It’s hard to decide who’s winning the Petulance Prize right now: Fr. James Martin, S.J., author of Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity; or the conservative Catholics who have let their essentially well-founded criticisms of the book glide like paper airplanes into ad hominem attacks on Fr. Martin himself. The rhetoric on both sides has been, well . . . catty.
Up until the publication of Building a Bridge, my main acquaintance with Fr. Martin had consisted of excerpting a portion of his very first book, My Life With the Saints (2006), for the religious website Beliefnet, of which I was Catholic editor at the time. The excerpt, titled “The Saint of the Sock Drawer,” was a charming and humor-laced bit of spiritual autobiography: A young man considered himself too intellectually advanced to pray in front of plastic statues—until he realized that the holy men and women the statues represented had been praying for him all his life. My Life With the Saints was a hit, and Fr. Martin followed it with a slew of other books about Jesus, the Jesuits’ founder, Ignatius Loyola, and others, all apparently displaying the same light touch coupled with genuine spiritual insights. I knew that Fr. Martin was on the liberal end of the Catholic spectrum; he’s an editor at large for the Jesuit-published America magazine, known for its predictable progressivism on secular issues and its attacks on the Catholic hierarchy on religious ones. Still, the veneration of the saints and the imitation of Christ can be topics on which liberal and conservative Catholics actually agree. Fr. Martin was indeed “building a bridge,” you might say.
But it seems that at the same time, in the pages of America and on his own Facebook page, Fr. Martin was pursuing another interest: trying to get the Catholic Church to recognize the “LGBT community” as a distinct subgroup and to quit using the phrase “intrinsically disordered” to describe LGBTs’ various sexual inclinations (or, in the case of transgenders, identity inclinations). He gave high-fives to a London bishop who celebrated a “welcoming Mass” for LGTB Catholics and to a gay priest in Minnesota who first came out of the closet and then said it was for OK for Catholics to vote “no” on a 2012 state measure that would have banned same-sex marriage. These and other writings earned Fr. Martin an October 2016 award from New Ways Ministry, a “gay-positive” Catholic organization that has been condemned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops for dissenting from Catholic teaching on the sinfulness of homosexual acts and marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Fr. Martin turned his acceptance speech for the award into an article for America that became the basis of his current and controversial book.
I haven’t read Building a Bridge, but I have read the America article, which is online. It’s easy to see why many conservative Catholics have taken umbrage. Some of Fr. Martin’s bridge-building ideas seem unobjectionable, if petty: He wishes that official church documents would drop the “clinical” word “homosexual” in favor of the blurrier but friendlier word “gay,” and also get rid of the phrase “same-sex attraction”—even though isn’t “same-sex attraction” exactly what gays and lesbians experience? And in all fairness, Fr. Martin begs the LGBT crowd in turn to cease mocking Catholic bishops and their liturgical vestments as in-the-closet “effeminate.” (Are you listening, Andrew Sullivan, you of the fixation with Pope Benedict XVI’s “over-the-top clothing accessories”?) But there is also this from Fr. Martin: “Saying that one of the deepest parts of a person—the part that gives and receives love—is ‘disordered’ in itself is needlessly cruel.” This is a Logical Fallacies 101 red herring: As any Tinder (or Grindr) user can tell you, love and sexual desire (or—here’s that word again—“attraction”) are two different things. Fr. Martin is being . . . Jesuitical.
One of the ironies of Building a Bridge is that while Fr. Martin loves gays and lesbians, gays and lesbians don’t necessarily love him back. In a scathing June 16 review in the Washington Post, lesbian CNN commentator Sally Kohn excoriated Fr. Martin for merely dipping “his toe” into Catholic-LGBT relations instead of going all the way and endorsing gay sex, female clergy, abortion, and a slew of other rainbow causes: “LGBT Catholics don’t just want the lip service of respect, they want actual equal treatment.”
On the other side, conservative Catholics began flooding social media with the kind of intemperate diction that social media inevitably begets; the h-words (for “heresy” and “heretic”) sprang up often. Fr. Martin read aloud some of the less grammatical online diatribes (by people with traddy handles such as @DCLatinMass and @EvropaCrusader) in a Twitter video for his fans. He seemed to have traded in the self-deprecating geniality of “The Saint of the Sock Drawer” for a knowing smirk.
Things escalated after that. A tweet exchange erupted between Fr. Martin and Fr. Thomas Petri, O.P.—a dispute concerning not Fr. Martin’s position on sexual issues, but rather his Christology, evident in a controversial tweet about the Canaanite woman. (Petri later analyzed Martin’s Christological errors in an article for the Catholic Herald.) But any time Fr. Martin is embroiled in a controversy, the Twitterverse gets excited. On September 2, CatholicVote.org tweeted, rather hyperbolically: “And then this Dominican showed up and started beating @JamesMartinSJ like a rented mule. The crowd went wild.”
CatholicVote deleted the tweet—but not before Fr. Martin, again suggesting that the good-humored spiritual autobiographer was long gone, tweeted to CatholicVote: “Enough. I've reported you to Twitter. When you start talking about beating me, even in a supposedly joking way, you cross the line. Enough.” And indeed, the ever–politically correct Twitter duly suspended CatholicVote’s account, although only for twelve hours.
There it might have ended. But into the fray came Austin Ruse, president of the Center for Family and Human Rights, which fights human trafficking and efforts to push abortion through the U.N., and columnist for the Catholic webzine Crisis. Ruse tweeted: “@JamesMartinSJ’s response is so pansified. I do believe he’s out of the closet.” Fr. Martin tweeted back (according to LifeSite News): “Insults like ‘pansy’ are what LGBT people hear, even from Catholics (a columnist @Crisis) Hatred strengthen my desire to advocate for them.” He followed that with: “The man who uses the word ‘pansy’ on Twitter is both a Knight of Malta and of the Holy Sepulchre. So homophobia exists in high echelons.” Ruse responded on September 15 with an entire Crisis column explaining that he’d said “pansified,” not “pansy” (is there a difference?) and accusing Fr. Martin of tattling in order to cost him his jobs at both C-Fam and Crisis. He had earlier tweeted (according to a screenshot): “Turning people in is so effeminate. Man up, Jim.”
None of this has been particularly edifying on either side, and it seems to have resulted in more bridges being dynamited than built. The “saint” of “The Saint of the Sock Drawer” is St. Jude, patron of hopeless causes, whose statue the teen-aged James Martin hid in his bureau after deciding he was too much of a sophisto for saints. Perhaps the good Jude could be persuaded to engineer yet another seemingly hopeless feat: Calming down both the thin-skinned Fr. Martin and his more irascible foes.
Charlotte Allen is a writer living in Washington, D.C.
Editor’s note: This essay has been revised to clarify that Fr. Petri’s dispute with Fr. Martin did not concern Building a Bridge, and that he is not associated with CatholicVote.