Last week, Catholics were startled by an Oct. 26 letter to the editor from liberal Catholic theologians who attacked the only openly orthodox Catholic voice at the New York Times—Ross Douthat.

The focus of their ire was Douthat's Oct. 18 column, “The Plot to Change Catholicism,” which expressed alarm about the possibility that Pope Francis might approve pastoral changes that would effectively alter Church teaching on marriage.  

"Aside from the fact that Mr. Douthat has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject," the theologians stated in the letter posted on Daily Theology site, "accusing other members of the Catholic Church of heresy, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, is serious business that can have serious consequences for those so accused."

The theologians' letter lit up the blogosphere, but it left Douthat unmoved. Over the weekend, he returned to the fray.

"Conservative Catholics don’t want to concede that disruptive change is even possible. Liberal Catholics don’t want to admit that the pope might be leading the church into a crisis," he said in an Oct. 31 column, which dismissed his critics' claim that a lay Catholic shouldn't poke his nose in the high-level debate that roiled the synod.

If anything, Douthat seemed prepared to continue the battle for as long as necessary—even if it explodes into a "bitter civil war" within the Church.

While the signers have demonized the messenger, Douthat brought the discussion back to the substance of the debate.

First, because if the church admits the remarried to communion without an annulment — while also instituting an expedited, no-fault process forgetting an annulment, as the pope is poised to do — the ancient Catholic teaching that marriage is “indissoluble” would become an empty signifier.

Second, because changing the church’s teaching on marriage in this way would unweave the larger Catholic view of sexuality, sin and the sacraments — severing confession’s relationship to communion, and giving cohabitation, same-sex unions and polygamy entirely reasonable claims to be accepted by the church.

If he is right and the proposed changes mark a break with the continuity of tradition, why don't these theologians just say so? His answer: liberal theologians want to downplay the hurdles,  in the hopes that they can draw additional support from the broader ranks of Catholic leaders and academics.

Douthat is fairly certain that those who share his sense of alarm will not be mollified. If he is wrong, then "it will take hard grinding, not just soft words and academic rank-pulling. It will require a bitter civil war."

This kind of talk has prompted some Catholic writers, like Jesuit Father James Martin, to blame Douthat's heated comments, in the Times and on Twitter, for the present furor. But others, like the Cardinal Newman Society, have turned the spotlight onto his detractors and their academic institutions.

"It is a rich irony that most theologians at Catholic colleges refuse to tell students and parents whether they have obtained the mandatum — a credential required by Canon 812 of the Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law," stated the group in an Oct. 30 post, which also noted that canon law did not bar laymen like Douthat from opining on topics that were open to debate.

The group used the opportunity to highlight the troubling legacy of two signers, raising questions about their credibility as Catholic theologians:

Peter Phan of Georgetown University ... has been publicly chastised by the U.S. bishops’ doctrinal committee for “pervading ambiguities and equivocations that could easily confuse or mislead the faithful.

Jesuit Father James Keenan of Boston College, who in 2003 testified against a Massachusetts amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. He reportedly argued that “as a priest and as a moral theologian, I cannot see how anyone could use the Roman Catholic tradition to support [the amendment].” He lamented that the bill would deny “gays and lesbians” the “full range of human and civil rights.”

Meanwhile, the controversy stirred up painful memories for the author, Dorothy Cummings McLean, who spent two years as a graduate theology student at Boston College 

"The brain-blowing combination of asserting that what is not Catholic teaching is somehow Catholic teaching and then shrieking like a frightened schoolgirl when the word 'heresy' is uttered is what the American Catholic/Jesuit theological academy is all about," asserted McLean,  in an Oct. 31 commentary in Catholic World Report.

McLean's recollections help to explain the powerful  response to the anti-Douthat ambush. While orthodox academics have echoed her concerns about the theology departments at Catholic universities, Catholic parents are frustrated with the failure of many Catholic colleges to transmit the countercultural truths of the faith to their students. 

After Pope Francis' election, I asked a retired Jesuit academic to suggest how the pope might jump start the New Evangelization. My Jesuit friend quickly replied that the pope could go a long way toward achieving that goal by simply reforming the schools run by his own religious order.