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What Douthat Misses

New York Times columnist Ross Douthats new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, has gotten a lot of attention. Peter Steinfelss review was predictably astute. Michael Sean Winterss takedown in the New Republic was inaccurate and unfortunate, and Douthats rebuttal measured and persuasive. For those who might be interested in yet another view of Douthats dire assessment of the contemporary religious landscape, I offer my own from the Washington Monthly. As you will see, I share Peters skepticism about Douthats 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 Peters 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, heres how I tackle what is perhaps Douthats most abiding worry.

Regarding sexual morality, many will find Douthats 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 Churchs 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? Lets 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 husbands 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 developmentand welcome further changes, especially as the experience and theological reflection of women are taken into account. Conspicuously missing from Douthats 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.

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The late Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003), is my favorite scholar. He is most widely known as a cultural historian and theorist. But he was also a religious writer.In her editor's column recently, Tina Brown of NEWSWEEK reprinted the "eye-catching" (her words) cover of NEWSWEEK dated November 13, 1967. The cover is a nude photo of Jane Fonda's back (in the movie "Barbarella"). In the cover story "Anything Goes: The Permissive Society" (pages 74-78), Ong is quoted several times, as is Martin E. Marty. I wonder if Ross Douthat read NEWSWEEK's cover story.I should say that Ong had two books published in 1967: (1) IN THE HUMAN GRAIN: FURTHER EXPLORATIONS OF CONTEMPORARY CULTURE (Macmillan) and (2) THE PRESENCE OF THE WORD: SOME PROLEGOMENA FOR CULTURAL AND RELIGIOUS HISTORY (Yale University Press), the expanded version of Ong's 1964 Terry Lectures at Yale University. As we will see, this latter book by Ong is mentioned in the NEWSWEEK cover story.On page 74 of the NEWSWEEK cover story, Ong is quoted as follows:"'We're going to have to live with a degree of freedom much greater than anything we've known in the past,' says Walter J. Ong, the brilliant Jesuit theologian and author of 'The Presence of the Word.' 'Man cannot just say anything goes and hope to get by. We're going to have to employ our minds and morals in determining that some things go and other things don't. We're going to have to constantly reassess the situation because the situation will always be changing.'" On page 78, in the last column on the last page of the cover story, Ong is quoted as follows:"Father Ong is guardedly optimistic. 'The new permissiveness,' he says, lends us access at last to areas that were so heavily guarded and repressed that they interfered with our understanding of one another. This [new permissiveness] can be a very humanizing thing."A paragraph below that quote, Ong is again quoted as follows:"'Individuals are going to have to stiffen their own moral principles,' says Father Ong. 'They're going to live under a great deal of pressure. They won't be able to reverse this permissive trend but they can point out rational limits. They are going to have to speak up in a pluralistic society.'"In the last paragraph, then, Martin Marty is quoted at length.

Hello Paul,Thank you for linking to your review.One point:"Lets not forget that a number of threads have already been snipped out of those teachings."With respect, I do wonder if you don't fall victim to a similar problem of overstating matters. Have certain threads actually been cut, or simply rearranged?If we're speaking of just the Catholic Church, there's been some shift in emphasis on the teaching on marriage, at least as reflected in the Catechism and other (post-conciliar) papal and curial documents. To take up the question of the ends of marriage, the moral manuals I have access to, along with the old Catholic Encyclopedia, emphasize that marriage does have two ends: procreation and mutual support. (There may be old manuals which skip over the latter; I can't rule that out.) But if the emphasis is shifted to give equal weight to both, both are still there, albeit expressed in new (largely non-Thomistic) language. Likewise, the Catechism does not use the term "concupiscence," but it's clearly alluding to it at more than one point. The traditionalist-minded might say it isn't explicit enough. But it's difficult to say it's not there.Likewise, while it may be true that some manualists excessively emphasized submissiveness of wives, confessional practice in the Tridentine period varied on this point. To the extent, however, that some manualists and confessors took this approach does not seem to overturn fundamental sexual morality of the Church, or (at least) in the broad senses that Douthat seems to have in mind. I have yet to make it through all of his book, but I suspect that the principle Douthat has in mind above all is the intrinsic connection between marriage and procreation, and how this was weakened (or severed) beginning with the 1930 Lambeth Conference's approval of contraception.So, again, there's certainly been a shift in teaching of the Church on sexual matters since the Council, but it seems to me easier to make the case that it has been one of emphasis and tone, not of new principles. Sex is still seen as properly confined only within marriage, and ordered in part to procreation.