A group of purported Catholic professors wrote an open letter on October 26, 2015 to "the editor of the New York Times" decrying a October 18 op-ed item about the Catholic Church by a conservative writer Ross Douthat. The letter, which was initially signed by 25 academics from Georgetown University, Villanova University, and other schools (the list has grown in subsequent days), claimed that Douthat "has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject," and "his view...has very little to do with what Catholicism really is." The objectors concluded, "This is not what we expect of the New York Times."
The letter was drafted by one of the signatories, Dr. Massimo Faggioli, who has sparred with the New York Times conservative on Twitter; and was posted to the DailyTheology.org website administered by another signatory, Professor Kevin Ahern of Manhattan College. The group also played up that Douthat has "acccus[ed] other members of the Catholic church of heresy, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, [which] is serious business that can have serious consequences for those so accused."
It seems that the October 18 article in question, "The Plot to Change Catholicism," was merely a jumping off point for the liberal academics, as the word "heresy" does not appear in it. The New York Times columnist spent much of his item lamenting Pope Francis's support for "the proposal, put forward by the church's liberal cardinals, that would allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion without having their first marriage declared null." Douthat underlined that "the church's teaching that marriage is indissoluble has already been pushed close to the breaking point by this pope's new expedited annulment process; going all the way to communion without annulment would just break it."
Near the end of the column, the conservative author pointed out that "the entire situation abounds with ironies. Aging progressives are seizing a moment they thought had slipped away, trying to outmaneuver younger conservatives who recently thought they owned the Catholic future." Though many of the "progressive" signatories aren't exactly "aging," they certainly seized the moment in publishing their letter. Dr. Faggioli denied that he wanted to "silence" the writer, but that interpretation can certainly be made.
Conservative commentators of Douthat fired back at the academics in the following days, alleging that they were indeed trying to pressure the New York Times to muzzle the columnist. The American Conservative's Rod Dreher, in particular, unleashed on the group in a series of pieces, starting on the day the letter came out. Dreher blasted, "What a remarkable document. Really remarkable — and damning to the writers, who ought to be ashamed of themselves." He added that "the letter-writers...actually try to do the Catholic version of red-baiting Douthat, as if a newspaper columnist's criticism of heresy ('sometimes subtly, sometimes openly') actually stood to make a difference in the lives of those so accused. It is ridiculous. That term 'sometimes subtly, sometimes openly' is downright McCarthyite."
Dreher would devote many of his subsequent items on the controversy to spotlighting the bizarre views of some of the signatories. On October 28, he noted that Villanova Professor Katie Grimes considers deceased rapper Tupac Shakur to be her "favorite theologian," and contended in a theological treatise that Thomas Aquinas, one of the most prominent theologians in Church history, "can come out of the closet," because Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (also known as Pope Benedict XVI) and other orthodox commentators on the Catholic faith supposedly "misrepresented" the saint's views on homosexual acts. However, it is actually Grimes who mistaken, as in his celebrated Summa Theologica, Aquinas lists homosexual acts together with masturbation, bestiality, and contraception as "unnatural vices." One doesn't need a PhD in theology to look up what St. Thomas Aquinas actually taught.
Another prominent writer who stood up for Douthat is actually a member of the Catholic hierarchy — Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles — who until earlier in 2015, served as president of University of Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary in Illinois. Barron (who corrected Brian Williams and Chris Williams during MSNBC's live coverage of Pope Francis's final Mass in the U.S. in September 2015) contended in an October 29 article that "the letter to the Times is indicative indeed of a much wider problem in our intellectual culture, namely, the tendency to avoid real argument and to censor what makes us, for whatever reason, uncomfortable."
Dreher quoted this line from Barron in an item later that day, which led to an objection on Twitter from liberal journalist David Gibson of the Religion News Service — who linked to an article in the liberal Catholic publication Commonweal, which accused the new bishop of a double standard. The American Conservative writer shot back, "Bishop Barron did not try to goad Dowd's employer to stop her from writing about theology. Big, big difference."
The New York Times editorial staff has yet to respond to the open letter. But if the newspaper ends up listening to the heterodox academics, it will only extend the "illiberal norm on ostensibly liberal college campuses," as The Week's Damon Linker put it, onto the pages of the already left-of-center publication. The readers of the Times should have the opportunity to read genuine and thoughtful conservatives like Douthat, even if they vehemently disagree with them.