On Not Saying What You Mean

I’ve had a few snarky things to say on Twitter about the Douthat Kerfuffle, and I’d like to say more, but I’m struggling with the evasiveness of some of the key participants. Consider the letter of protest that some … well, wait: Is “protest” the right word? Look at the letter and see if you can tell what it’s asking for. Some of the signatories have denied that they’re asking the Times to discipline or silence Douthat, but if they’re not asking for that what are they asking for? “We just want to inform you that this is not what we expect of the Times but we’re not asking you to do anything about that”? It’s impossible to tell, when you give the letter some scrutiny, what its actual purpose is.

Cloudy evasineness seems to be characteristic of the Douthat critics. For instance, Katie Grimes says, “I signed the letter because I believe he has uttered several factual errors” — but she doesn’t say what any of those errors are. (Nor does the letter.) Similarly, Brian Flanagan claims that Douthat misuses the term “doctrine,” but gives no examples, so it’s impossible to tell which statements by Douthat he believes to be erroneous, or how they might be corrected.

Most troubling of all, in the screed that I called attention to yesterday, Fr. James Martin says that “Mr. Douthat can rightly be held accountable” for inciting hatred, without ever distinguishing between the points Douthat makes that he deems illegitimate and those he thinks are within bounds. (Surely he thinks that some of Douthat’s criticisms are acceptable.) But the questions I have here are: “held accountable” by whom? In what way? Martin doesn’t say simply that Douthat should be criticized; being “held accountable” is clearly more substantial — but because of the lack of specificity, also a little ominous. What would count as being held accountable in this context? Having his salary cut? Being forbidden to write for the Times about theology? Assigned penance by his confessor? What?

It’s hard for me not to see this incessant vagueness as endemic to post-Vatican II liberal theology, a tradition in which so many priests and theologians can’t simply reject magisterial teaching but don’t really want to endorse it either, and so take refuge in a cloudy verbal world which they claim to be working within the “spirit” if not the actual “letter” of Church teaching. But maybe the current vagueness has other causes that I’m not aware of. In any case, I think Douthat’s critics owe it to him and to their readers to make an effort to say what they mean.