What Douthat Misses
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, has gotten a lot of attention. Peter Steinfels’s review was predictably astute. Michael Sean Winters’s takedown in the New Republic was inaccurate and unfortunate, and Douthat’s rebuttal measured and persuasive. For those who might be interested in yet another view of Douthat’s dire assessment of the contemporary religious landscape, I offer my own from the Washington Monthly. As you will see, I share Peter’s skepticism about Douthat’s almost entirely negative depiction of what he calls the “accommodation” made by Mainline Protestant Churches, and much of the American Catholic Church, with the larger secular culture in the 1960s and ’70s. It also astonishes me that Douthat makes no reference to Peter’s book, A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America, which treats at length many of the moral, doctrinal, and ecclesial developments Douthat is rightly apprehensive about.
In any event, here’s how I tackle what is perhaps Douthat’s most abiding worry.
Regarding sexual morality, many will find Douthat’s charges that the churches have largely abandoned the field too simplistic. “The traditional Christian view of sexuality is more essential to the faith as a whole than many modern believers want to acknowledge,” he writes. “It seems easy enough to snip a single thread out of the pattern, but often the whole thing swiftly unravels once you do.” This is not an unreasonable intuition; it certainly informs the Catholic Church’s refusal to budge on such issues as premarital sex, contraception, divorce, and homosexuality. But is it true? Does the whole teaching hang together in the way Douthat suggests, and is it as fragile as he thinks? Let’s not forget that a number of threads have already been snipped out of those teachings. It was once taught that marriage was the “remedy for concupiscence.” And that the sole purpose of sex was procreation. And that a wife must be submissive to her husband’s sexual demands. And marriage itself was long considered inferior to the celibate priesthood as a spiritual vocation.
The “orthodox” teaching today is quite different, with marriage and the priesthood granted equal spiritual dignity, procreation no longer viewed as the sole purpose of sex, and wives freed from the sexual beck and call of their husbands. Snip, snip, snip. What does Douthat make of these significant changes in how Catholics think about sex and marriage? Many Catholics view them as a much-needed development—and welcome further changes, especially as the experience and theological reflection of women are taken into account. Conspicuously missing from Douthat’s discussion of sexual morality is any serious attention to the changing place and roles of women in society and religious institutions over the past fifty years. It is a telling lacuna.
Read the rest here.