A Catholic college and Pennsylvania bishop are the latest public supporters of Fr. James Martin, SJ, after they refused to concede to right-wing activists who wanted the priest disinvited from a scheduled speaking appearance.
Conservative activists had targeted Misericordia University for inviting Martin speak at the winter commencement this December of the school located in Dallas, Pennsylvania, reported The Citizen’s Voice. The activists sent a petition with some 18,000 signatures to the Sisters of Mercy-founded University, but the petition was promptly rejected by church officials:
“Diocese of Scranton spokesman Bill Genello emailed a statement Thursday from Scranton Bishop Joseph C. Bambera, who said Martin’s latest book was ‘written with the full consent of his religious superiors and in conformity with Catholic Church publishing guidelines.’
“Martin ‘raises perspectives that challenge readers on both sides of the issue to a greater sense of dialogue and respect for one another,’ Bambera said. ‘Contrary to what many have asserted, however, Father Martin does not call for any change in Church teaching in his publication. Given Father Martin’s background and current standing as a priest and member of the Society of Jesus, Misericordia University has followed the protocol expected of a Catholic university in extending an invitation to Father Martin to serve as its commencement speaker.’
“Bambera added ‘neither Father Martin nor any speaker at a Catholic university is to offer commentary that conflicts with Catholic teaching.'”
Misericordia spokesperson Paul Krzywicki confirmed that plans for Martin to speak in December are unchanged. He told WNEP 16:
“‘Part of the mission at Misericordia is everyone is welcome here on campus and Fr. Martin is included in that. . .Misericordia is consistent with its mission. We were founded by the Sisters of Mercy, so everyone is welcome at Misericordia University.'”
Fr. Martin had his own thoughts on the dispute, saying of the petitioners, “They don’t like LGBT people. It’s homophobia.” He added, “Misericordia is Latin for ‘mercy,’ so being incapable of showing mercy to LGBT people is more than a little ironic.”
Right-wing pressure has caused several Catholic organizations to cancel lectures by Martin in past months. Martin announced in September that Theological College, a seminary at The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, had cancelled a proposed lecture about the life and ministry of Jesus. He also announced cancellations by the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre and CAFOD, the English bishops’ international humanitarian aid agency. You can read about those incidents here and here. Each cancellation was related to Martin’s new book on LGBT issues in the church, Building a Bridge.
Since those cancellations, new attention has been given to the negative influence right-wing groups have on the U.S. church. A number of bishops have made public statements in support of Martin, along with his religious superiors and other Catholic communities. Bishop Robert McElroy said such attacks should be a “wake-up call” for U.S. Catholics, and that judgmentalism is a “cancer of vilification seeping into the institutional life of the church” that needs to be rooted out.
This latest show of support from Bishop Bambera and Misericordia University is significant because they stood directly against the very groups to which church officials have frequently conceded, and conceded to the detriment of the church. Their defense will help grow the positive impact on the church that Martin’s book has had, even as the book and its author have drawn criticism from all sides. One columnist in The Boston Globe, Margery Eagan, wrote about that impact which she witnessed at Martin’s recent lecture in Boston:
“Last week, nearly 1,000 Catholics gave a standing ovation to a priest who’d spent an hour criticizing the church for discriminating against gays. . .Among the congregation were giddy 90-year-old nuns; 20-year-olds from Boston College like Matt Stubeck, who waited in a long line for Martin to autograph a book for his gay cousin; devout lay Catholics; daily communicants; and eucharistic ministers who give out communion every Sunday. There was also an elderly couple who had driven up from Fall River. Speaking through his tracheotomy, the husband cried as he told Martin and St. Ignatius pastor Joseph Constantino how his gay son was vilified in a church that instructs its faithful, first and foremost, to love one another.”
Just as in Boston and many other places, Fr. Martin’s message of mercy will surely find a home at Misericordia University next month. Hopefully, more church officials will follow this news by refusing to concede to right-wing groups when it comes to Martin’s speaking appearances. Let’s hope they will do the same not just for Martin, but for every opening in the renewed conversation on LGBT issues in the Catholic Church.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, November 27, 2017