Who is qualified to write theology?

Ross Douthat wrote a controversial article for the New York Times: The Plot To Change Catholicism. In response to that article and some of Douthat’s tweets, a group of Catholic theologians wrote an open letter to the Times, stating:

“On Sunday, October 18, the Times published Ross Douthat’s piece “The Plot to Change Catholicism.” Aside from the fact that Mr. Douthat has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject, the problem with his article and other recent statements is his view of Catholicism as unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is. Moreover, accusing other members of the Catholic church of heresy, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, is serious business that can have serious consequences for those so accused. This is not what we expect of the New York Times.”

Take a look at some of the commentary on this dispute.

Kaya Oakes, in “Own Your Heresy”: The Argument Over Who Gets to Do Public Theology Takes a Sharp Turn, opines: “But when theologians imply that those without a PhD aren’t qualified to speak or write publicly about religion, this looks like closing ranks. It looks like clericalism… This kind of elitism may be more subtle than language of schisms and wounds and splits, but it has its own unpleasant implications.”

Bishop Robert Barron, in Ross Douthat and the Catholic Academy writes: “The professors and pundits complained that Douthat was proposing a politicized reading of Church affairs and that he was, at the end of the day, unqualified to speak on such complex matters, presumably because he doesn’t have a graduate degree in theology…. Are all of Ross Douthat’s opinions on the Synod debatable? Of course. Do I subscribe to everything he has said in this regard? No. But is he playing outside the rules of legitimate public discourse in such an egregious way that he ought to be censored? Absolutely not!”

My comments

Bishop Barron is right to suggest that a Catholic does not need a graduate degree in theology in order to speak about the Faith and the Church. And Oakes is right to say much the same thing: you don’t need a Ph.D. in theology to write about religion.

When Ross Douthat made an accusation of heresy (on twitter), a group of theologians publicly rebuked him. What hypocrisy! He cannot rebuke someone for allegedly asserting a heresy, but they can rebuke and attempt to silence him? It is also hypocritical for them to accuse Douthat of politicizing Catholicism, while a similar (but more liberal) politicization of the Faith is common among liberal theologians.

There is a certain Catholic subculture among theologians today, especially those who teach at colleges and universities. This culture treats every question as if it were open to theological speculation. The terms heresy and heretic are not politically correct, regardless of how clearly a fellow theologian is rejecting Church dogma. They have excised from the Gospel message and from the example of Jesus every harsh rebuke of grave sin and sins against faith. They have reduced the number of dogmas to as few as possible. They ignore the anathemas of Ecumenical Councils. They have taken away all the sharp edges of the Gospel.

This strange political correctness also affects Bible translations. It has reached the point where some Bible versions entirely lack the word “Hell”. And verses condemning grave sins have been translated with vague wording, so that one cannot tell which specific sins are being condemned. Many modern versions have also omitted from their texts words, phrases, and entire verses — based on their scholarship, without regard for the proper Canon of Sacred Scripture.

Heresy is very common among the laity today. Many Catholics believe ideas which are material heresy, and no one corrects or rebukes them. Many persons who teach Catholicism — in RCIA, in parish religious education classes, online in blogs and videos, and in Catholic discussion groups — present grave errors on faith, morals, and salvation as if these ideas were Church doctrine. Much harm is being done to many souls, and the only way to correct this problem is to identify which ideas are heresy or a lesser error, and which are doctrine or at least sound theology.

Unfortunately, most Catholic theologians teaching at colleges and universities have fallen into heresy and other substantial errors on doctrine. And the same is true of those members of the laity who teach and promote their own understanding of Catholicism online. Many blogs and discussion groups present grave error on faith and morals, as if it were doctrine.

I’ve been criticized for having only a bachelor’s degree in theology. But I’ve written more theology than most university theologians with Ph.D.s, and I’ve translated the entire Bible from Latin into English. I argue that my work is faithful to Church teaching. You are free to disagree. On the other hand, it seems clear that many theologians with graduate degrees have gone far astray from the faith.

When I argue Catholicism online, in Catholic discussion groups, some persons complain about my lack of a graduate degree. They say that people should not listen to my theological arguments. But these complainers do not themselves have a graduate degree in theology. And they insist that people should listen to their arguments. Essentially, the only reason they complain about my credentials is that they do not like my arguments and conclusions. For if another person comes along, proposing ideas they favor, him they accept without any credentials. And if I base my opinions and arguments on the works of theologians with Ph.D.s, they still do not accept the argument or its conclusions.

The Church today is besieged by false teachers and many heresies, online and in print and in classrooms. What can be done about this problem? Many souls are being led astray. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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6 Responses to Who is qualified to write theology?

  1. Paul says:

    I’ve seen people warn others off your writings, and I’ve been warned myself, but I disagree with their assessments. I find that your arguments are clear and I like how you think. Perhaps your influence has mellowed me somewhat (not too much!) and prevented me from sliding into a more radical traditional perspective. Furthermore, your references to Scripture and their application to modern attitudes are always enlightening.

    I’m not quite as convinced by your speculative eschatology, but I don’t know any better myself. It is intriguing to me, but it doesn’t change how I live my life at all. I’m not big on apparitions (for whatever reason), but, as I say, I find your relevant speculations intriguing and am not driven away by them. If anyone criticizes you for them, I stress that they are informed speculations – you do not claim to be ordained by God to prophesy the End Times schedule! I respect that you are willing to put a date on things, and I won’t ignore you if that date comes and goes. If you provide a new date, then I expect you will justify it – once again, I see no problem with this.

    So I will continue to read your blog and your kindle books because, regardless of your qualifications, I respect your opinion. Of course, I do not favor your opinion over the Magisterium, but neither would you have me do so.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Thanks. Well said.

    • Jeff says:

      I agree Paul, especially with your acknowledgment of application-based use of Scripture for modern times. Many of the grave sins of today, especially sexual ones, are nothing new: same sin, just a different mask to socially justify it. Instead of using the web to anonymously criticize the education credentials of someone who puts their neck out there (so to speak) to apply magesterial teaching to the sins of today, critics should self examine and see what in the reading applies to them. Or perhaps they already know, hence the criticism to begin with….

  2. Joe says:

    I really enjoy your writings Ron. It’s very compassionate and you’re great at explaining catholicism. Not entirely sure about the warning and all that stuff, I think people have been expecting stuff like that since the dawn of man.

    But for sure, you certainly have the charisms of teaching, knowledge and wisdom. And you’re using them to great effect with this blog. God bless you.

  3. Paul says:

    I’ll just add that I think it is easy to be skeptical of apparitions and the like. One does not take on any burden by being skeptical. And while a healthy dose of skepticism is good, defaulting to skepticism can become a lazy and safe way out of having to commit to anything. There’s risk (not to mention difficulty) in attempting the kind of harmonization that Ron engages in, and I’m glad someone is attempting it.

  4. Gina Parker says:

    I have no criticism at all and am very glad I discovered your website several years ago after searching on line for information about the future. After having visited Medjugorje in 1989 I had a profound experience that altered my way of believing in the spiritual realm of Catholicism. Unfortunately, I fell away from the Church for many, many years and lived a very sinful life. I have since repented and continue to make reparations for my past in service to others while practicing my faith the best way I know how.
    A friend and I witnessed more than one supernatural events while in Medjugorje and it strengthened her faith and she has lived an exemplary life since that experience.
    I have learned so much more about the Catholic church and teachings since reading your writings and am grateful to discover that there were still areas I needed to resolve. Secular society is so dominating that I had begun to accept many immoral behaviors as “okay”. I was sinning and committing heresy and did not know I was doing it!
    I credit your writings with helping to me a better Catholic and explaining to others our faith based on scriptures because of your interpretations and explanations.
    God bless you for your service in helping us better find our spiritual footing.

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