Friday, March 13, 2009

American Catholic Centrists and the Closed Center: The Case of Ross Douthat

The American Catholic centrist blogs are hailing the appointment of Ross Douthat as Bill Kristol's replacement as the New York Times's conservative voice. He's young, he's Catholic, he's conservative but (they say) has a head on his shoulders. And he's one of us. Grew up in New Haven, went to Harvard, lives in D.C. (Straight, married, white, middle-class . . . .)

He has spent his life among those who make the news. And who then tell the rest of us what the news he makes means.

Why am I not surprised that someone with this pedigree appeals to the knowledge class at the center of American Catholicism? The pedigree is impeccable. It's, after all, the pedigree of just about everyone else in that central circle of American Catholicism that makes and interprets the news for the rest of us . . . while telling us that it speaks for a catholic church, a universal one that respects the voices of all and embraces all in a big, warm welcome.

It's the pedigree of those who know what's going on out in the heartland without ever setting foot in said heartland. Douthat has penned warm columns about how, beyond the rarefried parameters of Harvard Square, people out there in the grand middle still live mom 'n pop apple pie lives of the 1950s that make America proud.

It's so easy, you see, to tout the virtues of the solid church-going right as they're actually lived in places like Tulsa, Dubuque, Macon, Texarkana, and Lubbock, if you don't actually live there--and have to live with the Tulsans and Lubbockers and so on. It's easy to admire the virtues of hardcore believers while you knock back the Scotch you can buy without difficulty in D.C., New Haven, or Boston--Scotch that might not be so readily available in the many bastions of the heartland that forbid the sale and frown on the consumption of demon rum.

And Douthat's pedigree is also, after all, the pedigree of those who have been telling us for ever so long to admire those solid heartland virtues: of people like George W. Bush, also born in New Haven and a Yale graduate, whose ties to the Texas ranching land he so loves to love are more in the order of fable than of reality. So it's perhaps no accident that the New Haven-born, Harvard-educated, new Catholic writer for the New York Times, Mr. Douthat, wrote last August,

At the moment, I'm probably rooting harder for Sarah Palin to succeed than I have for any politician in recent memory. Just something to keep in mind while you're reading my commentary (here; H/T Alternet here)

Which means, I suppose, that if American Catholic centrists are lauding Douthat's appointment, even when they depict themselves as left of center, these entrists don't see anything conspicuously alarming about having Sarah Palin second in command in our nation's government. And they see few contradictions between the political, economic, social, and religious worldview Palin so passionately defends, and "the" Catholic worldview.

Which means the center is not nearly so leftward as it pretends to believe it is . . . and that the Ross Douthats of the world will always find a place there more readily than, say, Voice of the Faithful or Helen Prejean or Roy Bourgeois or just about any brother and sister Catholic who happens to be gay or lesbian.

Which means, I have to conclude, something is wrong with the claim of that centrist group to speak for the rest of us. Those Catholic centrists touting Douthat's appointment are gleeful that he will provide a Catholic voice to the Times and its editorial page.

A Catholic voice, perhaps. A Catholic voice very much like that of other American Catholic centrists, who tend to slip into we-they discourse very readily, assuming that their Catholic voice represents all Catholic voices.

It doesn't. And it can't, when it is divorced from--and so closed to--the huge variety of voices outside the incestuous geographic and educational network from which the voices of the American Catholic center are drawn.

If Ross Douthat's voice is the best the American Catholic church and its knowledge class can offer the culture at large now, if it is "the" Catholic voice of younger Catholics now taking the reins, something is awry. At a time in which our church needs to hear--to listen respectfully to and benefit from--many disparate voices, the best we seem able to do is to recycle the same old, same old voice of the center, and tag it the voice telling the world what we all believe.