A leading Catholic newspaper editorialized on the recent controversy surrounding the pope, U.S. bishops, and the LGBT ministry of Fr. James Martin, SJ, suggesting an “unhinged homophobia” on the part of some people who rumored criticisms of the Jesuit priest.
The National Catholic Reporter’s editorial, “The pope is NOT upset with Fr. James Martin,” opened strongly:
“A sequence of events unfolded in recent days — a ‘What did the pope really say?’ intrigue — that might have the quality of a Molière comedy, except that, in the end, the hidden whisper campaign misrepresented the pope and was aimed at destroying a good priest’s reputation. Worse, it further fueled the most extreme fringe of the Catholic right and its insane fixation on homosexuality.”
The controversy began when Catholic News Agency, a right wing outlet, reported, based on unnamed bishops, that during the southwestern U.S. bishops’ ad limina meeting with Pope Francis, the pope expressed displeasure with how Martin acted following a September 2019 meeting between the pontiff and the Jesuit priest. It also reported that Martin had received a “talking to” about how the story of the meeting was reported in the press. But NCR’s editorial laid out the truth about that right wing outlet behind the story:
“Do not mistake Catholic News Agency (CNA) for Catholic News Service (CNS). The former, which posted the anonymously source drubbing of Martin, is affiliated with EWTN, which we’ve previously profiled in our series on the far-right Catholic money and entities attempting to fashion a narrow Catholic narrative for the wider culture. It is a narrative that can’t imagine a church that would embrace and celebrate its LGBT members with the same warmth and enthusiasm as it welcomes others.”
NCR noted further that CNA’s editor in chief, J.D. Flynn, had recently published an attack on Martin in another right wing outlet, and that Flynn has close ties to some of Pope Francis’ harshest critics in the U.S.
Before its editorial against CNA’s disreputable reporting, NCR had published a piece by Santa Fe’s Archbishop John Wester who, having participated in the same ad limina meeting, refuted claims that the pope had criticized Martin. It posted a follow up story in which Cheyenne’s Bishop Steven Biegler, also present at the meeting, backed up Wester’s account.
NCR’s editorial concluded with biting words for Martin’s right wing attackers:
“It is enough to say here that websites labeling themselves Catholic have engaged in absolutely unhinged homophobia and made Martin a primary target. That bishops — dare we point out that they are fellow priests — should provide even the slightest legitimacy to such dangerous thinking is horrifying.
“In the current atmosphere, and given the traditional standards of secrecy and silence among the episcopal culture, the church owes a deep debt of gratitude to Wester and Biegler for their courage in supporting a good priest and setting the record straight on their conversation with Francis.”
Also writing on this topic in the National Catholic Reporter is columnist Michael Sean Winters, who commented:
“It is shocking that a bishop would try and blacken the reputation of a priest in such a public way. It is beyond shocking that the means to achieve that end would include putting words in the mouth of the pope during a private meeting. How did this strengthen the unity of the church? How did this increase the bishops’ communion with the Successor of Peter? And why are these bishops emerging from a private meeting and blabbing about what the pope did or did not say?
“It is this last question that is the most frightening. Perhaps they were just trying to do what they accused Martin of doing, manipulating a meeting with the pope to gain tactical advantage. It is commonplace now to observe that in the U.S. Catholic Church, our ecclesial life and theology has been reduced to political categories and analysis. Now, even worse, political tactics are employed. Anything goes so long as you can advance your cause.”
Winters also suggested that if bishops’ political agendas impede their sense of apostolicity, or unity with the pope, then perhaps early retirements should be suggested for them.
The National Catholic Reporter‘s editorial, like the refutations of Wester and Biegler it published, are welcomed and necessary pushback. Not only Fr. Martin is harmed by vicious rhetoric and falsehoods, but more so the LGBTQ people who are fundamentally dehumanized. For their good, for Fr. Martin, and for the good of the church, Catholics must not only preach for dignity and inclusion, but must also call out prejudice and ignorance when they rear up.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 2, 2020