Fr James Martin is one of the most famous priests in America. His books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies; he’s a popular advisor to the film industry on movies with religious themes; and he’s a constant presence on social and other media. Indeed his status in America is such that the New York Times recently called him ‘a Roman Catholic rock star’.
As you’d expect, there’s huge demand on his time and words. Recently a group of parishes in central New Jersey were delighted when he agreed to give a talk on — ‘Jesus Christ: Fully Human, Fully Divine — and were delighted to announce it.
But, after the parish in which the talk was to be delivered publicised the event, they were inundated with angry phone-calls objecting to the talk. Twitter and other social media described Fr. Martin as variously ‘sick’, ‘wicked’, ‘a heretic’ and, as quoted in the New York Times ‘on the fast track to eternal damnation’. Indeed such was the reaction that the talk had to be moved out of a parish venue to a nearly hall.
So what’s this all about? Father Martin’s ‘sin’ is that, in his most recent book, he calls on Catholics to show LGBT people respect and compassion. The result is that he’s being stalked by right-wing Catholics who do whatever they can to encourage Catholics not to attend his talks and everywhere he goes they orchestrate a media campaign against him in an effort to prevent him speaking.
What’s clear is that Fr. Martin is no heretic. He’s in good standing with his Church, supported by his Jesuit colleagues and respected in his ministry. He’s not rejecting church teaching. He’s doing what Pope Francis himself has done, creating a space in the Catholic Church for LGBT people and creating greater awareness of the need to respect them – something absent from the Church’s attitude in the past when words like ‘intrinsically disordered’ were used to describe them.
The truth is that, in America, the presence of homophobic groups who place themselves under the umbrella of ‘Catholic’, are spewing unimagined levels of vitriol on anyone whom they believe is compromising what they see as ‘Catholic teaching’. It is a sinister and corrosive development that runs counter to the gospel, to the mercy Pope Francis consistently underlines and even to minimal standards of civility and respect.
The problem for the Catholic Church is that, more often than not, their behaviour is not confronted and condemned and they’re given a status disproportionate to their actual numbers. And, of course, by their bullying tactics they continually bring the Catholic Church into disrepute.
There’s a growing awareness of this problem in the Church now that Pope Francis is less amenable to their influence. Heretofore, they were often pushing an open door in terms of how receptive Vatican personnel were to their accusations. Then anyone could make any accusation against priest, bishop or cardinal and a Vatican congregation would give it their full attention, regardless of the credibility of its provenance.
This often meant that church personnel had to spend an inordinate amount of their time responding to Vatican congregations which had indulged accusations (against priests, for example) at face value from self-appointed people who were not, let us say, taken very seriously by those who knew them. Unsurprisingly this led to huge injustices being perpetuated against decent people who had given lifetimes of service to the Church.
It also cheesed off church authorities who had to spend an inordinate amount of their times responding to not very credible accusations.
This abuse was part of the reason why cardinals in electing Pope Francis clearly mandated him to reform the Vatican Curia and why Francis, for four years in a row, laid it on the line every Christmas for Vatican officials, pointing out what he called an ‘unbalanced and debased mind-set of plots and small cliques’ and a culture of ‘self-centredness’ in the Curia.
It’s an on-going battle for Francis and for those interested in reform. Some skirmishes are won and some are lost.
Recently, Vatican officials decided that ex-president of Ireland Mary McAleese should be denied permission to speak in a conference in the Vatican on ‘Why women matter’. McAleese’s credentials as a Catholic – a very prominent Catholic, lecturer in a Catholic university, canon lawyer – are impeccable and her barring from the precincts of the Vatican was a spectacular own goal perpetuated by those who wanted to side-line her influence. (The fact that they’ve effectively created the kind of publicity the organisers of the conference must have dreamed about seems to have passed them by.)
The damage done to Francis’ reform agenda is immense – which, of course, was probably part of the plan – and is the result either of incompetency or conspiracy.
The other skirmish lost was the directive to the Irish Church to remove images of same-sex families from a publication of the World Meeting of Families (WMOF). While every effort has been made to advertise the fact that the WMOF extends an open invitation to all families, another egg-on-our-faces public relations disaster has been inflicted on that meeting, again either through incompetency or conspiracy – and the latter seems the more probable explanation.
The experience of Fr. James Martin is, in microcosm, what’s happening in our Church. Unless those who are fighting an unacceptable rear-guard action against the reforms of Pope Francis are confronted, our Church will pay a high price in indulging their fantasies.