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Fr. James Martin’s Exit Ramp

October 1, 2017 Featured Today No Comments

By SHAUN KENNEY

I have tried unsuccessfully to communicate with Fr. James Martin, SJ, regarding some of the thoughts in his controversial book Building a Bridge, whose topic is supposed to deal with how the Catholic Church can engage with the LGBT community.
Martin’s career has mirrored the path of those Catholic priests who have mastered the fine art of social media. Fr. Barron from Word on Fire was recently appointed an auxiliary bishop for his efforts, and Martin’s advancement from within the Archdiocese of New York to Vatican spokesman within the United States has been heralded by the political left inside the Catholic Church as a victory.
One truly has to wonder why they feel this way. For one, I have previously enjoyed some of Martin’s works. The Jesuit Guide To (Almost) Everything is an interesting approach to Ignatian spirituality for those who are used to a more traditional sic Dominican or Franciscan approach. Between Heaven and Mirth truly was a work of art, offering the idea that a smells-and-bells Catholicism really didn’t have to be all rules and rubric after all.
Fr. Martin’s Seven Last Words was a bit of a disappointment. As it was more marketing than substance, I was not terribly impressed by the insights offered — and that is a purely personal observation apart from any appreciation for Martin’s pastoral style and calm wit.
Yet two things in particular have bothered me in the wake of the last few years of Martin’s ministry. First, Fr. Martin exhibits some of the same troubling signs that many in the Catholic blogosphere fall prey to, namely that every disagreement is heresy, and that all heretics must be shunned. One seems to find this among certain Protestant converts to Catholicism — that to Catholic ears may sound reminiscent of Martin Luther’s acerbic wit but is truly more of a sin of the postmodern age, where authenticity is prized above all things and those who are less than authentic (i.e., those who do not agree with me) are immediately cast out.
Unfortunately, Martin’s tendency to block outside opinions rather than deliver his thoughts and watch the gladiatorial combat ensue — social media’s blessing and curse — is compounded by several very troubling developments in his approach to outreach.
This second issue makes it somewhat complicated to be critical of Martin’s work because the moment one offers criticism, no matter how constructive and genuine one may believe it to be, the instant retribution of being removed from the conversation is an instant response — not of the “mercy” Pope Francis engages in, but of the rhetoric of silencing speech in an effort to silence thought.
One hesitates to suggest that any of these individuals are actively and purposefully engaging in this activity, yet it cannot be helped to notice the dual problem and the divide that it causes. Not every objection is rooted in hate; not every traditionalist is a bigot.
The real root of the problem with Martin’s approach to LGBT outreach isn’t so much the attempt as it is the fact that Martin appears to be making it a one-way street. More accurately, it is the Catholic Church that must accept the individual on their terms, rather than the individual accepting Christ on the terms of sacraments.
Lest one be accused of neo-Pelagianism and an overt rigidity, let us remind ourselves as Catholics that we are all found short of the glory of God. This is not what is at question. What remains unresolved and what might be considered dubious (pun intended?) is whether or not there is an implicit argument being offered by Martin that there is more than one path to salvation.
Both sides should instantly respond with a “Yes!” to Jesus Christ. Yet the idea that actual grace — an extrinsic movement toward the Catholic Church — can be conflated with sanctifying and even sacramental grace is an alarming development of doctrine. Martin does not imply this in his book, but it is not entirely far-fetched to render the observation that Martin’s argument blurs a line which is clear, that those in a state of mortal sin should somehow be conditionally accepted as members of the Catholic faithful.
If Martin believes his approach to be consistent with Pope Francis’ model of the Church as a “hospital for sinners,” then one has to question an approach that duly informs the ill that they are not sick, and in fact quite the opposite. Alternatively, if Martin’s approach is one that invites homosexuals and transgenders into the Church as a loving, Mystical Body of Christ, one has to wonder when (if ever) the sacramental grace is introduced into his argument.
One reads Martin’s short book with a certain expectation that the shoe must drop. Yet at no point in Martin’s epistle does he demonstrate the other side of the argument. Rather than a bridge for the purposes of dialogue and exchange, Martin has constructed a one-way monologue that neither explores nor challenges the other side.
What’s worse, if the arguments are led to their conclusion, then Martin has not provided a bridge at all; merely an exit ramp away from the sacramental grace the Catholic Church provides.

+ + +

This week, I was gratified to receive a letter from Dick M. out of Denver, Colo., who shared with me a book entitled Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming — a pertinent read from The Heartland Institute demonstrating two salient facts: that so-called global warming is far from a man-made phenomenon, and that the science by definition is never settled.
When the secular religions start prattling on over their man-made dogmas, one can rest assured that we are not talking about science but the sort of fanaticism only politics interjects. One can only encourage and share this short but well-researched book to others.
I was also very glad to receive a letter from Thomas M. from St. Paul sharing his thoughts on the condition of Catholic everything — from schools to social institutions — and the relative success of authentic Catholicity against the saccharine provided by the modernizers.
For the generation that follows Pope John Paul the Great, there is a definitive hunger for a Catholicism that stands apart from the world; a voice today’s leaders tend to ignore when they reach for whatever is hip, cool, dope, sick (which my sons inform me means “good”), and so forth.
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus of First Things used to argue that the antidote for such times is simple: fidelity, fidelity, fidelity. In this, we should pray for our priests. No priests, no Eucharist; no Eucharist, no Church. This is no appeal to clericalism, but rather an appeal to honor — an absent word in modern times, to be sure.

+ + +

Of course, I am succeeding (but not replacing) the inestimable Mr. James K. Fitzpatrick for the First Teachers column. Please feel free to send any correspondence for First Teachers to Shaun Kenney, c/o First Teachers, 5289 Venable Rd., Kents Store, VA 23084 — or if it is easier, simply send me an e-mail with First Teachers in the subject line to: svk2cr@virginia.edu.

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