John Allen has posted this at the end of this week’s column (December 18). Bravo!
“I don’t usually respond in public to criticism of my work, in part because writing about somebody else writing about me seems like the dictionary definition of “self-involved.” Recently, however, some important voices in Catholic affairs have lodged an objection, in terms serious enough that I owe them and my readers a reply.
“A bit of background is in order.
“On Dec. 4, I posted an item on the “NCR Today” blog about an exchange between Terrence Tilley, past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the new Avery Dulles professor of theology at Fordham, and Capuchin Fr. Thomas Weinandy, executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Though I don’t have space to get into the substantive issues, Weinandy objected to an address Tilley gave last June about impasses in theology, which among other things touched upon the doctrine of the Incarnation.
“To be sure, the exchange itself is imminently newsworthy. These two figures help shape Catholic conversation in America, and their disagreements illustrate some of today’s defining tensions in Catholic theology.
“Yet in my report, I pushed too hard on Weinandy’s role as the doctrinal advisor to the U.S. bishops. (The lead compared Weinandy to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the Vatican’s doctrinal czar.) This was despite the fact that Weinandy’s essay indicated that he was not writing in an official capacity, and despite the fact that sources told me on background that the U.S. bishops have no plans to get involved. As a result, some readers actually suspected the whole point of my piece was to get Tilley into trouble.
“In response, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, the veteran editor and columnist for Commonweal who co-directs Fordham’s Center for Religion and Culture, called what I had written “weasel journalism.” The three top officers of the CTSA released a letter saying that I had engaged in “speculation, punditry, maybe even gossip — but not journalism.”
“I respect those folks, and take their criticism seriously. I probably did “sex up” the story in a misguided effort to attract eyeballs, and for that, I owe everyone involved — Tilley, Weinandy, the CTSA and the USCCB — an apology.
“Here’s the point I was trying to get across: Scholarly disputes can be early warning signs of new storm fronts gathering in the church. When the top doctrinal advisor to the U.S. bishops invokes phrases such as “doctrinal ambiguities and errors” with respect to a well-known American theologian, it would be a children’s fantasy to believe that the theologian, and the views he or she represents, face no risk at all. That’s not speculation or gossip, it’s the voice of experience. I should have expressed that point more responsibly, but the piece would have been incomplete without it.
Regular readers know I sometimes pontificate about not stoking partisan divides in the church. I’ll try to take my own advice … without, of course, failing to tell the whole story.”