I back Ross Douthat: elites don’t own Catholicism

Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times (AP)

Recently, you will have noticed, if you have been reading anything Catholic online, there has been a synod. Mr Ross Douthat, a Catholic journalist, has commented on the synod, in his column in the New York Times. Some people did not agree with what he wrote, and have written to the New York Times to express their displeasure. Among other things, they said that Mr Douthat had no professional qualifications to write on the subject. This whole affair has become quite a big thing, but I think I am summing it up as best I can. (There is a better summary here.)

I sympathise with Ross Douthat, in two ways. Firstly, I sympathise, because I agree with what he writes. I think his reading of the situation is essentially correct. And I sympathise with him in another way. He has said something that some people do not like, and they have all jumped down his throat. I am familiar with that, having spent three decades as a “professional” Catholic in the Church, wearyingly familiar. So, I feel for him. We have, many of us, been here before.

When I was young, I was frequently told to shut up, and on various grounds. I was too young, I knew nothing about it, I had no degree, I had no theology degree, or my background, race and class disqualified me from having an opinion. Gradually these people telling me to shut up, themselves shut up, as I gradually got a degree from Oxford, a doctorate in theology from Rome, and worked in a comprehensive school, in a parish and on the African missions.

All of that gave me a rather better grounding that most of the people who had told me to shut up, many of whom had none of these experiences. As for those who told me I was too young, they fell silent as I grew older, to be replaced by people who told me that I was too old: I rather missed the transition from being too young to too old, but it was very brief, I think – no more than a month or two.

But there is a point here, a very serious one. Catholicism is a mass movement. I am not sure if everyone has quite grasped this. It is not a religion in the hands of the elites. In fact there are no true elites in Catholicism: Jesus Christ Himself was no elitist, and neither he nor his disciples had qualifications the Pharisees recognised. Elitism is profoundly against the spirit of Catholicism and its letter. In Protestantism, a religion of the book, scholars of the Bible, and its preachers, clearly have a leading role to play. In Orthodoxy, the monks have a key role. But in Catholicism no one religious order, no one particular nation has a pivotal position.

True, one nation comes forward to play a crucial role, for a time, but these times pass. Once it was Spain, then it was France, later it was Germany, now it is surely Africa… but no one geographical area can claim paramount importance. Again, the same with religious orders: each has its day, and each finds a balance with other charisms in the Church. The charisms given to the Church are widely diffused throughout the body of Christ.

Now some may doubt this and point out that the Catholic Church is a monolithic and hierarchical structure with the Pope at its head. But the hierarchy exists to serve the communion, to rule out that which would damage it, and to ensure that the genuine charisms live together for their mutual benefit and enrichment. These charisms are not restricted to any one group.

Consider people like St Thérèse of Lisieux and St Bernadette of Lourdes, or Blessed Mother Teresa, the three great Catholics of recent times. They were emphatically not people who emerged from the elites. Indeed they challenged the assumptions of the elites. And the Popes of the day recognised their charisms as valuable.

Bernadette, I seem to remember, was told to shut up by both Church and State. Thank the Lord, she didn’t. We are all better off for it. I hope Mr Douthat will take courage from her example, and not be put off. We need his voice. And there are lots of other voices like his, for which we should all be profoundly grateful.