doctrine, just as his fellow columnists take an even stronger view against that doctrine or against Church hierarchy. In none of these cases has the Times “asked” anyone to comment about theology.

    As for the letter itself, it shows a rather distressing lack of ability to reason or think clearly. Sentence by sentence:

    “On Sunday, October 18, the Times published Ross Douthat’s piece “The Plot to Change Catholicism.””

    This sentence is true.

    “Aside from the fact that Mr. Douthat has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject, the problem with his article and other recent statements is his view of Catholicism as unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is.”

    The relevance of Douthat’s professional qualifications or lack thereof is not established, particularly given that other Times columnists regularly write on Catholicism with no objection.

    It is not clear what about Douthat’s column was “politically partisan.” Whether the Church changes its communion rules/doctrine has little to do with any political party.

    The letter does not define what Catholicism “really is” or why anything Douthat said was inconsistent with that alleged nature of Catholicism.

    “Moreover, accusing other members of the Catholic church of heresy, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, is serious business that can have serious consequences for those so accused.”

    The column cited did not accuse anyone of heresy.

    In addition, if anyone has mentioned heresy, the best response would be a refutation of Douthat, not a complaint that heresy is a “serious” charge.

    “This is not what we expect of the New York Times.”

    So what? No one’s expectations are relevant in the complete absence of any quotation of anything that Douthat said and the complete absence of any refutation or argument against Douthat.

    1. I’m approving your comment even though it doesn’t have all that much to do with the topic of my actual post. You have here rehashed arguments that have already been made against the letter. But, my point is that although it wasn’t the issue of the original controversy, HeresyLetterGate has provided us with an opportunity to think through some other questions that I’ve been thinking about–namely, where does the authority to teach derive from?

    2. I will also note that I do say in my post above: “Of course, Ross Douthat doesn’t function as the theology expert for the New York Times, writing instead for their opinion page and, yes, anyone can have an opinion about what is going on in the Catholic Church.” This is exactly what you are trying to argue against me in the beginning of your comment.

  4. I think you’re right to note the difference between doing theology and opinion. It seems like there’s some confusion among some people in this conversation between three very different things. The first is doing theology, which is the creative work of faith seeking understanding… reflecting on God and the meaning of the universe and life and praxis and so on. Potentially anyone can do that; certainly every person of faith does it. Education can help in learning to do it better – e.g. learning about the ways other people have done theology can help – but it’s not enough on its own, and it’s not always necessary. Often (maybe even more often than not?) unschooled marginalized mystics or prophets or nuns or rappers are better at it than those in the academic and/or ecclesial corridors of power. With regard to this first thing, I would indeed be very suspicious of elitism, which has been used throughout history to exclude the voices of marginalized people who are often precisely whose voices most need hearing.

    The second thing is opinion, and again, I would be very skeptical of elitism, for similar reasons. Though of course there’s is a certain inevitable ‘elitism’ in a lot of situations: e.g. only some people can write opinion pieces for a newspaper. We can’t include everyone; the best we can do is choose carefully who this particular ‘elite’ is… preferably trying to privilege the voices of those who are not social/political/economic elites, while also taking into account:

    … the third thing: assertions of fact about (for example) the Roman Catholic Church, historical development of doctrine, current church practice, and definitions of concepts like heresy. Douthat’s columns are of course opinion columns, but his opinions require a lot of these factual (or not factual) claims. With regard to this third thing, I think a certain amount of academic elitism is certainly warranted: “you aren’t qualified” isn’t the whole story (and it wasn’t the whole story in the letter), but it’s relevant as an explanation of why someone’s wrong about the facts, and it’s relevant for people trying to figure out who’s more trustworthy on the facts. If someone misunderstands and misrepresents basic facts about the church, e.g. by calling someone a heretic for disagreeing with him about the idea of indissolubility of marriage and/or the appropriate pastoral expression of that doctrine, it’s entirely relevant to point out that it’s not surprising that he’s wrong given that he has never formally studied such things. It’s also entirely appropriate to express exasperation that the NYT’s most prominent commenter on the church has no education on these vital factual matters and is, not surprisingly, getting things wrong.

    As a side note, I think it’s funny how people who usually seem to love hierarchy and authority are opportunistically invoking a postmodern distrust of authorities and experts to argue against the letter-signers. It’s a bit like how they opportunistically invoke queer theory or the social sciences to problematize essentialist ideas of sexual orientation, but they don’t allow queer theory or the social sciences to problematize the essentialist ideas of gender upon which their own anti-LGBTI and/or anti-women stances depend.

    1. Thank you for this excellent comment, particularly with regard to assertions of fact, and lifting up the perspective of “people trying to figure out who’s more trustworthy on the facts.”

  5. Ross Douthat wasn’t “teaching” theology or speaking in front of a church. He was writing an opinion column in a newspaper.

    Personally, I would rather judge someone by the content of their words, rather than the qualifications they may or may not have. For example, one of your PhD theologians here says that Tupac Shakur is her favorite theologian. You could have 25 PhD’s, and if Tupac is the best you can do, then you should not be listened to by anyone, because your opinions are necessarily silly.

    Douthat is an opinion writer. If you don’t like his opinion, argue with him with actual substance. Or ignore him. Silencing him is the worst possible response.

    1. I am approving this comment even though I don’t think it adds anything useful to the conversation. You aren’t even responding to what my post is about and, as I noted to the above comment that also didn’t address my post, I recognize that he’s an opinion writer. My post here isn’t even trying to respond to what Douthat said.

      In regards to your first sentence, I think you’re being narrow in your view of what “teaching” theology consists of, especially in this digital age. A lot more people will learn about what Douthat thinks about Catholic theology than will sit in a theology classroom or even in the pews.

    1. Since your comment is so completely devoid of any context, I have no idea what you’re referring to. However, I find it disappointing that after all this controversy that started over an accusation of heresy, you have taken it upon yourself to judge who is and is not Catholic.

      I would recommend that you think more about whether or not that is the Christian thing to do in this controversy.

    2. Unfortunately for you, baptism makes a person a Christian. And unless a person baptized as a Catholic or later received into the Catholic church has been officially excommunicated, he or she remains a Catholic, no matter her sinfulness. Catholic-ness, like faith itself, is a gift not a trophy or something we earn.

      1. I have the impression that by “officially excommunicated” you’re referring to excommunication imposed or declared by formal sentence, although I expect you’d agree that someone who incurs automatic excommunication – say, due to heresy – is just as excommunicated, even if the latter group doesn’t lend itself to uncontroversial identification in quite the same way as do ferendae sententiae excommunicants.

        More to the point, though, that response to LoyalCatholicInNewJersey seems a little too pat. The term “Catholic”, as applied to people, obviously admits of several other conventional and defensible senses (I leave aside nonreligious senses) that aren’t synonymous with the community of persons baptized as Catholics or later received into the Catholic Church and who have not been “officially excommunicated.” After all, we should be obliged to count among that number many who could fairly be described, e.g., as adherents of religions other than Catholicism, as non-theists, and so forth – which may be justifiable in one context, while not being particularly useful or intelligible in others.

      2. Le Fou, it’s difficult to follow these comments when for some reason my comment is deleted after being posted and you refer to it.

        Why someone would approve a comment, post a comment, and then delete it is beyond me.

        My comment was my opinion, civil, didn’t use foul language — why delete it ?

        I think we know why.

      3. Nobody has deleted your comment. You are envisioning persecution where there is none.

        However, don’t expect for me to approve your comments if you continue to post anonymously. If you really want to witness to your ideas, use your full name and stand by your posts, instead of commenting under an anonymous title.

  6. Forgive me if I don’t quite get the point of this article, but it seems to me that the essential question being raised is “who has the authority to teach in the modern Catholic Church”. Wasn’t the question wasn’t asked and answered decades . . .centuries , , , millennia ago. Perhaps I’m wrong, but isn’t this authority invested in the bishop(s).

    1. Thanks for your reply, Maureen. I’m thinking more broadly about teaching. After all, bishops aren’t the ones who are teaching theology in the universities, schools, and parishes (and never really were). That responsibility fell primarily to priests and monks for a long time and is now done primarily by laity (especially on the parish level). And, as I mention in a comment above, many more people will learn about Catholicism from Douthat than from any bishop. So, although I understand what you’re saying, I still maintain this is a valid question for the modern church.

      1. Thank you. Your response is clarifying, and I can now appreciate the point of this article. I would love to see a fuller discussion of this, so I will be following the conversation

  7. You are asking a very important question. What role do (or should) these two items — the “mandatum” and the Instruction on The Ecclesial Vocation of The Theologian — play in the internal discussion / discernment process.

    1. Enrique, that is a good question to ask, but unfortunately one that I haven’t yet considered since my current research focuses on theological authority in the seventeenth century. That might be an interesting blog post to make in the future.

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