Authority, anthropology, and the bourgeois morality of Fr. James Martin

For decades, the majority of Catholics have embraced bourgeois values instead of Christian virtues, and the vacuum created by confused and ambiguous teaching is being filled with opportunistic falsehood.

St. Peter's Square (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

“About sex especially men are born unbalanced; we might almost say men are born mad. They scarcely reach sanity till they reach sanctity.” — G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

“For this reason the Second Vatican Council states that all the Pope’s teaching should be listened to and accepted, even when it is not given ex cathedra but is proposed in the ordinary exercise of his Magisterium with the manifest intention of declaring, recalling and confirming the doctrine of faith.” — Saint John Paul II, General Audience, March 17, 1993 (emphasis added)

The Church, for decades now, has faced several crises involving a host of related, if not always obviously connected, issues. Two of these are authority and anthropology. As the spiritual, cultural, and moral authority of the Church has been attacked from without and, far too often, undermined from within, a key point of contention and dissension has been the nature of man. And, in many ways, the fulcrum has been sexuality and, by extension, marriage and family. There is a sad irony in that just when the Second Vatican Council was emphasizing the intimate connection between marriage, procreation, and “the eternal destiny of men” (Gaudium et Spes, 51), the West was flying down the slippery, disastrous slopes of contraception, the sexual revolution, and legalized abortion.

The conciliar fathers, in what is one of more overlooked texts of the Council (GS, 47-52), spoke of the “sexual characteristics of man and the human faculty of reproduction” and how “the acts themselves which are proper to conjugal love and which are exercised in accord with genuine human dignity must be honored with great reverence.” They emphasized that “the moral aspects of any procedure does not depend solely on sincere intentions or on an evaluation of motives, but must be determined by objective standards,” noting that these, “based on the nature of the human person and his acts, preserve the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love.” In many ways, the pontificate of John Paul II—especially (but not limited to) his catechesis on the “theology of the body”—was an elucidation and defense of both Humanae Vitae and the aforementioned section of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. The rifts that emerged quickly and so destructively following the Council were fixated on sexual matters, especially contraception, but were ultimately aimed at both Church authority and the traditional Catholic understanding of human nature. While the Council is often, and not without some good reason, criticized for having a too positive view of matters, there are in fact a significant number of sober warnings, such as: “Relying on these principles, sons of the Church may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law” (GS, 51).

Fast forward to the current situation. Over the past three years, Pope Francis has sought to address various challenges and questions facing the family. As I’ve noted, the result has been, on the whole, “much discord, confusion, and frustration, quite a bit of it revolving around that one question: ‘Are divorced and civilly remarried Catholics now able to receive Holy Communion?’” And the two big issues again, it seems to me, are authority and anthropology. So, regarding the first, what sort of authority does the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia claim and possess? Stephen Walford, in a February 2017 essay for La Stampa, argues that it is part of the ordinary papal magisterium and as such we must conclude the following:

From the teaching of popes through history, we must affirm that Pope Francis cannot possibly be in error in his ordinary magisterium concerning issues of faith and morals, and thus his teaching that under certain, carefully considered cases, Holy Communion can be given to persons in irregular situations is perfectly valid and influenced by the Holy Spirit; to come to any other conclusion is to then call into question the teaching authority of previous popes and consequently the entire fabric of Catholicism is called into question. Do we then pick and choose which teachings of which popes to accept? That would be tantamount to a form of Protestantism.

Much could be said here about the nature of the papal magisterium (and here I recommend this detailed analysis provided by Steve Skojec), but I want to make three basic points. First, as has been pointed out countless times, but apparently needs to be pointed out again, St. John Paul II, in Familiaris Consortio, stated clearly and without qualification, the following:

However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage. (par 84)

Put simply, we have the ordinary papal magisterium of John Paul II stating that Catholics who have been divorced and remarried cannot receive Holy Communion. We then have the ordinary papal magisterium of Pope Francis, as interpreted by Mr. Walford, stating that some Catholics who have been divorced and remarried can receive Holy Communion. The problem here is obvious.

Secondly, there are bishops (Malta, Germany, etc) who have interpreted Amoris Laetitia as Mr. Walford has, and there are others (Poland, Abp. Chaput, Abp. Sample, etc.) who have interpreted Amoris Laetitia in keeping with John Paul II and the until now consistent and clear teaching of the Church. The problem here, again, is obvious.

Third, there is this glaring and uncomfortable fact: Amoris Laetitia lends itself so readily to clashing, contradictory interpretations. Which in turn raises this obvious question: if a pope is supposed to define and defend doctrine, but instead causes confusion and disagreement about doctrine, in what way is it “magisterial” and “authoritative”? After all, as Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., argued in Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith (Sapientia Press, 2007), the Magisterium has three basic duties: to “herald the apostolic faith”, to “defend the faith against opposed errors,” and “clarify the faith.”

Mr. Walford’s quotation from John Paul II’s 1993 General Audience is problematic for a few reasons, but one will suffice here: that the late Polish pontiff provided an important qualifier when he stated: “For this reason the Second Vatican Council states that all the Pope’s teaching should be listened to and accepted, even when it is not given ex cathedra but is proposed in the ordinary exercise of his Magisterium with the manifest intention of declaring, recalling and confirming the doctrine of faith.” (emphasis added). In what way was Francis declaring, recalling, and confirming the doctrine of faith articulated so clearly by John Paul II? Put another way, if you claim to confirm something but instead cause widespread confusion, of what value or purpose is your act of confirmation? And if you were being misinterpreted by one party or another, wouldn’t you be anxious to say so? Simply put: what exactly did Pope Francis intend in the famous eighth chapter of his apostolic exhortation?

I had the privilege of studying theology under Dr. Mark Lowery, a brilliant moral theologian at the University of Dallas, whose course in Moral Theology covered the various forms of magisterial teaching. It is, needless to say, a daunting and complicated topic. But Dr. Lowery’s remark about the ordinary papal magisterium, which can be found in his online notes, is worth pondering:

The ordinary papal Magisterium consists in Popes teaching “authentically,” usually in documents such as encyclicals or apostolic exhortations. These documents may contain truths that are taught infallibly, but the documents as a whole are not infallible. Rather, they require the “assent of mind and will” of the faithful, an assent which is distinct in nature from the “assent of faith” required of item s infallibly taught. Humanae Vitae, for instance, is not an infallible document. It contains ideas which require respectful assent but which, while not being erroneous, may be incomplete or partially flawed. However, in article 12 the pope touches upon a matter that, it can be argued, is infallibly taught: the inseparability of the unitive and procreative dimensions of each conjugal act.

At the very best, then, it seems we can conclude that Pope Francis did not teach or proclaim error in Amoris Laetitis, in large part because it is not readily evident what he taught, wanted to teach, or wanted others to conclude. (I say this as someone who is quite convinced that Pope Francis is trying to open the door to Communion for couples in “irregular” situations; but this, I think, is the best that be said about the status of the document.) In short, the impression given in many quarters is that the pope can, by virtue of his ordinary magisterium, alter and even bypass the ordinary magisterium of his predecessors, as if his office was established for the purpose of innovation, as if the Holy Spirit can offer us contradictory statements about matters of faith and morals.

Which brings us to the person, project, and propaganda of Fr. James Martin, S.J., who has been making the rounds of the secular media circuit in support of his book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity (see this detailed CWR review by Dr. Eduardo Echeverria). In a recent piece published in Newsday, Fr. Martin invokes Pope Francis and the Holy Spirit to the cause of welcoming, embracing, and apparently celebrating those in the “LGBT community”:

Catholics are realizing, in greater numbers, that LGBT people have been excluded like no other group in their church. This is becoming clearer because more people are hearing their voices, and because Pope Francis has allowed Catholics to speak about these issues more openly.

This thaw is not happening everywhere. In many U.S. parishes, LGBT people still feel excluded; in some parts of the world, they are treated with contempt. And some people feel the pope has not done enough by way of change, pointing, for example, to the section in the Catechism that labels homosexuality as “objectively disordered.”

However, these steps are a good start and the work of the Holy Spirit. As such, these changes not only shouldn’t be stopped. They cannot be stopped.

As both Dr. Echeverria and Deacon Jim Russell point out, this call to “welcome” this so-called “community” is fraught with serious problems, not least Fr. Martin’s obvious acceptance and promotion of the basic tenets of The Reign of Gay: that the inclination to homosexuality is not “objectively disordered,” as the Catechism states (par 2358), but instead is the mark of someone “differently ordered” (as Fr. Martin suggested in this interview); that homosexuality is normal and healthy; and that the Church’s teaching about homosexuality is backward, hurtful, and bigoted. Since Fr. Martin implies the Holy Spirit wishes to change and “update” Church teaching, I can only conclude that Fr. Martin believes the Holy Spirit and the Church have been in error about the nature of man, woman, sexuality, and love for two thousand years, and that the “God of surprises” has finally come around to the wisdom of the current age. Of course, this reflects the madness mentioned by Chesterton; we are not dealing here with a man interested in objective truth but in promoting passion under the guise of soft-focused sentimentality.

Fr. Martin admits he is not a theologian, but he does not hesitate in insisting the Catechism be changed, remarking: “But, as I say in the book, saying that one of the deepest parts of a person — the part that gives and receives love — is disordered is needlessly hurtful.” Such a statement, frankly, is embarrassing; coming from a priest who belongs to an order once known for its theological rigor and doctrinal fidelity, it is scandalous. However, it is also instructive, for it indicates how poorly Fr. Martin understands the logic of Church teaching and the truth about human nature. Readers would do well to carefully consider the insights provided by Daniel Mattson in his book Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay: How I Reclaimed My Sexual Reality and Found Peace (Ignatius Press, 2017), who points out how a homosexual man, in reading the Catechism’s short section, “hears the Church’s teaching not as an invitation to authentic human fulfillment, but as a rejection of himself and the person he cares about.” Mattson then quotes from Benedict XVI’s 2012 ad limina visit with the U.S. bishop, in which Benedict stated:

In this great pastoral effort there is an urgent need for the entire Christian community to recover an appreciation of the virtue of chastity. The integrating and liberating function of this virtue (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2338–43) should be emphasized by a formation of the heart, which presents the Christian understanding of sexuality as a source of genuine freedom, happiness and the fulfilment of our fundamental and innate human vocation to love. It is not merely a question of presenting arguments, but of appealing to an integrated, consistent and uplifting vision of human sexuality. The richness of this vision is more sound and appealing than the permissive ideologies exalted in some quarters; these in fact constitute a powerful and destructive form of counter-catechesis for the young.

Mattson then writes, in a quite profound passage:

As I was coming to know who God is, and who I am as his son, this was the most important lesson for me to learn: that God loves me, that it is good that I exist, and that God has a plan for my life to bring me happiness and blessings. When I understood this divine plan of God, and finally believed that God’s plans truly were to prosper me and not to harm me (cf. Jer 29:11), I could finally begin to see the moral claims proposed to me by the Church, not as an onerous demand, but instead as an invitation to reclaim the dignity that was given to me in the Creation, and redeemed by the Passion, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In this context, the phrases “objectively disordered” and “intrinsically disordered” become helpful signposts on the journey of life, urging me to seek and follow the path, the order, that God has established for my life and my relationships. The Church understands that human beings are wounded creatures: the natural unity of body and soul, and the natural harmony of the mind, will, and emotions, are damaged by the Original Sin of Adam and by our own personal sins. Natural feelings and desires, which were created to guide us to choose good and avoid evil, can become distorted, sometimes pulling us in the opposite direction, toward choices that are truly not good for us. Though Christ has saved us from sin, its effects remain in us, which means that we all can be led astray by disordered appetites—urges and desires for things that are not part of God’s plan for human life and relationships.

And then he sums it up by stating: “I need this teaching in order to understand who I am, why I am here, and where I am going.”

Fr. Martin would have us believe—again, in direct denial of both divine truth and natural reason—that, as he told The New York Times, “Pretty much everyone’s lifestyle is sinful…” Of course, it should go without saying that we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy and grace. But that is not what Fr. Matin is saying; Fr. Martin, who is a master of skewing and skirting, distorts the truth in order to gloss over the fact that all of us are called, by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, to be true and holy children of God. He prefers Catholics to bow before the golden calf of this age of sentimentality rather than admit that he not only does not possess the authority to rewrite the Catechism, he does not possess the power or right to question the Author of Life and Love, who has created us to be ordered to everlasting beatitude, not some shallow, passion-driven counterfeit pretending to offer “happiness” and “affirmation”.

And now Fr. Martin is blasting Bishop Thomas Paprocki, who recently issued diocesan norms regarding ministry toward persons who had entered a ‘same-sex marriage’. Over at a faux Catholic rag, a shrill columnist declares that Bishop Paprocki “should be sacked,” and then provides various quotes from Fr. Martin and Pope Francis. The buzz words now are “inclusion” and “mercy”; truth, fidelity, and discipleship are of little interest. To be fair, this has been coming for decades, and I am actually in full agreement with those who argue that the acceptance of contraception, divorce, adultery, and cohabitation on the part of “straight” men and women have brought us to this point. Absolutely right. And all of those issues, again, are bound together by a failure of authority—most notably in how often truth has not been proclaimed and defended—and a failure of anthropology. But lines must be drawn, and the drawing of those lines are only going to infuriate those who feel that every line is an attack on their rights, their needs, their desires, and their happiness.

For decades, the majority of Catholics have embraced bourgeois values instead of Christian virtues, and the vacuum created by confused and ambiguous teaching is being filled with opportunistic falsehood. “In the domain of morality,” wrote Archbishop Fulton Sheen many years ago, “is it not an accepted principle of our Western bourgeois world that there is no absolute distinction between right and wrong rooted in the eternal order of God, but that they are relative and dependent entirely upon one’s point of view? Hence when the Western world wishes to decide what is right and wrong even in certain moral matters, it takes a poll—forgetful that the majority never makes a thing right…The first poll of public opinion taken in history of Christianity was on Pilate’s front porch, and it was wrong.”

The ordinary magisterium of the Church has always taught and held that homosexual acts—as well as fornication, contraception, adultery, masturbation, and pornography—are serious sins. But, in the near future, when representatives of the porn industry demand to be accepted, included, and embraced by the Church, without any reference to the evils of pornography, what will we say? It seems likes a ridiculous question. I’m not so sure, as ridiculous is now the new normal, and the love that once dare not speak its name now demands to be proclaimed from the pulpit.

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. A well documented correct analysis of the unprecedented dilemma we all face. Freedom, always referenced to conscience has long been a gold standard in the West. Magna Carta Libertatum, Renaissance and return to free thought, Rousseau’s Emile, French Revolution are a few of the momentous indicators. “Is it not an accepted principle of our Western bourgeois world that there is no absolute distinction between right and wrong rooted in the eternal order of God, but that they are relative and dependent entirely upon one’s point of view?” The “good of order” is the root of ethics. The “actual good is identical with actual intelligibilities and so includes and may be extended beyond human values” (Insight, B Lonergan SJ). Lonergan here true to Aquinas pinpointed the heart of the matter. The intelligibility of truth is universal and available to all. Thus all have moral responsibility. Man has despite this convinced himself that what his conscience says, which really means what he may wish to believe must be true and enlightened. Thus the “Road to perdition is wide and clear and many take it.” Ratzinger’s Doctrinal Commentary on Ad Tuendam Fidem addresses pontifical statements that are not definitively proposed as dogma but fall under the Ordinary Magisterium. The Commentary adds that such statements must be comprehensible, repeated, consistent with Apostolic Tradition. AL Ch 8 does not meet that standard on its key points reg communion for D&R and “irregulars”. The document seems purposely ambiguous meant to push the envelope regarding praxis without appearing to cross the line of demarcation. Sin. We do not have a definitive universal approval of the Maltese and other Bishops Conferences you mention. Simply tacit approval by silence or private approbation in the letter to the Argentine Hierarchy. In effect approbation. The disorder of deviate sexual behavior, homosexuality in all its forms is the most profound abrogation of the divinely instituted Natural Order. It directly attacks the integrity of the Family. The transmission nurturing moral education of human life. I make no equivocation here. It is absolutely Satanic. It must be vigorously and clearly opposed.

  2. Dear Mr. Olsen,

    Are you trying to snare Fr. Martin’s goat by tagging him ‘bourgeois’ – the last thing a roving Jesuit editor (and MSNBC, ABC, CNN, worthy guest) would want to be bagged with? Why weigh him down? The man’s already wheeling around enough excess luggage in that little book of his.

    • I’m just a big fan of accuracy in labelling. Fr. Martin likes to present the Church and orthodox Catholics as bigoted and intolerant. But I think he needs to own up to the fact that his approach to morality is in the mainstream of liberal, secularized Protestantism, no matter how he tries to dress it up with Catholic decor.

  3. It is not clear to me what Mr. Olson means when he says that “it is not readily evident what he (Francis) taught, wanted to teach, or wanted others to conclude,” yet goes on to admit that he is “quite convinced that Pope Francis is trying to open the door to Communion for couples in ‘irregular’ situations.” If this is Francis’ intention in Amoris Laetitia, then however ambiguously it is expressed, shouldn’t we read the document in line with the author’s intention? The true problem of authority here seems to be how faithful Catholics should respond to the possibility of error in the authentic ordinary magisterium.

    • It’s a fair point; there is a certain amount of tension between those statements. Perhaps I should say that it’s not crystal clear what Francis wants to do; that is, it’s hard to find a clear statement on this from him. But I thin, that when you look at the last four years and connect the many, many dots, a pretty clear picture emerges.

  4. There is a hint of the spoiled child in this progressively minded clergyman’s liberal views.
    Mr P J O’Rourke is credited with the following.

    “At the core of liberalism is the spoiled child — miserable, as all spoiled children are, unsatisfied, demanding, ill-disciplined, despotic and useless. Liberalism is a philosophy of sniveling brats.”

  5. Jim Martin may be a hero in terms of his works of mercy score and his beautiful soul, but as a polemicist and a teacher of Christian conduct he is a dangerous fool whose voice misleads. The words of St Paul are just as inspired as those attributed to Jesus. If Fr Jim found himself time-tripped back to the Church of Acts, he might also find himself experiencing the same Holy Ghost treatment Luke reports being received by Ananias. But apparently we are stuck with him like we are stuck with Colbert. The crosses of the Internet age.

  6. Excellent article. The biblical prophets were opposed for preaching the Word of God. Fr Martin is preaching exactly what our secular, godless world wants to hear. That alone shows he is a false prophet. The secular media can’t get enough of him. But if he affirmed authentic Catholic teaching they would turn against him. We need to pray for him that he will see his errors and stop misleading people.

  7. Thank you….enjoyed very much!

    You shared, “At the very best, then, it seems we can conclude that Pope Francis did not teach or proclaim error in Amoris Laetitis, in large part because it is not readily evident what he taught, wanted to teach, or wanted others to conclude”.

    I think I understand what you desire to intimate, but parag AL 298 with footnote 329, and the deliberate contradiction and false quoting of FC 84.3 and GS 51 [with the CDF 1984 document], shows a ‘teaching’ or the ‘proclaiming of an error’ by the author(s). The teaching is written and proclaimed, whether we know Francis’ manifest intention, what to conclude, etc., is important as to OrdUnvMagis but not whether a teaching or error is written and present. The same can be said about the errorneous teaching about ‘no one is ever condemned forever’. May be an edit needs to be done, but the plain text is errant.

    Blessings and graces in JMJ!

    • Padre I concur with your assessment. So does Cardinal Caffarra a noted canon lawyer, and of course Cardinal R Burke former Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. They obviously observe what you say. Cardinal Caffarra refers to premises in AL that lead to false conclusions.

    • I wish to add to my previous reply in concurring with what you say Padre that Carl Olson may well hold to your, our viewpoint. That aside given his position as Editor of a website intended as an open forum for discussion it would be in my view antithetical to the purpose of open debate discussing controversial issues by definitively holding to one side or the other. That seems true also of Ed Pentin and the Nat Cath Reg. There are many who interpret AL differently than you and I. At least at this stage of the controversy I believe it should be the case.

  8. I would also add, the willed silence and refusal to answer or meet with the Cardinals over the Dubia gives witness that a change in ‘t’eaching and error is presented and willed and being nefariously pursued vis-a-vis ‘T’eaching….grace and peace in JMJ!!

  9. My question: are there any human inclinations, orientations, desires, that are intrinsically disordered, or because I’m inclined to something is it part of who I am, and therefor licit? What about kleptomania? Okay if I can’t resist? Are such things only disordered because they are illegal, and if they are legalized, are they are legitimate behaviors? I don’t see anyone wading into these murky waters, because if they did, they’d be chasing their tail.

  10. Fr. Martin is a sign of the sickness and rot that has infested the Church. That Pope Francis chose him to work for Vatican communications, right before Martin left to hawk his book full of anti-Catholic teachings, speaks volumes. Praying for the Lord to intercede.

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