“So faith, hope, love abide, these three,” Saint Paul reminds us, “but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). The Sacrament of Penance is a Sacrament of mercy. In the service of love, priests help penitents identify their predominant faults and help them chip away at them over time.
A priest sits in the confessional with awareness of the words of Jesus. How many times must I forgive my brother, seven times? “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (Mt. 18:22). God also uses the Sacrament of Penance to remind the priest of his own sins. It is charitable for the priest to know and profess the difference between right and wrong.
Scriptural teaching is unambiguous. The unrepented sins of Sodom and Gomorrah inflamed God’s wrath, and He destroyed the cities with fire and brimstone. Jesus warns against adultery and lust with complete clarity: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt. 5:27-28). Saint Paul is inclusive with his heavenly exclusions: “Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
In 1975, Pope Paul VI wrote in Evangelii Nuntiandi:
Another sign of love will be the effort to transmit to Christians not doubts and uncertainties born of an erudition poorly assimilated but certainties that are solid because they are anchored in the Word of God. The faithful need these certainties for their Christian life; they have a right to them, as children of God who abandon themselves entirely into His arms and to the exigencies of love.
In contrast to the firm certainties of faith, ambiguity is like a stealth fighter plane. The danger is often unnoticed until too late. Indeed, ambiguities even silence sober churchmen lest they stand accused as “hateful” and “judgmental.” In 1986, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger unmasked the technique. He identified ambiguity as a tool of the gay agenda:
A careful examination of their public statements and the activities they promote reveals a studied ambiguity by which they [those promoting a change to the Church’s teaching on homosexuality] attempt to mislead the pastors and the faithful… Some of these groups will use the word ‘Catholic’ to describe either the organization or its intended members, yet they do not defend and promote the teaching of the Magisterium; indeed, they even openly attack it. While their members may claim a desire to conform their lives to the teaching of Jesus, in fact they abandon the teaching of his Church.
Cardinal Ratzinger hardly extinguished corrosive doctrinal ambiguities under the cover of pastoral sensitivities. In 1996, shortly before his death, Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago requested the Windy City Gay Chorus to perform at his funeral. It took place at Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral. Marianne Duddy, president of the national Gay Catholic group, Dignity U.S.A observed, “This is a magnificent gesture to let it be known that he acknowledged the presence of Gay and Lesbian people within the Church community.”
Studied ambiguity has become a cornerstone of much of contemporary ecclesiastical policy-making. Pope Francis recently appointed Archbishop (now Cardinal-designate) Victor Manuel Fernández as the head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF). The Archbishop is the author of Heal Me With Your Mouth: The Art of Kissing and seems to be an expert on marriage, but undoes a clear understanding of marriage with LGBTQ ambiguities:
…marriage” in the strict sense is only one thing: that stable union of two beings as different as male and female, who in that difference are capable of generating new life. There is nothing that can be compared to that and using that name to express something else is not good or correct. At the same time, I believe that gestures or actions that may express something different should be avoided. That is why I think that the greatest care that must be taken is to avoid rites or blessings that could feed this confusion. Now, if a blessing is given in such a way that it does not cause that confusion, it will have to be analyzed and confirmed. [Emphasis added.]
Ambiguous hypotheticals to the contrary, there will never be a blessing for same-sex “unions” that doesn’t confuse.
Archbishop Fernández’s studied ambiguity is not without precedent. In 2006 he undermined the Church’s teaching on contraception using the “Christian hierarchy of values crowned by charity” to rationalize the intrinsic evil of contraception. He describes a difficult marital situation and then laments an “inflexible refusal of any use of condoms.”
However, Cardinal-designate Fernández—the new watchdog for Catholic orthodoxy in the Vatican—isn’t ambiguous about the art of kissing: “The penetrating kiss is when you suck and slurp with the lips. The penetrating kiss is when you stick in your tongue. Watch out for teeth.” In his defense, the Cardinal-designate explained his early book targeted, well, teenagers and quoted many of their descriptions of kissing. What bishop would issue a “letter of good standing” for a priest who speaks to kids like this? A breathtaking double standard.
Several presumed Church-affiliated organizations—such as the LGBTQ activist group New Ways Ministry—use the tactics of studied ambiguity in promoting dissident moral doctrines. In 2010, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, writing on behalf the bishops of the United States and echoing then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1999 notification, warned:
New Ways Ministry has recently criticized efforts by the Church to defend the traditional definition of marriage as between one man and one woman and has urged Catholics to support electoral initiatives to establish same-sex ‘marriage.’ No one should be misled by the claim that New Ways Ministry provides an authentic interpretation of Catholic teaching and an authentic Catholic pastoral practice. Their claim to be Catholic only confuses the faithful regarding the authentic teaching and ministry of the Church with respect to persons with a homosexual inclination.
That was then.
The recent papal appointment of Father James Martin, S.J. as a member of the Synod on Synodality provides another aspect of the web of doctrinal confusion among churchmen. According to the Jesuit periodical America: “Father Martin is a Jesuit priest, editor at large at America magazine and the founder of Outreach, a ministry for L.G.B.T. Catholics. Since 2017, he has served as a consultor to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communications.”
In 2016, New Ways Ministry–the same group disciplined by Cardinals Ratzinger and George—awarded Martin the “New Ways Ministry’s Bridge Building Award, which honors individuals “who by their scholarship, leadership, or witness have promoted discussion, understanding, and reconciliation between LGBT people and the Catholic Church.” Faithful priests and bishops go unrewarded for promoting the Sacrament of Penance as the primary means of reconciliation.
In 2017, Father Paul Mankowski, S.J., got to the heart of the ambiguities of Martin in his review of Martin’s book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity:
If the man next to me in the pew is struggling with kleptomania, I have no reason to believe he denies church teaching on property rights. But a person who announces himself as “gay” for that very reason (so it would appear) regards his same-sex attraction not merely as a libido experienced but as an identity embraced, and this embrace seems all but impossible to reconcile with Catholic doctrine.
Indeed, among a good confessor’s duties is to disabuse a penitent of “LGBTQ” labels. (Nobody is “transgendered,” for example. They are either male or female.) The designations are purely political and enshrine the legitimacy of the sinful inclination. (It is even spiritually unhealthy to proudly self-identify as an alcoholic, however necessary it is to recognize the enslaving predilection.)
Before he died in 2020, Mankowski sent around a photo of a group of flamboyant Jesuits dressed as Easter bunnies [sic] to a wide audience. He wrote that one of the Jesuits studied theology concurrently with him at Weston and was a pastor of a gay-friendly parish in California. He said that the priest
…marched in all the gay pride parades, but doubtless ‘celibate’ according to the assurances of Jim Martin. Then (prepare for the shocking revelation) he left the Catholic Church, turned Anglican, and is now an Episcopal priest married to his chum. [The priest is] wearing the grey clerical shirt in the bar photo. The bunny to his left is currently a Jesuit priest in my province, studying in Manhattan. Of course, we are all obliged to believe that Paddy is “celibate” as well—as long as the fiction is convenient for Paddy, that is.
(The expansive and extraordinary wit and wisdom of Fr. Mankowski can be found in Diogenes Unveiled, edited by Phil Lawler, and Jesuit at Large: Essays and Reviews by Paul V. Mankowski, edited by George Weigel, both published by Ignatius Press.)
Pope Francis had several cordial meetings and phone calls with Martin before Martin’s appointment to the Synod. In his handwritten letter to the Jesuit in 2021, the Pope wrote: “Regarding your… [Outreach LGBT Ministry Conference], I want to thank you for your pastoral zeal and your ability to be close to people, with that closeness that Jesus had and that reflects the closeness of God.”
Very few of these men and women [Catholics who are struggling with same-sex attraction] identify themselves as “gay” or wish to be so designated. They are simply Catholics, neither more nor less, struggling (as do the rest of us) with the spiritual and moral hardships that come their way. It is astonishing that Martin seems never to have met such a person.
Alas, nobody speaks of the “shoplifters’ community,” and Jesus didn’t eat and drink with “the publican community.” Even the Pharisees called it right. He ate with sinners, and Jesus explained sinners need Him as “a physician” (cf. Mk. 2:17).
In 2022, Luxembourg’s Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich (also a Jesuit), the Pope’s relator general of the Synod on Synodality, called for a change in the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. He said, “I believe that the sociological-scientific foundation of this [Church teaching on homosexuality] is no longer correct.” By condoning sodomy (as he awaits papal ratification), the Cardinal implicitly calls into question the charitable work and motives of faithful Catholic priests in the confessional and undermines the confidence of penitents.
I believe that the fix is in. The target of these doctrinal stealth bombers is clear. The Synod on Synodality will almost certainly seek to enshrine the “pastoral, not doctrinal” studied ambiguities that tear at the fabric of the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics. The equivocations of many high-ranking Catholic prelates—and priests such as James Martin—on same-sex attraction have not only given up on forgiving sins, they undermine the work of priests in the trenches. By default, they allow LGBTQ activists to depict faithful priests as cruel and heartless enemies of the “LGBTQ community.” They uncharitably discourage many same sex-attracted persons who struggle with God’s grace, often heroically, against temptations.
It has become common to refer to the Synodal Church. It has taken decades, but the battle is now open for all to see. We need the Catholic Church and a return to Pope VI’s appeal for clarity with charity.
Studied ambiguities shall not stand. “Nothing is hid that shall not be made manifest, nor anything secret that shall not be known and come to light” (Lk. 8:17).
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