Douthat’s Easy Answers, But Maybe Wrong

Daniel Burke at RNS interviews conservative darling Ross Douthat on his new book about heretics. I hesitate to take on a critic’s role just from skewering an interview. But hey: a promotional piece like this determines whether or not I bother to read the book.

My readers here know I’m a huge skeptic on the use of the word “heretic.” Too often, it is bandied about by conservatives who don’t exactly have an iron grip on orthodoxy. Instead of calling an opponent a @#&%ing meathead, they bring out the seven-letter word, and dismiss not only the ideas, but the person’s basic quality of redemption. And why, it gets easy to ask, do we bother with people outside the flock when we can deal with our smaller, so-called purer church?

When asked to define heresy, Mr Douthat responded:

Looking at Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians, there is an intellectual core in the Christian faith. Sometimes that core gets blurry in various places, but you have the Nicene Creed, the belief that the Bible is the inspired word of God, that the four Gospels are the best sources of information about Jesus of Nazareth. There are a lot of religious movements and ideas that diverge from that core enough to be heretical but not to be a different religion entirely.

Fair enough. But still skewer-worthy.

My sense from this brief answer is that Mr Douthat is operating more in the mode of rationalism. And as a son of the Western Enlightenment culture, I would expect a definition to be focused on the Christian from the neck up. What does a person know? What does a person think? What can we dredge up from YouTube that people have said–and use it against them? As a counterweight to intellectualism and reason, I might go to the Gospels and come up with this passage:

‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.”He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went.The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go.Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. (Matthew 21:28-31)

Without getting dogmatic about this passage, it’s one of a long line of Scriptures that seem to point us to the notion that God is just as concerned about a believer’s actions as a believer’s words. Orthopraxis trumps orthodoxy. And you don’t have to look very far or very deep to find it: Matthew 25, 1 Corinthians 13, Isaiah 58, Micah 6. And any parent will tell you that actions speak louder, much louder, than words.

All of this is totally debatable, and people can look at the same landscape and disagree about who a heretic is. But the term is still quite useful in describing the reality of a country that is neither traditionally Christian nor post-Christian in any meaningful way. We are in a zone between those two things.


A country is a political entity. Not a religious institution. The United States has always been in a zone outside of traditional Christianity. We’ve been a little less persecution-oriented than our European ancestors.

I can agree with some of Mr Douthat’s conclusion here:

As a practicing Catholic, I have an obvious bias in favor of institutional religion. But if you look at Christian history, the belief that everyone can follow Jesus on their own is not a particularly realistic approach to religious faith. It is a faith best practiced in community with doctrine passed down through generations. What makes me pessimistic is that all the trends in contemporary American life are toward deinstitutionalization, not just in religion but across the board.

Naturally, faith is a practice (not just an academic discipline). Community: love that word.

I’m mildly fascinated by this book. Maybe I will read it. Though I’d prefer a good rousing discussion on the seventy-year trend (longer in Europe) toward deinstitutionalization. The conservatives can’t escape it themselves. My sense is that they get the blame for it by about a two-to-one margin over liberals. And I think one has to go back even before the Great War (1914-1989) to capture the flavor and extent of disillusionment with political leadership in the West. And when you throw in modern trends that mostly have worked against community: television, automobiles, suburbs, the internet, big business, etc., I think you have a far more complex picture than the simple label of “heretic.”

My sense is that leadership is sorely lacking in Catholic leadership circles. And it’s getting worse. We have a whole raft of bishops who are saying the right things (otherwise they’d be getting investigated rather than promoted) but whose actions have left grave doubts in the minds of millions of believers, both parish priests and laity. Like Mr Douthat, I have a strong bias toward institutional religion. But I’ll tell you some news from the front: a lot of people are following Jesus on their own because they think their leaders have bailed on the journey. Not because they think they know better than a bishop or a catechism.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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5 Responses to Douthat’s Easy Answers, But Maybe Wrong

  1. Thanks for this Todd, I have to re-read your post and I think that I need to read the book, but you have said so much that makes sense to me in this post.

    Your second to last sentence says “…their leaders have bailed on the journey.” That alone speaks volumes.

  2. Hmmm, I just read this on my friend’s (Lutheran pastor) FB status and I feel like it relates to what you are saying – what Douthat is not necessarily saying: “sometimes I think we prefer to think of Jesus safely in the tomb, where we can remember him and honor his memory, and think about all the good things he used to do — than Jesus in the present, in our lives and in our world, messing with the status quo and changing us.”

    Without community, none of which she speaks is possible, but what she is saying really hits me hard today.

  3. Linda Diane McMillan says:

    I agree that community is necessary for the practice of Christianity. I do not think that church equals community. Not by a long way.

  4. Jimmy Mac says:

    Ross needs to reflect a bit on how to apply and the veracity of doctrine:

    “We need faithful questioners, people who dare to float a hypothesis, experiment with an idea, venture into a new way of thinking, not knowing where it will lead,” he said. “Meister Eckhart said that we only attain the truth if we make 1,000 errors on the way. If the great tree of the Church does not have these leaves open to the world, then we shall end up with what Karl Rahner called the heresy of dead doctrine,” he said. Fr Radcliffe defended the need for a Vatican doctrinal office to “keep us steady as we search”, but with a twist. “I believe that its main function should be to stop us succumbing to premature answers. It should keep open the debate until God grants illumination for the next step on the journey.” That will come, he said, only by being “rooted in the life of prayer and silence”.

    Timothy Radcliffe OP, speaking on “A Spirituality for the 21st Century” at the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas, February 2010.

    “[F]acts, as history teaches, carry greater weight than pure doctrine” Joseph Ratzinger, HIGHLIGHTS OF VATICAN II, Paulist Press/Deus Books, 1966, p. 17.

  5. Jen says:

    Douthat was on the Diane Rehm show this morning. I only caught the end of it, but I wasn’t too impressed by him.

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