What Douthat Misses
Paul Baumann May 21, 2012 - 8:13am
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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About the Author
Paul Baumann is the editor of Commonweal.