If Facebook followers, book sales, and column inches are any measure, then Fr. James Martin has some claim to be the most influential priest in the English-speaking world—which is one reason for the enormous fuss he frequently generates. Another reason is the widespread suspicion that he may not be in total agreement with Catholic doctrine. Fr. Martin dismisses that charge: “I’ve been accused of heresy, ridiculously, by some critics,” he wrote last month, protesting that in his recent book Building a Bridge “I was careful to stay well within the bounds of Church teaching.”
What confuses the issue is the haste—and, occasionally, the uncharitableness—of some of Fr. Martin’s critics. For instance, Fr. Martin is on record as saying: “The teaching that LGBT people must be celibate their entire lives . . . has not been received” by the “LGBT community.” At this point, a chorus will announce: “Fr. Martin says LGBT people don’t have to observe Church teaching!” But of course, he has not quite said that—even if he seemed about to.
This is the defining feature of Fr. Martin’s most provocative statements: They seem to be pointing in a particular direction, but they do no more than point. Interpreting such remarks is like examining a chessboard that has been suddenly abandoned during the middlegame. You think you can see what lines of attack White was opening up, you think you can see where Black was hoping to gain material . . . but since the game was abandoned, you will never know.
For instance, in the just-mentioned passage (one that has been acutely criticized elsewhere), Fr. Martin says:
For a teaching to be really authoritative it is expected that it will be received by the people of God, by the faithful. So you look at something, like, say, the Assumption . . . people accept that. They go to the Feast of the Assumption, they believe in the Assumption. It’s received. From what I can tell, in the LGBT community, the teaching that LGBT people must be celibate their entire lives—not just before marriage as it is for most people but their entire lives—has not been received.
The expected “therefore” is that the teaching is not authoritative, and so could change—a view that would plainly contradict the entire Catholic tradition. But Fr. Martin leaves us hanging.
Sometimes he comes very close to an explicit statement. In 2001, Fr. Martin wrote: “The surprise is why a church that allows women in its name to die, does not also allow them in its name to lead.” Although Fr. Martin does not actually say so, this reads like an implied endorsement of women’s ordination.
If Fr. Martin wished to repudiate the more heterodox responses to his work, he could do so. One editorial about Building a Bridge said that Fr. Martin’s book should prompt us to “rethink the entirety of the church’s sexual ethics.” The piece offered as two models Fr. Charles Curran (censured by Rome for a long list of dissenting positions) and Sr. Margaret Farley (who, among other remarks, has informed readers: “It could be said that masturbation actually serves relationships rather than hindering them”). If I wrote a book that inspired such an editorial, my reaction would be along the lines of “How dare you” or, at the very least, “That is really not what I meant.” Fr. Martin’s response was, instead: “I’m very grateful to the editors of @NCRonline for this thoughtful editorial.” The implication, again, is that the editorial took a perfectly sensible approach . . . though Fr. Martin does not actually say so.
What are we to make of all these remarks, given Fr. Martin’s affirmations that he is “careful to stay well within the bounds of Church teaching”? Well, there are two ways of staying within the bounds of Church teaching. There is the Catholic approach, which is to affirm these teachings as perennially, immutably true. And there is a very different approach, which Samuel Johnson once described in the context of the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles: Some Anglicans, he told Boswell, “have considered them to be only articles of peace, that is to say, you are not to preach against them.”
The simplest explanation, I suggest, is that this is Fr. James Martin’s attitude. He will not preach directly against certain of the Church’s teachings. But will he affirm them as true? Let me give him the last word. Last week I emailed Fr. Martin (who, by the way, is an exceptionally prompt and courteous correspondent) to put the following question: “My impression is that you accept Church teaching against gay sex and women’s ordination, but that you think these teachings could change in the future. Is that fair?”
First Things readers are perceptive enough that I needn’t say what Fr. Martin’s reply does and does not answer:
Building a Bridge does not challenge any church teaching. Otherwise, it would not have received the formal ecclesial approval (Imprimi Potest) of my Jesuit superiors; nor would it have received the endorsement of two cardinals, including one Vatican official, and several bishops. For that matter, I don't challenge any church teaching either. Nor will I. The book intentionally does not address questions of sexual morality, since I wanted to focus on areas of possible commonality between the institutional church and LGBT Catholics. Why does a book encouraging “respect, compassion and sensitivity,” as the Catechism asks, have to be seen only through the lens of sex? Not everything has to be about sex.