New York Times writer Ross Douthat has defended Catholic theological and moral teachings, in a series of articles explaining how the Church is not “fundamentalist” but simply “orthodox.”
“What I describe as 'Christian orthodoxy' is not identical to everything that calls itself conservative Christianity in the United States, and it’s certainly not identical to Christian fundamentalism,” wrote Douthat, a Catholic convert known for his conservative social and political outlook, in an April 16-19 online exchange with Slate magazine author William Saletan.
In his new book “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” (Free Press, $26.00) Douthat advocates a return to authentic Christian traditions and doctrines. He argues that distorted forms of religion, focused on self-gratification and worldly aims, threaten the country's common good.
In his exchange with Saletan, Douthat defended Catholic teachings on subjects like sexuality and marriage, while urging secularists and skeptics to rethink their identification of traditional Christianity with “fundamentalism.”
The Catholic columnist pointed out that Biblical “fundamentalism” is actually a modern phenomenon, originating in the 19th and 20th centuries. By contrast, Christian orthodoxy “is an ancient thing, dating back to the early centuries A.D., when Christian doctrine was first codified.”
While Christian orthodoxy accepts Scripture as inspired by God, it does not employ it for inappropriate purposes – such as predicting the end of the world, ruling out scientific discoveries, or interpreting natural disasters as forms of divine retribution.
After distinguishing authentic Christian faith from “fundamentalism,” Douthat went on to defend Catholics teachings on subjects like contraception and homosexuality – which were also prohibited by most other Christian groups until the 20th century.
The New York Times columnist observed that the Church's view of sexuality does not come from a select few verses of the Bible, but “is rooted in the entirety of the biblical narrative, from the creation story in Genesis down through Jesus’ words in the New Testament.”
While this vision of human life does not reduce sexuality to biology, it does mark out the purposes of sex within God's plan for creation – including “the reunification of the two equal-but-different halves of humanity … and the begetting of children within a context that’s intended be a kind of microcosm of humanity as a whole.”
“This narrative of one-flesh complementarity,” Douthat told Saletan, “explains why Christians have traditionally rejected both the sexual authoritarianism inherent in polygamy and the sexual individualism that’s become such a powerful force in our society today – and why they’ve refused to bless homosexual relationships as well.”
Douthat also urged Saletan, and others who dismiss the Church's teachings on sexuality, to take an honest look at the consequences of contraception.
“The world that contraception has made is a world that de-emphasizes the moral weight of the sexual act, while insisting on the centrality of a perpetually-fulfilled libido to human contentment,” he observed.
Contraception, he said, has created a world “characterized by steadily declining marriage rates, steadily rising numbers of children born out of wedlock, birthrates that have fallen well below replacement levels across the developed West … and millions upon millions upon millions of abortions.”
“In general, the sexual culture that contraception has created is a culture that treats the stuff of human life and even life itself as a commodity to be bought, sold, mass produced, experimented upon and kept on ice when necessary.”
In his final installment, Douthat thanked the religiously-skeptical Saletan for his respectful tone. But he critiqued the Slate author's liberal viewpoint, for its unconscious reliance on principles drawn from the faith it rejects.
“When I look at your secular liberalism, I see a system of thought that looks rather like a Christian heresy, and not necessarily a particularly coherent one at that,” Douthat remarked.
He suggested that modern liberalism had drawn its most coherent ideas, such as its narrative of historical progress and its concept of universal human rights, from a “Christian intellectual inheritance.” But liberalism cast off other aspects of the Christian vision that would have kept these goals in balance and perspective.
Today, Douthat said, secular liberalism goes forth with “moral fervor,” while denying “the revelation that once justified that fervor in the first place.”
“It insists that it is a purely secular and scientific enterprise even as it grounds its politics in metaphysical claims,” he pointed out, noting that a reader “will not find the principle of absolute human equality in evolutionary theory, or universal human rights anywhere in physics.”
Douthat posed a question to secular critics who believe “that Christian teachings on homosexuality do violence to gay people’s equal dignity.”
“If the world is just matter in motion, whence comes this dignity? What justifies and sustains it? Why should I grant it such intense, almost supernatural respect?”
In his first reply to Saletan, Douthat described “Bad Religion” as a book inviting nonbelievers “to put an ear to the church door, you might say, even if they don’t actually step inside.”
At the series' close, the Catholic columnist reaffirmed his desire to help skeptics take a sympathetic look at Christian orthodoxy.
“I’d invite you to glance back over your shoulder at the worldview that so many liberals have left behind,” he told Saletan, “and to consider the possibility that … it might still provide a better home for humankind than whatever destination our civilization is headed for.”