Two commentators on Pope Francis, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and Villanova University theology professor Massimo Faggioli, will debate the Pope’s impact on the U.S. and the Church.
The debate, titled “Francis@Five: Assessing the Legacy of Pope Francis Five Years After His Election,” will be held in New York City Jan. 31 at 6 p.m. at the 12th Floor Lounge of Fordham University’s Lincoln Center Campus.
The Center on Religion and Culture is co-sponsoring the event with the Religion News Foundation and Religion News Service. The Canada-based Salt + Light Television will be the event’s media partner, the Religion News Foundation said Jan. 8.
The two debate participants “offer two important and distinct perspectives on Pope Francis and his impact on the church universal, and especially the Pope’s impact on the U.S.,” said Tom Gallagher, president and CEO of the Religion News Foundation and publisher of RNS, the foundation’s subsidiary.
David Gibson, Director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University and a past national reporter for RNS, will moderate the event.
In a Sept. 20 New York Times column, Douthat had advocated more “serious argument” and “respectful debate” amongst academics, theologians, and bishops, instead of “conflicting inquisitions, liberal and conservative".
“There is no way forward save through controversy. Postpone the inquisitions; schedule arguments instead,” he wrote.
Douthat, who is Catholic, had noted the firings or speech cancellations affecting prominent Catholics. He mentioned Prof. Joseph Seifert, a Catholic philosopher dismissed from the University of Granada in Spain after raising questions about the Pope’s 2016 exhortation Amoris laetitia. Douthat also cited Catholic University of America’s cancellation of Father James Martin, S.J.’s appearance following controversy over his book on LGBT outreach.
In his Sept. 20 column, the New York Times columnist cited an October 2015 advocacy campaign of over 50 academics, organized by Faggioli, objecting to Douthat’s commentary on the Synod on the Family and questioning his ability to comment on theological affairs.
“I myself am only a train ride away from Professor Faggioli’s Villanova and would happily allow him to educate me on my theological deficiencies on a platform of his choosing,” Douthat said.
Faggioli said he welcomed the debate.
“The opportunities to meet in person and discuss with fellow Catholics with different perspectives have become rare these days and I am grateful to all those--Ross Douthat first of all--who made this possible,” Faggioli told CNA Jan. 9.
“I believe that the most important differences about our views of Pope Francis is in term of perspective and point of view about the meaning of this pontificate,” he said. “I try to look at Pope Francis in the framework of a global Catholicism and not just from the perspective of the United States. An exclusively American perspective makes it almost automatic for the American debate on Francis to label him as a conservative or as a liberal.”
Faggoli sees himself as taking “a historical perspective” on this papacy, not seeing the Francis papacy as just “a reversal or confirmation of the previous pontificate.”
“The narrative on Francis as the cause of instability and uncertainty in the Catholic Church today is typical of an American perspective with insufficient attention to the dynamism of Church history,” he said.
CNA contacted Douthat for comment but did not receive a response by deadline.
Douthat’s 2015 academic critics, including Faggioli, were themselves the subject of critique from Bishop Robert Barron.
“If a doctorate in theology were a bottom-line prerequisite, we would declare the following people unqualified to express an opinion on matters religious: Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, C.S. Lewis, William F. Buckley, W.H. Auden, or to bring things more up to date, Fr. James Martin, George Weigel, and E.J. Dionne,” Bishop Barron said in October 2015 on his website Word on Fire Ministries.
“In point of fact, it is often the case that those outside of the official academy often have the freshest and most insightful perspectives, precisely because they aren’t sequestered in the echo-chamber of politically correct faculty lounge discourse,” he said.