As I write these words I’m looking at an untitled cartoon from the National Catholic Reporter in the Wojtyla-era 1980s. It’s an image of an elaborate canopy with praying angels draped over a Chair of Peter—in this case, a toilet with the papal insignia. It’s tied to a column that argues, among other things, that the “Catholic church is uncomfortable with two things. Sex and bowel movements.”
The humor is childish. It’s lightweight snarkiness compared to much of the Reporter’s caustic fare for the past few decades. It pales next to the savage anti-Roman woodcuts of early Lutheran polemics. But the cartoon’s message is nonetheless—how to say it?—not one of filial esteem. Or even Christian civility.
I remembered the cartoon, and its source, while reading Massimo Faggioli’s recent (Sept. 18) thoughts in La Croix’s online international edition. In “Catholic Cyber-Militias and the New Censorship,” Faggioli rightly worries about the river of vitriol now “profoundly changing the communion of the Catholic Church.” He also generously mentions my own public repudiation of the tactics of groups like the Lepanto Institute and Church Militant during our 2015 ramp-up for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia and the visit of Pope Francis.
But Dr. Faggioli’s main focus is Fr. James Martin, S.J. And for good reason. Some of the recent attacks on Martin, sparked by his book Building a Bridge, have been inexcusably ugly. Fr. Martin is a man of intellect and skill whose work I often admire. Like all of us as fellow Christians, he deserves to be treated with fraternal good will. It’s one thing to criticize respectfully an author’s ideas and their implications. It’s quite another to engage in ad hominem trashing. In Dr. Faggioli’s view, Fr. Martin is yet another victim brought low by a mob of conservative cyber-militias. And these militias have allegedly been fostered by a generation of John Paul II and Benedict XVI bishops, who reshaped “the U.S. episcopate in the image of the ‘culture warrior.’”
That last line is worth a pause. As someone appointed as a bishop by the late John Paul, I’ll offer just two brief thoughts.
First, all of us who claim to be Christians, wherever we locate ourselves on the ecclesial spectrum, have the duty to speak the truth with love. Culture warriors come in all shapes and shades of opinion. The bitterness directed at the person of Fr. Martin is not just unwarranted and unjust; it’s a destructive counter-witness to the Gospel. But it’s also hardly new. It has a perfect mirror-image in the poisonous sarcasm, contempt, and systematic cultivation of skepticism and dissent that has marked some self-described “progressive” Catholic scholars, authors, columnists and publications for decades. It would be false—one is tempted to say “deceitful”—to suggest that today’s internal Church divisions are mainly the work of right-wing cyber-militias, when so many other culprits readily spring to mind.
Second, before we prematurely enter another name on our list of Catholic martyrs, we should remember that Fr. Martin’s book is not above legitimate, serious criticism that has nothing to do with ad hominem rancor.
Some might suggest that disputes over Building a Bridge, given its call for closer dialogue with the LGBT community, are really about whether we’re willing to eliminate judgmentalism from Church life. But that’s simply wrong. Clear judgment, tempered by mercy but faithful to Scripture and constant Church teaching, is an obligation of Catholic discipleship—especially on moral issues, and especially in Catholic scholarship. The perceived ambiguities in some of Fr. Martin’s views on sexuality have created much of the apprehension and criticism surrounding his book. There’s nothing vindictive in respectfully but firmly challenging those inadequacies. Doing less would violate both justice and charity.
We live at a time when civility is universally longed for and just as universally (and too often gleefully) violated. In many ways, our time resembles the widespread unrest on the brink of the Reformation, a kind of “Reformation 2.0” moment. The details of our moral and ecclesial disputes are very different from those of five centuries ago—none of the Reformers, Protestant or Catholic, could have imagined what they would loose or where it would lead—but the gravity of our arguments is just as real, and the results will be just as far-reaching.
Cyber-militias, like culture warriors, come in all shapes and shades of opinion. The lesson of history is simple. If we’ve learned anything over the past five hundred years, we might at least stop demonizing each other. On matters of substance, bad-mouthing the other guy only makes things worse.
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is archbishop of Philadelphia and author of Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World.
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