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Overcoming Fr. Martin’s dissent through genuine, transforming love

True welcoming means we make it clear we want everyone to join us in following Jesus.

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Some Catholics are very disturbed at the reemergence of dissent in the Church. One of the most aggravating instances is the work of Father James Martin, SJ, whose book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity is full of ambiguity. Calls for clarification have not been heeded but the subtext makes his position clear, as do many statements made in his public presentations. For instance, at a recent presentation at Villanova University, he told to a young man, “I hope in 10 years you will be able to kiss your partner [in church] or, you know, soon to be your husband.” Anyone reading his book or listening to his talks can reasonably conclude that Father Martin believes the Church does not present correctly God’s plan for sexuality; that he thinks the culture knows better.

For Catholics who have some background in theology and philosophy it is deeply disappointing when a highly educated priest uses specious arguments to advance his cause; for those whose every fiber of their Catholic being leads them to want to trust priests, bishops, and religious superiors, such instances of untrustworthiness are scandalous; for those of us who have been fighting dissent for nearly 40 years, seeing a dissenter get ecclesial support and public acclaim is demoralizing. But, mostly, it is sad in the extreme that souls could well be lost.

I find myself, as an aging Catholic warrior, experiencing déjà vu all over again. The faithful of my generation spent a lot of our lives countering the equally specious (though more sophisticated) arguments of Father Charles Curran and his ilk—those who dissented from Humanae Vitae and for decades dominated virtually every Catholic institution. We fought a fight that has enjoyed a lot of success. Because of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Saint John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor, the appointment of good bishops, the reform of seminaries and many Catholic colleges and universities, the proliferation of the “movements,” and the development of nearly countless good resources and programs, it seemed dissent was almost a thing of the past. Indeed, the younger generation, in general, is unaware of it. Thus they are even more scandalized by dissent when it does emerge.

But it is back and, to be sure, I am despondent to some extent. Though undoubtedly the damage will still be great, it helps that we are much better equipped to respond to it this time. We must not let this crisis go to waste.

Much of the growth of strong orthodoxy has been the result of faithful Catholics trying to refute the arguments of dissenters, minimize the effects of dissent, and to fortify themselves and others against the confusion and corruption of faith that result from dissent. Many good things came from the push-back to dissent on sexual issues: the growth of wonderful organizations promoting Natural Family Planning methods, chastity education programs, marriage prep programs, etc.

While I am profoundly frustrated that the views Father Martin espouses are again in the spotlight, I am gratified, inspired, and consoled by the immediate and responsible refutations of his thinking. We should commit ourselves to distributing copies of these refutations to others whenever his name comes up (articles by Archbishop Chaput, Eduardo Echeverria, Father Roger Landry, and myself, among others, come to mind). It is manifestly providential that Daniel Mattson’s superb book Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay was published at the same time as Father Martin’s book; those looking for an alternative to Martin’s will find a strong and bracing corrective in Mattson’s book.

One element that makes Father Martin’s work so appealing is that he sensibly asks for a respectful, sensitive, and compassionate response within the Church to those who experience same-sex attraction. But it is scandalous and unintelligible that he does not acknowledge the existence of Courage and Encourage, since those are apostolates that have been providing a respectful, sensitive, and compassionate response for decades and are now building the following they deserved all along.

I haven’t seen anything in Martin’s work indicating he has much to contribute to the “welcoming” effort, since his approach seems largely condescending. Instead of challenging people to embrace the fullness of the faith, he tries to hide or downplay, or even reject, the teachings of the Church in order to appear welcoming. True welcoming means we make it clear we want everyone to join us in following Jesus; we want to share with others the truth and beauty we know, and we will do our best to explain beliefs and teachings that might be hard to understand or accept. We do so not thinking we are any better than anyone else but wanting to be faithful to our beloved Jesus, who commissioned all Christians to stand up for challenging truths.

It is also providential that Father Martin’s work has appeared just as many New Evangelization outreaches are coming to the fore. We are definitely getting better at “welcoming,” but we are also discovering that many new pastoral services are needed to do the job well. Those working in the vineyard are finding there is a serious deficiency in most Catholic parishes of the means to welcome newcomers and inquirers into our midst, not to mention other groups with distinct needs.

I am among those who think parishes can and should be much more welcoming to those who experience same-sex attraction, as well as to a myriad of other groups (the handicapped, the mentally ill, the married, the widowed, the divorced, the unmarried, single parents, the jobless, caretakers, etc.), and I hope that will happen.

Father Harvey, who founded Courage, learned a lot from Alcoholics Anonymous. Indeed, all of us could benefit from the techniques of Alcoholics Anonymous: the practice of acknowledging our besetting flaws and sinfulness and asking for forgiveness, the need for being accountable to others, the encouragement and mentorship of those who are swimming closer to the shore than we are, the radical reliance on our heavenly Father (and the sublime help of the sacraments). All Catholics—and all newcomers and seekers—should be able to find within their parishes a welcoming support group with whom they can pray and associate, and who will accompany them on their journey of faith—and we hope they will accompany us on ours. Heterosexuals can learn enormous amounts from chaste homosexuals; for instance Andy Comiskey’s books (such as The Naked Surrender) provide guidance for anyone who loves the Lord and is confident the Lord will make us “whole enough” to live our sexuality as He intended.

Those of us who want to be welcoming and compassionate to those who experience same-sex attraction need to learn a lot, certainly about the phenomenon itself: its causes and treatment, and the justifications for Church teaching. But we also must learn how to listen to those who experience same-sex attraction (for a good primer, see Living the Truth in Love: Pastoral Approaches to Same-Sex Attraction), to learn their struggles and fears, to learn how to be good friends and fellow Christians to them. These days I am recommending the book Out of a Far Country (Waterbrook, 2011), a book co-written by a mother and her son about their journey into Christianity through dealing with his homosexuality. It is a beautiful, modern story of God’s constant presence in our lives and the power of prayer and patience.

We cannot and must not be content simply to rant and rave and wail because of Father Martin’s slick dissent and its pernicious influence. We must be the ones reaching out with genuine love, a love that strongly believes in the transforming and fortifying power of grace to enable us to embrace God’s plan for sexuality, whatever challenges it presents.

About Janet E. Smith 6 Articles
Janet E. Smith holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. She is the author of Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later and Right to Privacy, editor of Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader, and coauthor (with Chris Kaczor) of Life Issues, Medical Choices, Questions and Answers for Catholics.

42 Comments

  1. Janet Smith has written masterfully on Humanae Vitae and on morality issues. I’ve yet to see those with heterodox positions in the Church – such as Fr. Martin – even begin to address her arguments.

    Excellent piece.

  2. Finally! A well written piece based on our history and reality calling us all to go back to the Cathechism of the Catholic Church for truth while also calling us to be positive, active and loving to all.

  3. The Church will never be truly welcoming as long as it considers itself a family of nuclear families. The Church actually glorifies the nuclear family, and this is evident through the author’s applause of the golden years where it’s all about NFP, marriage prep, and the theology of the (married) body. The LGBT agenda is not so much about sexual disorder, in my view, but more about people desperate to establish those coveted, prized families with the only means at their disposal (same-sex civil marriages, children conceived through surrogates, etc.) And as for heterosexual, involuntarily-single adults, who’ve heroically followed the Church’s teaching all of these years, we are lumped in by the author with the mentally ill, the jobless, etc., as though single, chaste adults are just another group of unfortunates to be pitied by those blessed with families. How do you think we feel?

    • Bravo, Carleen. I’ll tell you how I feel, as a single, chaste adult. We live in a dying Church that glorifies marriage out of one side of its mouth, but the other side refuses to admit that the Catholic marriage rate is practically zero, which is a survival-level crisis. One parish in my area (in the diocese of Phoenix, AZ) published data showing 4000 registered families but only 11 weddings in the last calendar year. The diocesan lay elite are a mixture of oblivious married folks who ramble on about Theology of the Body and deny that single adults exist, spouting absurdities like “trust me, a good Catholic man with good hygiene and social skills and a job, will find a woman.” They refuse to admit that parishes make no effort to help singles to identify each other, no effort to hold social events, really make no effort at all to be friendly and welcoming places.

      • Why should we not glorify marriage when most people come to life through the marriage of their father and mother.

        As for parishes not making the effort to help singles to identify each other, it is not the job of the Church to find you a partner.

        While you are whinging about the lack of such a facility, why don’t you start it yourself instead of waiting for the Church to do it?

        • MarcAlcan, I hope you’re not being obtuse but I fear that you are.

          No, it is not the Church’s job to engage in match-making. But ask 100 older married Catholic couples how they met, and I’ll bet at least half will mention a parish social event as either where they met, or as having some role in their relationship. Those events are gone, that avenue for singles to form couples is gone, and the number of Catholic weddings these days is near zero. This is so obvious, it’s simple cause and effect. And it’s not “the Church” doing anything – this is about parishes functioning like a community and doing the things that communities used to do for themselves.

          • Dear Larry,

            I think it is a great idea for you to start a group for singles. We have a vibrant community of singles in our parish as well as groups for parents, seniors, students, etc. There were none of these until individuals like you and I decided to start them. A small group, a “singles” Dinner for Eight, a softball team, First Friday devotion, Rosary group… whatever you will enjoy and you think other people will come to. Keep trying. Almost 15 years ago, there was nothing in our parish for moms, for example. My friend started a small Bible study. Now we have a core group of about six women who have stuck with it from the beginning and a large number of women – single, married, retired, grad students, with and without children – who drift in and out as life allows. We have had many weddings and many babies in our group. There is no way I would have made it through the last 15 years without this group of women, and there would have been no group of women if one woman didn’t decide to fill the need in our parish.

            Until very recently, I worked as a wedding photographer who specialized in liturgical (primarily Catholic and Orthodox weddings) in the very Protestant south east. I had three years without one weekend off. Other photographers who specialized in the same types of weddings I do have the same experiences. While it is true that many parishes are aging, young Catholics are getting married.

            Don’t loose heart – just start something wonderful.

        • Jenny, I didn’t say that. I said that if the Church wants to promote marriage, because the family unit is important to promote, then it has completely dropped the ball at the parish/community level, where as recently as a generation or two ago, every parish had social activities which educated children and young people about the value of volunteering and about basic social skills, including interaction with the opposite sex in a supervised Catholic setting, and encouraged ALL to participate in general community life. Today’s parishes are cold, unfriendly, uninteresting places where no one can talk to anyone without taking “safe environment training” first.

      • Perhaps be thankful that you’re not married. As a priest, one of the first things I realised was how tough it can be for so many. I was always somewhat bemused by St Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians about the troubles of marriage, but boy was he onto something.

        • Hi Fr. Joe –
          As a happily married man who was single for a long time looking for the wrong thing in a spouse, I believe that one of the reasons marriage can be so tough is the expectations that the betrothed have of marriage: and it isn’t all sex and romance and travel, ha-ha. More than anything, marriage is a partnership that serves as a source of comfort and support during difficult times, and a source of joy during good times. Life has troubles, but it should never be the source of the trouble in and of itself.

      • MarcAlcan, no one should receive “special treatment”. We should all receive equal treatment, because innately we are all equal in God’s eyes.

        Maybe you could explain to me, then, why a check of my local parish bulletins shows several events for married couples (such as “Date Night”, “Retrouvaille” and on and on) and NOTHING for single people to attend.

        And before you tell me to “roll my own” and start my own events. I’ve tried. And gotten the blank stare and downcast eyes from the parish staffers when one identifies themselves as a single person over age 30. There is no support. Never. LGBT’s and SSA’s and Trans-This-Or-That’s get support and ministry and media coverage, but “normal” Catholics who’ve played by the rules get a Big Fat Nothing. Is that fair?

        • Every parish has its own groups, ministries based a lot on volunteers, why not approach them with a idea for a singles group? We had one at our parish called Corpus Christi fellowship, started I believe by two guys in a room, beginning with Bible study, then various social events. Maybe Christ is calling you to fill the void! God bless.

          • Jenny, you don’t get it. I’m saying that all the “ministries” which isolate groups of people in a parish based on their marital status or some other special interest is, and will always be, a Bad Thing. They don’t promote “community”, they only deepen the divides.

            Why did parishes end the social activities that encouraged folks of all stripes to meet and mingle and form friendships and more?

    • Here’s the thing Carleen. Every single same sex attracted person is allowed the right to marry provided what they want is marriage. But they do not want marriage. They want their feelings and their lifestyle validated to the point of calling it marriage. But the union of two men or two women is not marriage.

      The LGBT is at heart about wanting to validate their sexual disorder. Many SSA people have found peace and joy in chastity. Still others have found that they can actually have a meaningful and satisfying life being actually married – to the opposite sex.

      As for being single, Dr Smith has not lumped you with the mentally ill and what you might call degenerates. You ought to read the article better and perhaps try to really understand Church teaching.

      • MarcAlcan, thanks for your reply. Here’s the thing. If the LGBT agenda is only about validating sexual disorder, then why don’t those with SSA leave Catholic Churches for more welcoming Protestant ones? Plenty of Protestant churches celebrate gay marriage and welcome those with open arms. So why do those with SSA continue to bang their heads against the wall, hoping doctrine will change when it won’t (nor do I think it should by the way).i think the draw of the Catholic Church for these folks is it’s over-the-top celebration of the nuclear family as the best of what it means robe human, the best that life has to offer, and by gum, they don’t intend to be denied it. I sympathize with the Church in that its attendance is dwindling, but extolling marriage and family 24/7 is marginalizing to many groups, not just the LGBT. And I’m well aware of the author’s own extraordinary commitment to her own singlehood, and I admire both it and her writing. Another reply posted me as bitter, and that merits no response from me. I did not misread the article, nor do I believe doctrine should change. But the Church’s family of families is out of touch with today’s society, and if the article really proposes welcoming new groups, then that’s an ideal place to start. This entire reply of mine is eminently reasonable, and any bitter quibbles with it are not. My last word here.

        • I’m not aware of “the author’s own extraordinary commitment to her own singlehood”. What are you talking about?

          And am I the only one who sees the complete irony of dioceses and parishes running around like Keystone Kops to create ministries and special support for SSA’s and the like, while the faithful singles are told to “go start your own club”? It’s insane.

    • You assume that Ms. Smith is married and is only speaking of/to married people. In point of fact, if I am not mistaken, Ms. Smith is a single woman, never married. She taught me 30 some years ago at Notre Dame and she is as brilliant now as she was way back then. Carleen, your bitterness towards all things Catholic has caused you unjustly to criticize and mischaracterize Ms. Smith’s article and intentions.

  4. This is the best commentary I have read since the controversy began. Beautifully stated. This especially struck me:
    “I find myself, as an aging Catholic warrior, experiencing déjà vu all over again. The faithful of my generation spent a lot of our lives countering the equally specious (though more sophisticated) arguments of Father Charles Curran and his ilk—those who dissented from Humanae Vitae and for decades dominated virtually every Catholic institution.”
    That is my experience too – which explains why I found it so hard to believe Fr. Martin was actually dissenting from Catholic teaching. I still grapple with that. Thanks for your very civil essay.

  5. “I am among those who think parishes can and should be much more welcoming to those who experience same-sex attraction, as well as to a myriad of other groups (the handicapped, the mentally ill, the married, the widowed, the divorced, the unmarried, single parents, the jobless, caretakers, etc.), and I hope that will happen.”

    You know, it really irks me that the whole tenor of that sentence is “You are not an individual, you’re part of a group of identical persons.” Are all single people, for example, so alike that they should all be approached and welcomed the same way?

    And by “welcoming,” what do you mean? The people standing at the door saying “Welcome to St. Whoever” just make me flinch. If I’m visiting another parish and we get the “If you’re visiting, please stand up and be recognized,” I don’t. I’ve read quite a few conversion stories that involve the person’s slipping quietly into the back row of the church just to see what a Mass is like, and I can imagine their reaction to having someone insist on introducing himself and shaking hands – hasty departure, and never returning. Do other people feel differently? Of course. And yet they may well be in my “group.”

    (By the way: “to myriad other groups.” One of my groups is the annoyingly pedantic.)

    How about parishes should welcome all individuals?

    • Leslie, I agree that “welcoming” can often be done very badly, as you describe. I think there are 4 groups who come to Mass at a Catholic church: 1) The regularly going Catholic (they don’t need to be welcomed, this is their home), 2) The fallen-away Catholic (probably more comfortable going quietly in the back pew until they get their bearings, then a gracious “Hi, I’m so-n-so” after a few weeks would be best), 3) The non-Catholic coming with a Catholic friend (the friend can introduce them around) and 4) The non-Catholic coming to check it out on their own (probably wants more anonymity like group 2). Am I wrong? Are there those who in group 2 or 4 who like the public visitor call?

    • Indeed Leslie. Parishes today insist on placing everyone into one or more “ministry groups” (led, conveniently, by a paid parish Director of This or That). Teens meet on Sunday night. Young adults on Monday, Seniors on Wednesday afternoon, and on and on. How does isolating everyone by age or special interest, help form “community”? The phony welcomes given out at Mass don’t fool anyone.

      When was the last time your parish held an open social event like a carnival or a dance, where everyone simply showed up and enjoyed each other’s company? (And volunteered to help with set-up or clean-up or etc.) Was it a generation ago? Two generations? Nobody does this stuff any more and the effects are plain to see. Social events require actual work and actual community cooperation – it’s not like the typical “ministry group” that has figured out how to completely isolate itself from the parish at large.

      • I wouldn’t say nobody. Our church holds 2 parish dances a year. They are very well attended by our parish members as well as others in the community.

      • Dear Larry, if you want to socialise with real Catholics, think outside your parish.check out all the possible young adult initiatives in your region. Real Catholics can tend to congregate at a parish with a seriously Catholic priest. Check what catholic work any of these people are doing including study groups if your job commitments allow. Join. Nominal young adult catholics are indistinguishable from protestant youth. You may even bump into lapsed affctionately named ‘searching’ catholics at an evangelical church. I hope all these thoughts are not shocking to you.

        • Young adult initiatives? Geez Louise (ha ha), I’m 54 years old. I’ve been living this life for over 30 years, not knowing where to meet other Catholic singles in my area parishes. But the parishes don’t care.

  6. This is a superb column in every way, including its tone and content.

    My only bone to pick is the sense that parishes are welcoming only to families. My experience in many parishes in many parts of the country over the past thirty-five years is that parishes in general are not welcoming to anybody! Parishes are not communities at all.

    This is changing and new movements are emerging that hopefully can make parishes actual communities.

    • There are Catholic parishes you could attend Sunday Mass at for decades and never really feel you are a part of the parish, mostly because nobody has ever introduced themselves to you. It seems to me that after weekday morning Mass it is less awkward to strike up conversations with people. That is probably because they are sparsely attended and you pretty much see the same people whenever you go, and they see you. The people who regularly attend weekday morning Mass are very often serious Catholics — like the ones you want to get to know. If one can’t get to weekday morning mass on a regular basis, one can always try joining parish organizations. Having kids in the parish school tends to get you acquainted with fellow parishioners, too, but having kids in the school isn’t the case for many parishioners.

      In many Protestant, Bible-believing churches, one doesn’t have to develop a strategy to get to know the people. They introduce themselves to you and make it plain that they want to get to know you and to find out if there is anything they can help you with. That one has to make a plan and put some effort into becoming a part of many Catholic parishes is very telling. Maybe that is because, as you put it, they aren’t “actual communities,” in terms of their noticeably embracing values that radically contradict those of the wider community.

      While Protestant theology gets many things wrong, many Protestants get a lot right, especially in regards to being welcoming and hospitable to strangers.

      • Depending on the protestant church, yes people are friendly but if you want to make friends you havecto join whatever ‘ministry or bible study’ they are in. Same applies in a Catholic parish. In the late 60’s it became church policy to close down what used be called ‘catholic sodalities’where catholics formed community and catholic identity.At the same time education began focussing on the value of being individual. So in these two primary areas community and family were being purposefully broken down. We as society have not recovered. We are in a global battle to save the family. Many people wont commit …..in any way. Larry is experiencing as are others, the outcome of these policies.

  7. “Some Catholics are very disturbed at the reemergence of dissent in the Church.”

    “Reemergence”?

    It’s incredible that someone of the stature of Dr. Smith would use that word in the first sentence of an article on the Catholic Church in 2017 AD.

    Like Dr. Smith, I was born in the reign of Pius XII. There has been no “reemergence” of dissent. It has been vocal, public… and constant… for the majority of our lives.

    • Indeed. The dissent built from the 60’s. Personally, I didnt realise the few orthodox bishops/cardinals and wrongly believed the election of Pope Benedict was evidence of a building reform. Still God’s will be done and as He made laws like gravity, His Will cannot be outdone by any incoherent human plan.

  8. And again … no mention of Joseph Sciambra… a true shame. The only one Martin does not attack. Because he cannot .
    JosephSciambra.org

  9. A well written article with points well made. Responses were civil – both agreement and disagreement. Things to think about, perhaps to pray over while Bo the dog and I take a nice morning walk down the dirt road we live on.

    Thanks

  10. Being mere followers of Jesus is entirely insufficient to enable entry into our destiny and being mere emulators will afford us nothing. What is imperative is that we become participants in His sonship with regard to the Father. Our entry into Heaven requires this which unlike any other disposition requires of us the genuine selflessness of Jesus. Nothing else will suffice and everything of value in our Catholic faith rises from this one transformation within us.

  11. Perhaps we should also recall Pope Francis’ wisdom on this pastoral problem as he writes in Evangelii Gaudium 64-67:

    The process of secularization tends to reduce the faith and the Church to the sphere of the private and personal. Furthermore, by completely rejecting the transcendent, it has produced a growing deterioration of ethics, a weakening of the sense of personal and collective sin, and a steady increase in relativism. These have led to a general sense of disorientation, especially in the periods of adolescence and young adulthood which are so vulnerable to change. As the bishops of the United States of America have rightly pointed out, while the Church insists on the existence of objective moral norms which are valid for everyone, “there are those in our culture who portray this teaching [regarding homosexual acts] as unjust, that is, as opposed to basic human rights. Such claims usually follow from a form of moral relativism that is joined, not without inconsistency, to a belief in the absolute rights of individuals. In this view, the Church is perceived as promoting a particular prejudice and as interfering with individual freedom”. We are living in an information-driven society which bombards us indiscriminately with data – all treated as being of equal importance – and which leads to remarkable superficiality in the area of moral discernment. In response, we need to provide an education which teaches critical thinking and encourages the development of mature moral values.”…

  12. Thank you Janet Smith for this article! (I recently was at Sacred Heart for the SPSE seminar & meant to say hello, but missed the chance to do so… Hello! 🙂

    One thing that occurs to me (after having lived and served at a parish in NYC’s Theater District and interviewing Fr Harvey (founder of Courage) and other priests who extensively provided counseling to those with same-sex attractions) – there is not an insignificant number of former Catholics who now struggle with homosexuality and less number of struggling Catholics who were practicing homosexuals – both of whom were also sexually abused when they were young. James Martin’s work is deeply troubling and offensive because it is like a spiritual re-molestation for these victims and only serves to fixate or tempt these victims to mortal sin (objectively speaking).

    Your piece, Janet, is consoling but why is there only one Cardinal (who’s not even from the US) and 1 U.S. Archbishop fraternally correcting? Where are the lessons learned from the silence of Church heirarchy in the sex abuse cases? In some cases, the victims are being attacked again!

    “But, mostly, it is sad in the extreme that souls could well be lost.” My sentiments exactly – including Fr Martin for his mis-sheparding and the silent heirarchy for not shepherding!

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