As anyone who reads New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat on a regular basis can tell you, he is one of the stronger, more genuine Catholics that can be found in the world of punditry. He has dedicated countless hours to providing his extraordinary insight about the Catholic Church, modern day heresy, and the secular age in which we live. He convincingly argues that orthodoxy needs to have a stronger role in the lives of American Christians and points to the decline in mainline Protestant churches as evidence of what can happen when ministers and theologians try to accommodate rather than evangelize, the secular world. I am sure that Douthat’s own personal faith is real (he said as much in his first book, Privilege) and truly hopes for more people to put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ.
But the sincerity of his faith is hard to recognize by simply reading his work at The New York Times. While his pieces on the Catholic Church and Christianity as a whole are far more informed and articulate than those of any of his fellow Times columnists and his socially conservative perspective sticks out on the Times’ Sunday Review like a sore thumb, there is a fundamental concession Douthat makes every time he discusses the Church: he writes from an impersonal, detached point of view that rarely if ever acknowledges his own faith and trust in God. The times he has mentioned his membership in the Catholic Church were usually during interviews or talks discussing his (fantastic) book Bad Religion, and they often came off as a “full disclosure” remark made to preempt any claims about a conflict of interest.
In his written work at the Times and elsewhere, it is clear that he wishes Christianity to thrive and church attendance to grow, but it’s not immediately apparent that his hopes for a Christian revival extend past the cultural and societal benefits it would no doubt yield. As Christians, we of course believe society would be much better if more people followed the teachings of Christ, but the ultimate goal for Christians is much more than creating a nice, safe world in which to live, with high marriage and birth rates and low divorce rates. But you might not gather that from reading Douthat’s columns or blog posts, because he never explicitly mentions his belief that Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Catholic faith are real and true, just that they are better than the alternatives the world offers. In other words, Douthat’s discussions on Christianity often resemble the way sociologists and historians talk about the Church: a large, extremely old organization with its own set of interests, culture, and administrative challenges, with its top priority being self-preservation. The main difference is that Douthat is much more sympathetic–and his concerns are more earnest and relevant–to the Church than those of the average historian or university professor.
It’s important to keep in mind that Douthat works for The New York Times, a generally well-respected paper but one in which its reporters treat the subject of religion with the same diligence as they would the MTV Video Music Awards. So Christians, and Catholics in particular, should appreciate his willingness to buck the trend and go into great detail about the affairs of the Church, despite the probability that most of his readers will not be interested in what he has to say or even understand what he’s talking about.
Back when he worked for the Atlantic, Douthat wrote a good blog post about the Society of Saint Pius X and provided a subtle jab at the Times’ coverage of Pope Benedict’s decision to lift the excommunication of four of the society’s bishops. As a columnist for the Times, particularly on his blog, he routinely delves into topics that have a limited following – from the Vatican’s “doctrinal assessment” of the LCWR to the reform of the Roman Curia – issues that are far more relevant to practicing Catholics. But at some point, an affirmation of God’s hand in the matters of the Christian faith and the world deserves space in Douthat’s work for the Times–and the work of every other religious commentator who happens to be a true believer. Otherwise, it just becomes a discussion in cultural anthropology.
He wouldn’t have to change much. For example, Douthat concluded his first blog post after Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope, saying, “As for whether this particular Latin pope will be able to maintain that balancing act — well, that’s for the men who elected him to hope and pray, and for the Church and the world at large to find out soon enough.” Here, Douthat makes the same assertion that the Times’ reporters kept on making while covering the papal conclave – that the Church’s leaders and their affairs are cut off from the faithful. That the cardinals elected Francis on their own and it is on them to “hope and pray” they made the right decision. This doesn’t register for me as a Catholic layperson. Do we not pray for our pope and respective bishops or cardinals at mass each week? Do we not believe that the Holy Spirit played a role in the conclave – influencing the hearts and minds of everyone there? A simple note that he, too, is praying for the new pope would let readers know that this topic he is writing on is important to him for reasons beyond its cultural and political implications.
Douthat is extremely smart and knows how to speak to his audience well – many of whom cannot fathom the existence of a reality outside of our secular and material one. However, if he really believes that the Church and its beliefs are true, and that God plays a significant role in shaping it, he shouldn’t be afraid to express that in his writings.
William Bornhoft is a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.