New York Times religion writer Peter Steinfels devoted his Saturday column to media use of the word “orthodox” as a religious descriptor. The article, titled “The Audacity of Claiming the Last Word on This Word,” is a thoughtful and interesting media critique against the media being the arbiter of what makes an orthodox believer.
It’s easy when it comes to uppercase Orthodoxy. No one disputes the use of the word for Orthodox Jews or Eastern Orthodox Christians. But what about lowercase orthodoxy?:
In many religious groups, the word, from the Greek for “correct doctrine” or “right belief,” designates not one side in theological controversies but precisely what is at issue: What constitutes correct or true teaching within that particular tradition?
In the rough-and-tumble of these controversies, it is not unusual for some believers to put themselves forward as orthodox Catholics or orthodox Presbyterians, just as it is not unusual for some partisans in political battles to put themselves forward as true or patriotic Americans.
Such audacity can be entirely sincere, although it can also be highly manipulative. Not every difference over public policy is a matter of patriotism, and not every difference over liturgical practice or pastoral priorities is a matter of orthodoxy. Raising the stakes rhetorically does not necessarily help resolve these questions practically.
But whether the matter under debate is central or peripheral, making a claim to the label obviously does not settle the question of what is true doctrine, or true patriotism. And the news media should be as careful not to echo the partisan language of adversaries in the religious case as in the political arena.
It’s an excellent point and reminds me of Bill Keller’s memo to staff about playing fair when describing religious views.
But it’s possible to go overboard with this. At least in my church body, lowercase orthodoxy is a term that isn’t really disagreed upon. Confessional Lutherans use the word favorably to describe themselves while more evangelical Lutherans use it as a negative term to convey what they consider too much adherence to doctrine.
The term shouldn’t be used to describe who is morally or theologically superior, of course. But can it be used to distinguish between those who adhere to a given church body’s creeds or confessional statements vis-a-vis those who wish to reform or modernize church teachings? Sure it can. It’s good to take it on a case-by-case basis, but there is no need to throw the term out just because it must be handled with care.
Steinfels says that reporters can avoid controversy by allowing believers to describe themselves, which is true. He also has this caution:
When it comes to nomenclature, writing about religion is of course a minefield. Terms like “conservative” and “liberal,” “traditionalist” and “progressive” are almost unavoidable shorthand, though they suffer from their origins in political categories and almost inevitably oversimplify and dichotomize religious realities that are multifaceted.
Amy Sullivan’s recent advocacy piece for Time had some interesting advice for Catholic Democrats. Namely, know your catechism. But she describes Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput’s:
. . . extreme views about denying communion to politicians . . .