News that several organizations cancelled lectures by Fr. James Martin, SJ, has sparked an intense conversation this last week. The lecture cancellations, which you can read about here and here, occurred because of Martin’s new book on LGBT issues in the church, Building a Bridge. The online attacks against the priest which led to the cancellations have come from right wing Catholic groups, which are now being given increased attention as the church grapples with how to respond to them, though at least one U.S. bishop has chastised them.
CAFOD Statements Not Truthful
Fr. Martin explained that he had to “correct the record” about the reasons why CAFOD, the English bishops’ international humanitarian aid agency, cancelled a lecture by the priest scheduled for this October. Martin offered his account of events on his Facebook page.
Chris Bain, CAFOD’s director, told The Tablet that the organization “did not withdraw the invitation for Fr Martin to speak at our refugees and migration event, which was postponed, but our correspondence was not clear.” Martin would be welcome to speak at the rescheduled event next spring. Martin has said this description of events is “not entirely accurate.” He explained:
“‘There was some vague talk of ‘perhaps some time in the future. . .but it was very clear that the 2017 talk was cancelled. And it was clear why: concerns and fears over negative publicity surrounding my LGBT book. . .In the case of the Cafod lecture in London, it was not a response to any campaign but fear that my presence itself would garner negative attention, after the group had recently faced other similar problems.'”
CAFOD has claimed their decision to reconsider inviting Martin was necessary as the organization “had a duty to consider how to proceed in the best interests of Cafod’s work.”
Martin Offers Support for Institutions
In another Facebook post, Fr. Martin offered his support for the institutions and organizations which have cancelled scheduled lectures. He said CAFOD, Theological College, and the Order of the Holy Sepulchre are “fine Catholic institutions” and were “victims of those terrible websites” that have attacked Martin. The priest encouraged Catholics to keep supporting their ministries, and wrote:
“The situations were so terrifically fraught with fear for these organizations: fear of protests, fear of violence, fear of bad publicity, fear of angry donors, fear of lost donations, fear of offending, and on and on. When two of the organizers called me, I could hear the anguish in their voices.”
Responding to Internet Trolls
Both Martin, in a Facebook post, and the editors of America, in an editorial, have commented on how Catholics might respond to the right wing websites which have launched attacks against the priest. The editorial in America said, at one point:
“It is likewise a mistake to ignore or dismiss those whose so-called evangelization takes the form of online attacks, and whose goal seems to be a purge of Catholic voices who do not meet their standards of purity. Those who lead such efforts are claiming a kind of parallel magisterium, substituting their own outrage for the judgement of those who occupy the church’s legitimate teaching office.
“They must be confronted, and church leaders—especially those whose viewpoints may differ from those of the persons under attack—should speak up strongly and clearly against these attacks and attempts at intimidation. The communion of the church needs to be defended—not from the peril of theological discussion but rather from that of being monitored and policed by the loudest and least loving voices among us.”
Gehring on the “Real Scandal”
John Gehring of Faith and Public Life wrote an essay in Commonweal about the real scandal happening when it comes to right wing attacks in the church. He said:
“When a group of zealots who show no sense of Christian decency and consistently target faithful people have more sway over a seminary than the cardinals and bishops who endorsed Martin’s book, it raises serious questions we can’t dismiss.”
Gehring referenced Martin’s popularity with younger Catholics who, rather than clinging to the culture wars, are focused on social justice. Lecture cancellations based on nasty attacks mean “[t]he already-thin thread barely connecting these young Catholics to the institutional church just got thinner.” Gehring added, “Self-inflicted wounds are hard to heal.”
Gehring also commented specifically on the Theological College controversy, which had the odd twist that The Catholic University of America, which oversees the seminary, claimed in a statement that the school for future priests somehow had independent authority. Noting the University would host right wing businessperson Charles Koch for a business school conference this month, Gehring concluded:
“A seminary at the only Vatican-chartered university in the country tells a priest who espouses orthodox views that he can’t speak, but the business school at the same university rolls out the red carpet for a wealthy patron of a political network that fights against a Catholic vision for the common good? It makes you wonder what the real scandal is.”
Paulist Fathers Offer Support
Calling Martin a “friend and neighbor of the Paulist Fathers,” the order said its members “were shocked and disappointed” by Theological College’s decision. The statement continued:
“Moreover, this incident exposes the ugliness and intolerance in our Church and society that is in desperate need of reconciliation and healing. . .[Theological College leaders] have sent a dangerous message to the future priests they train that encouraging dialogue and accompaniment with those on the periphery is unacceptable.”
This incident though bad could “prompt desperately needed charitable conversation and dialogue among the faithful on sexuality and spirituality.” You can read the Paulists’ full statement here.
Thankfully in these present controversies, support has poured in for Martin. But right wing attacks are nothing new for LGBT Catholics and their allies who have endured them for years. Going forward, we hope there will be a new solidarity against all those who seek to divide the church, especially those people and groups who target LGBT people and their families.
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—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, September 21, 2017