BOOKS APRIL 23, 2012
by Ross Douthat
Free Press, 337 pp., $26
ROSS DOUTHAT’S ANALYSIS of religion in America is more sophisticated than the analysis of, say, Rick Santorum—but not by much. There are many ways to be simplistic and coarse. In contending against what he sees as an America afflicted with too many heresies, Douthat’s book, like Santorum’s speeches, is riddled with mistakes of fact and interpretation that would make any learned person blush.
Some of Douthat’s mistakes appear trivial. He seems to think that Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis (1950) was responsible for the silencing of the Rev. John Courtney Murray, S.J., but it wasn’t. He writes of pre-Vatican II Catholicism that “the Church’s abundance of vocations meant that a life of vowed poverty occupied a place of honor in Catholic communities,” although most priests then, as now, were diocesan clergy who do not take a vow of poverty. Only priests, sisters, and brothers who belong to religious orders take vows of poverty, and many bishops built magnificent mansions for themselves in the pre-Vatican II days to demonstrate the Church’s increasing prominence. Douthat refers to “Baltimore’s Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle,” but O’Boyle never lived nor worked in Baltimore.
Other mistakes are more troubling. Douthat betrays the degree to which he has drunk the Kool-Aid being distributed by the papal biographer George Weigel, the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Novak, and other neoconservative interpreters of Catholicism. Douthat writes that “In the intervening decade Wojtyla [Pope John Paul II] had come to the same view of Christianity’s situation as had Novak and other American Catholic neoconservatives.” Alas, the view from the corner office at the Vatican is different from the corner office view at AEI. It was this same putatively neocon Pontiff who wrote in his encyclical Laborem Exercens, that “we must first of all recall a principle that has always been taught by the Church: the principle of the priority of labor over capital … Catholic social teaching does not hold that unions are no more than a reflection of the ‘class’ structure of society and that they are a mouthpiece for a class struggle which inevitably governs social life. They are indeed a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people in accordance with their individual professions.” One has difficulty imagining such sentiments emerging from Weigel’s pen.
Most troubling of all are the mistakes that bear directly on his central argument. And what is that argument? “A chart of the American religious past would look like a vast delta, with tributaries, streams, and channels winding in and out, diverging and reconverging—but all of them fed, ultimately, by a central stream, an original current, a place where the waters start. This river is Christian orthodoxy.” In the 1950s, Reinhold Niebuhr and Bishop Fulton Sheen carried the arguments for orthodoxy while Bing Crosby and Karl Malden brought the presbyterate onto the Hollywood screen and Charlton Heston came down from Sinai with God’s Holy Law. Everyone went to Church and understood the value of chastity. Then came the 1960s and liberal theology, the pill, and Vietnam, and America went to hell.
Douthat’s supporting examples for this thesis are illustrative of his lack of knowledge of religious history. “Both the Protestant Mainline and the Catholic Church were strong cultures in 1950s America—capable of making their presence felt in the commanding heights of American life, from the media and the academy to the film and television industries, even as they provided a powerful spiritual and ethical vocabulary for everyday life down below. Together, these two traditions supplied a common religious story and a common moral framework for a vast and complicated nation, influencing even where they did not predominate, and sowing seeds in fields where they did not reap the harvest.” Of course, these two traditions were not “together” in the 1950s in any meaningful way. Catholics were still warning against marrying “outside the Church.” Paul Blanshard still warned about the dangers of papal power. Americans United for Separation of Church and State was still known as Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Within the Protestant fold, Niebuhr denounced the Rev. Billy Graham’s crusade in New York City in 1957 and many conservative Baptists, and most fundamentalists, were hostile to the National Council of Churches. The one sign of convergence came, unintentionally, from the preachings of Father Leonard Feeney, who held that none but Catholics could be saved—extra Ecclesiam nulus salus—but his strict interpretation of the claim led to his being excommunicated by the Vatican in 1953.
The Civil Rights movement is another of Douthat’s examples of Christian orthodoxy profoundly affecting the culture. He argues that “both branches of American Christendom [Mainline Protestantism and Roman Catholicism] embraced the civil rights movement well before the politicians did.” That would come as news to many white, Southern, mainline preachers, who searchingly found ways to resist the civil rights movement. It is true that the leaders of the Catholic Church, which had been quite ambivalent about slavery during the Civil War, took up the cause of desegregation wholeheartedly, but when Dr. King got to the Catholic suburbs of Chicago in the 1960s, he saw the same hatred that he had seen in Birmingham. Moreover, Douthat is wrong to suggest that Archbishop Joseph Rummel excommunicated three Catholics in New Orleans because of their opposition to desegregated schools when, in fact, it was because they challenged his authority over the Catholic schools.
So, if the 1950s were not exactly a time of triumphant Christian orthodoxy speaking with one voice and moving in one direction, what of the other half of Douthat’s thesis, that since the 1950s American religion has been set upon by a series of heresies unique in the history of Christendom? This, too, does not really hold up to scrutiny. Take Douthat’s example of the “God Within” heretics of our day, people such as Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra, and Elizabeth Gilbert. It is true, as Douthat states, though many others have made this criticism before him, that these apostles of a God at once mysterious and immediately accessible to all results in a “sort of solipsism, with numinous experience as a kind of spiritual comfort food rather than a spur to moral transformation—there when you need it, and not a bother when you don’t.” But even those who hold to orthodox tenets have been capable of solipsism in times past, and the civic religion of the 1950s that Douthat champions was not without a certain solipsistic tendency. George Fox was no solipsistic divine, but he too preached a “God Within” theology. As a Catholic, Douthat should have no trouble labeling him a heretic, but strangely declines to do so.
Douthat also takes a great deal of time disagreeing with Elaine Pagels, who has tried to rehabilitate and reinvigorate the Gnostic heresies of the first centuries of Christianity. Why spill the ink? He certainly lacks the scholarly equipment to get deep into the discussion, failing to note the way previous centuries encountered similar heretical tendencies. But he frets about the ways the “quest for the historical Jesus” have led Christians astray. He seems unaware that there has always been a tension within Christian theology between the absconding God who reigns in heaven and the historical Jesus. Even the first apostles struggled to comprehend precisely who this Jesus was. This is nothing new.
Accomodationism is one of the principal culprits in Douthat’s tale. He faults liberal Christianity with trying to accommodate itself to modernity in ways that watered down the distinctiveness and the moral rigor of Christianity, especially regarding sexual ethics. Douthat is on to something. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago has aptly criticized some forms of liberal Catholicism with seeking to become “chaplains to the status quo.” But Douthat commits the sin of slander along the way. “The push didn’t come from the hierarchy. …” He writes. “The accommodationist spirit was strongest, instead, in the intermediate institutions of Catholicism: the religious orders and the universities, the seminaries and diocesan bureaucracies and liturgical committees.” This is an old canard of the Catholic right: don’t blame the boss, blame the staff. Bishops hired the staff, directed the seminaries, led the liturgical committees.
After years of pent up withdrawal from modernity, at Vatican II, the Catholic Church chose to engage the world, to “discern the signs of the times.” In that effort, mistakes were made, but they were made with oversight. The bishops, too, were seeking their footing in a changed theological landscape. To cite only one example of how thoroughgoing those changes are: before Vatican II, almost every Catholic theologian in America was a celibate cleric. Today there are four married couples on the theology faculty at Fordham University. It should surprise no one that in the face of such changes, some would put a foot wrong. But, the fact that Catholic theology was undergoing a dynamic period does not explain the drug epidemic. And, of course, Douthat does not compare the period after Vatican II with the its relevant corollary, the years after the sixteenth century Council of Trent, which was also marked by theological controversies, divergent attempts to inculcate reform, and a hodge-podge of religious experiments that needed to be set aright with time.
Of course, not all accommodationisms are equal in Douthat’s rendering. He may not like the “prosperity gospel” as preached by Pastor Joel Osteen, but he has many nice things to say about the accommodation to laissez-faire capitalism that American Catholic conservatives have been championing. He labels Michael Novak’s works a “breakthrough” and approvingly quotes this passage:
It is wrong to imagine that the spirit of competition is foreign to the gospels, and that, in particular, competition for money is humankind’s most mortal spiritual danger. Under God, a wealthy nation faces an especially harsh judgment, but that judgment will not be aimed so much at the existence of wealth as at the character of the uses made of it. On Judgment Day, the rich may find it especially hard to get through the eye of the needle, but this will not be because they had money but because their use of it will be subjected to an accounting on different ledgers from those scrutinized by the Internal Revenue Service. The rich have reason to tremble. If their wealth has been productive for others, though, the world has reason to be merciful to them even if God’s standards are higher.
If that is not accomodationism, I do not know what is. Collapsing Catholicism into capitalism is as much of an “accommodation” as collapsing it into the counterculture. Novak is so eager to pour the Scottish Enlightenment into the Gospels that he fails to note that it is a spirit of gratuitousness, not competition, that must characterize a Christian culture.
Unsurprisingly, in heaping praise upon Novak, Douthat does not qualify his assessment by referring to Pope Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate, which declares that “the Church’s social doctrine has always maintained that justice must be applied to every phase of economic activity, because this is always concerned with man and his needs. Locating resources, financing, production, consumption and all the other phases in the economic cycle inevitably have moral implications. Thus every economic decision has a moral consequence.” [emphases in original] For orthodox Catholics, then, ethics do not enter the picture only when the rich decide to write a check to charity.
There is another passage in Pope Benedict’s encyclical that neither Novak nor Douthat would be likely to cite: “Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome. The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honoured today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level.” This demonstrates the extent to which traditional—orthodox—Catholic social teaching is at odds with that of contemporary American Catholic neo-cons, intent on finding ways to baptize Hayek and von Mises. But as I say, for Douthat not all accommodations are bad.
My problem with Douthat’s book is not that his opinions differ from my own. My problem is that he does not seem to have any idea what he is talking about. In the West, there has been no universally accepted authoritative voice on orthodoxy since the Reformation. “What am I to do when many persons allege different interpretations, each one of whom swears to have the Spirit?” asked Erasmus in 1524. But Douthat does not see the larger picture that he aims to explain, and his treatment of his subject is so pitifully mistaken in things large and small that what we are left with is a meandering, self-serving screed. The book has the same reliance on private judgment that anyone who was really concerned with heresy would recognize as part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Michael Sean Winters writes for the National Catholic Reporter. His book, God’s Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right, was recently published by HarperOne.