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Thoughts on Ross Douthat’s “Bad Religion,” by Franklymydears

TM NOTE: This is a guest post from a retired Episcopalian minister, whom I know through his ministry and because he took my husband and me through our marriage classes, then performed our ceremony. It was through Franklymydears that I heard speak and was introduced to the amazing Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.


On the recommendation of a friend my wife gifted me at Christmas with Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion. Having received as a gift a book I would not likely have chosen for myself, I decided I would read it. I don’t believe I had read any reviews and was mostly familiar with the author from his NYTimes columns, mostly political and all pretty conservative. Now that I’ve read it I’d say Bad Religion, not great book.

To begin with an ad hominem observation, Mr. Douthat has recently celebrated his 33rd birthday, and thus does not know what he’s talking about. I mean that in the most literal sense. He wasn’t around when much of the activity of which he writes took place. And his knowledge of much recent American religious life is anecdotal more than it is socio-scientific (my term). I’m bothered a bit that he takes anecdotal knowledge — stories — about liturgical change, adaptation, experimentation, excess in the Roman tradition and argues that such anecdotal occurrences became a norm. That was never true, to the best of my recollection, and I was an observer and for time an participant in post-Vatican II liturgical renewal.

In his use of sources, Douthat relies mostly on secondary works, quoting Smith quoting Jones, even when Jones is fairly easily accessible. This may be common practice but perhaps I seldom notice it in other authors and it jumps out frequently in this book. Here’s an example, from page 96 of the text and note 20 on page 300.

The Jesuits, for instance, moved their training centers from rural and suburban facilities (many of them designed for the larger seminary classes of an earlier era) to urban settings — in one case, spread across apartment buildings — in which Jesuits-to-be could experience Harvey Cox’s secular city more directly. (Experimentation with different lifestyles is indispensable for our Jesuit studies, if we are to prepare… for a contemporary ministry,” wrote the editor of Jesuit Theological Review.)

Note 20: Malachi Martin, The Jesuits: The Society of Jesus and the Betrayal of the Roman Catholic Church (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 405.

My comments on the above are from real life.

First, the New England Jesuits moved from bucolic surroundings on 300 acres in Weston, MA to Cambridge just a few years after I completed my theology at Weston in 1967. Numbers had not yet begun to tumble but exposure to a different world than that of potato field and apple orchard, swimming pool and roughhewn 9 hole golf course was not due to Harvey Cox — though he did teach at Harvard — but to the realization that Jesuits were destined to work in the city and not down on the farm, and for exposure to the wealth of theological knowledge to be found at Harvard, the Episcopal Divinity School and other schools of theology, a.k.a. seminaries.

Second, the men in studies, whether in Weston or Cambridge or elsewhere, were not ‘Jesuits-to-be’ but members of the Society of Jesus on the way to ordination.

Third, there is not and never was a Jesuit Theological Review. While it is possible the quote is accurate, it would have come from some actual periodical, not the one to which it is attributed. Further, no author is mentioned by name.

Finally, the source [Martin’s diatribe against the Jesuits] is hardly a trustworthy source. Martin was an Irish Jesuit priest and scripture scholar when I met him at L’Universite´ St. Joseph in Beirut in the summer of 1962. For about a month we celebrated an early Mass and then breakfasted together, before going off to our day’s work. While not in Beirut that summer, Martin was in Rome, alienating the affections of the wife of Robert Blair Kaiser, a former Jesuit then covering the events leading to the Vatican Council for Time. Martin’s unusual understanding of his Jesuit vocation later got him expelled from the Society. I doubt Douthat is aware of much of the above but his naiveté shows him to be a dim light by whom to be led. By e-mailing or phoning a Jesuit acquaintance or Googling Malachi Martin would probably have led him to seek out more reliable authorities on the Jesuits in this country in the post-Vatican II era.

Apart from such insufficiencies, I think Douthat is primarily concerned with the plight of traditional Roman Catholicism as he understands it. Born in 1979 and even then not a cradle Catholic, I don’t think he’s ever really experienced it except as a rarity in the world in which he has grown to his still young manhood. I further suspect that his religious and political conservatism — or is it a yearning for the past — are intertwined. That’s a subject into which I have no urge to delve.

I wonder — it’s a question for which I don’t have an adequate answer — how many people in this country today outside the Roman Catholic hierarchy are concerned with traditional notions of orthodoxy and heresy. I can only say, anecdotally, that I seldom encounter any. I suspect their numbers are not great and if I’m right I’m delighted. I’d offer a simplistic ‘definition’ of heresy as thinking outside the box of orthodoxy, and the box functions as a control mechanism. Remain inside or you’re in deep trouble.

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