Thursday, November 5, 2015

“Credential worship”

Kenneth Woodward, longtime religion editor for Newsweek, considers whether Ross Douthat is qualified to write about Catholicism, his right to do so having been questioned by a growing list of Catholic academicians who have attached their names to an open letter to The New York Times.
Part one reads: “Aside from the fact that Mr. Douthat has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject…” What exactly is the subject he is not qualified to write about? He has has already published a very substantive journalistic book on Catholicism that has been generally well received by Catholics of various stripes. If the subject is Catholic sacramental marriage, he is a husband and a father, an experiential credential that some of his academic critics, being priests, do not. If nothing else, it gives him a personal stake in the outcome of the church’s deliberations.

It is hard not to conclude from the way this sentence begins that what the offended scholars mean by “professional qualifications” is a doctorate in theology or in some degree kindred to “the sacred sciences.” But neither did G.K. Chesterton, or C.S. Lewis, or Thomas Merton, I believe. What they did is read widely and write well. A doctorate is the one credential Douthat’s critics own that he does not. This smacks of the academic virus that Frank O’Malley, my old English professor at Notre Dame, identified as “PhDeism”—i.e. credential worship. It is the virus that, in another context, Christopher Lasch lamented as inciting “the tyranny of experts” and is akin to what led Kierkegaard to observe that “a roomful of experts is only a crowd.” ....