Does it Entail a Denial of Church Teaching on Gravely Disordered Homosexual Sex?
First of all, if we are seeking to be objective and honest (as well as charitable) we have to interpret this incident in light of past pronouncements. Pope Francis has made it very clear that he accepts all of Church teaching on this matter. See my recent paper: Pope Francis vs. Same-Sex “Marriage”: The Record [3-25-21]. About ten days before that, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had answered “Negative” to the question: “Does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?” This was done with the pope’s approval. The Catechism is also clear on the topic.
These all involve very clear, unambiguous affirmations of traditional Catholic teaching on sexuality and the intrinsic nature of (sacramental) marriage as between a man and a woman. Sodomy (a word we scarcely hear anymore) remains a grave mortal sin. So does non-procreative and “contraceptive” sexuality: whether between a man and a woman or two men or two women.
With that background, let’s now take a look at what the pope wrote with regard to Fr. James Martin (well-known for his outreach to the LGBTQ community). Crux (6-27-21) reports his words in a personal letter to Fr. Martin (words not from the pope bracketed):
I want to thank you for your pastoral zeal and your capacity to be close to people, with that closeness that Jesus had and which reflects the closeness of God. Our Father from Heaven becomes close with love to each of his children, each and every one of them. His heart is open for everyone one. He’s Father. The ‘style’ of God has three characteristics: closeness, compassion and tenderness. This is how he comes close to each one of us.
[Francis also told Martin that, thinking of his pastoral style, the pope sees he’s constantly] trying to imitate this style of God. You’re a priest for everyone. I pray for you so that you continue this way, being close, compassionate and with a lot of tenderness.
[Lastly, Pope Francis said that he prayed for Martin’s] parishioners [whom God] has placed within your care [for you] to protect them, and to make them grow in the love of our Lord Jesus Christ.
My friend Joe Garcia translates the same letter as follows:
June 21, 2021
Rev. Fr. James Martin, S.J.
Dear brother, Thanks for your mail and the photos. Thank your nephew for his kindness to me and for having chosen the name Francis…and congratulate him for the socks…they made me laugh. Tell him I pray for him and for him to, please, do the same for me. Regarding your P.S., I want to thank you for your pastoral zeal, and for your capacity for being near to [these] persons, with that nearness Jesus had and which reflects the nearness of God. Our Father in Heaven approaches [“gets near”] with love each one of His children, each and every one. God’s “style” has three marks: nearness, compassion, and tenderness.
In this manner He gets close to each one of us. Thinking of your pastoral work, I see that you continually seek to imitate this style of God’s. You are a priest for all [men and all women], just as God is Father for all [men and all women]. I pray for you, that you may stay that way, being near, compassionate and with much tenderness.
I also pray for your faithful, your “parishioners,” all those whom the Lord places [on you] for you to care for them, to protect them, and for you to make them grow in the love for our Lord Jesus Christ. Please, do not forget to pray for me. May Jesus bless you and the Holy Virgin protect you. Fraternally, Francis
Now, is there any denial of Church teaching in that letter? No; we can’t possibly say that there is. The argument at this point (particularly among vocal papal critics) concentrates on Fr. Martin’s teaching, which is said to contradict Church teaching. Therefore, if the pope praises him, by implication, he must be praising the dissenting, heterodox views as well. That’s not only illogical, but reading in-between the lines, and this is often a problem among those who are quick to judge the pope and place him in a theologically liberal / dissident / heterodox category.
As an apologist and well-known defender of Pope Francis (for whatever it’s worth), I have never found that he denies any Church dogma or doctrine, and I have defended him now 194 times (including this present instance). No one has ever accused me (i.e., with any solid, objective evidence) of not being theologically orthodox. I accept all that the Church obligates and binds Catholics to believe (all dogmas and doctrines that are required). I utterly detest theological liberalism and dissent and have a web page about that, too.
So, what are our choices in how to interpret what the pope has done? Roughly the following, in my opinion:
1) The pope knows full well that Fr. Martin denies Church teaching on sexuality (assuming for a moment that he does), and wholly endorses his departures by implication, in praising him. He’s sending a message (wink wink) to people in “his camp.” This would amount to him equivocating and lying through his teeth in all those instances where he clearly affirms traditional Church teaching. And his reactionary critics (e.g., Abp. Vigano, Taylor Marshall, Steve Skojec, Peter Kwasniewski) and many non-reactionary ones as well (e.g., Phil Lawler) think precisely that about him, as I have documented many times. This is the “Pope Francis as a conscious subversive agent of Satan” interpretation.
2) The pope is aware that Fr. Martin denies Church teaching (assuming he does), and in blessing him, is being “diplomatic”: i.e., praising the things he does which are good and simply not commenting on the bad, dissenting things, which he himself disagrees with. If this were the case, I would say that the pope — with all due respect and reverence — was being negligent, in not addressing sin and dissent where it needs to be addressed.
3) The pope is unaware that Fr. Martin denies Church teaching (assuming he does), and so blesses him in ignorance and naivete.
4) The pope believes (rightly or wrongly, as to the actual facts to be ascertained) that Fr. Martin adheres to Church teaching, and is blessing his compassionate outreach efforts, which don’t entail such a denial, and are in line with the Catechism’s call for compassion and acknowledgment that a homosexual condition (as opposed to sexual acts) is not itself a sin.
Personally, though I haven’t followed Fr. Martin’s ministry and public statements at all, my guess is that #4 describes best what happened.
I can picture many people wondering how I can think that, and perhaps thinking that I am myself naive and out of the loop; a special pleader (I’ve been called all these things and many more). Well, let me explain (for those who think enough of my work and integrity to continue reading). I have seen one instance where Fr. Martin flat-out asserted that the Bible was wrong or in error about homosexuality. In a tweet on 10-23-19, he wrote:
Interesting: “Where the Bible mentions [same-sex sexual] behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether the biblical judgment is correct. The Bible sanctioned slavery as well and nowhere attacked it as unjust.
Note that he is referring to sexual activity, not just orientation. As for the Bible’s view of slavery is an extremely complex issue. As an apologist, I have written at length about it twice:
In short, the issue of slavery is not analogous to the nature of permissible sexuality. Of course Fr. Martin’s casual dismissal of the inspired revelation of Scripture doesn’t sit well with me, as one who defends the inspiration and infallibility on a weekly basis. That’s the arbitrary theologically liberal / pick-and-choose cafeteria mentality that I despise. And it’s arguably the root of the problem with dissent.
So what exactly does Fr. Martin believe? And can he be trusted in his report? That’s the $64,000 question. Todd Aglialoro, who edited three of my four bestselling books, and is now an editor and writer at Catholic Answers (CA wanted to hire me in 2011, and published my book on sola Scriptura), wrote the article, “What Does Fr. James Martin Really Believe?: Four questions in search of clear answers from the celebrated pro-LGBT priest” (9-19-19). What he rhetorically asks in this article is what I would ask, too (and I wish Fr. Martin would reply):
Assuming people’s sincerity is a good and noble thing. But Fr. Martin makes it hard sometimes, and this latest tweet, in which he refers approvingly to a same-sex “marriage” and parenting arrangement, is just another example to throw on the pile. This leaves many observers with a massive disconnect between his assertions.
But maybe some simple followup will fix that. Maybe we can get to the bottom of all this by engaging Fr. Martin’s own interest in… Catholic questions. In that spirit, I respectfully pose to Fr. Martin these four questions, along with an open invitation to make public his answers on Catholic.com or Catholic Answers Live.
1. Does God positively will that some people possess and act upon homosexual desires as their natural, correctly ordered sexuality?
Father, when you tweeted “Pride Month” greetings to your “LGBTQ friends,” urging them to be “proud” of their “God-given dignity” and “gifts” and their “place in the world,” did you mean to insinuate that homosexuality is a gift from God and thus something to embrace? Has God given them a gay nature? (You don’t say it in so many words, but it’s hard to think you’re ignorant of the subtext of the words you chose.) And you seem to suggest just that when you claim that such people are “born that way,” as you did this past June.
If this is the case, homosexual acts cannot be said to be immoral. In fact, prohibiting homosexual acts (as the Church does) would be immoral, because it would prevent people from being who God made them to be and doing what God wants them to do. Then it would make sense to advocate for the de-stigmatization of homosexuality and to encourage those with SSA to fully actualize their attractions as a lifestyle. This could explain your consistentsupport for Catholic gay ministries that affirm homosexual activity while ignoring or throwing shade on those that don’t. It would also provide context for your reference to homosexuality as “a loving act, a form of love… that I have to reverence.”
Do you believe this?
2. If you don’t believe this, aren’t you doing gay people a disservice?
If you think that homosexuality is not a nature given by God, does not have a sexual expression that is moral and ordered to a person’s happiness, then the only other option is that it is unnatural, that its sexual expressions are immoral, and that, however mixed with real friendship or real virtues it may be in any given situation, it’s ultimately ordered away from happiness.
In which case, doesn’t saying that gay people are born that way, and insisting on using the gay-affirmative language that people with SSA “use for themselves,” have the effect of affirming people in what will make them unhappy? To say nothing of leading them away from eternal life? . . .
3. Do you think it is possible for two persons of the same sex to be married?
. . . when you refer to a man and “his husband” and their child; when you are chronically silent on the legal movements to redefine marriage and family despite your influential Catholic profile on the issue; when we do the math and realize that endorsing same-sex marriage is the only logical end point of endorsing homosexuality as God-given and natural—it’s only fair to wonder whether you assent to this teaching. . . .
4. When you say that you assent to Catholic teaching on homosexuality, which propositions do you have in mind?
Same basic question, only broader: Fr. Martin, when you claim that you assent to Catholic teaching on homosexuality, what are you specifically thinking of? Is it the full package: condemnation of homosexual acts as disordered and intrinsically immoral, affirmation that our sexual faculties are ordered toward marital love between a man and a woman, a basic biblical anthropology of sexual difference and complementarity, and so on?
Or do you have in mind a minimalist or cloudy Catholic sexual morality in which very little is actually unchangeable “Church teaching,” which would make assent pretty meaningless? This would make sense of your claim that “for a teaching to be really authoritative it is expected that it will be received by the people of God,” but that Catholic teaching on homosexuality hasn’t been “received” by the “LGBT community.” Is that it? . . .
Here’s a chance to put the suspicion to rest (or confirm it). A chance to tell your many fans and foes alike what it is that you do believe and are trying to accomplish, and put an end to all the speculation and the strife. “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’” (Matt. 5:37).
To read this, it sure seems — at least prima facie – as if Fr. Martin is deliberately equivocating; talking out of both sides of his mouth, saying one thing at one time, and another at another time (depending on the audience), and might possibly be (at worst) an outright deceiver. And this is what Pope Francis himself is accused of.
Yet Todd also mentions another very curious thing:
[D]espite repeatedly seeming to approach or even transgress the limits of Catholic moral teaching on sexual matters, he has steadfastly maintained that he does not challenge that teaching. None other than Robert George, with whom he struck up an unlikely friendship in 2017, has gone to bat for him publicly, stating that when Fr. Martin says he’s faithful, we should take him at his word.
American legal scholar and political philosopher (and Thomist) Robert P. George is a widely respected orthodox Catholic and political conservative. This is well worth looking into, and may provide a key in how to interpret Pope Francis’ letter to Fr. Martin. Dr. George is convinced that Fr. Martin accepts Church teaching on homosexuality:
Fr. James Martin, S.J. is a friend of mine—someone I admire for his impressive gifts and talents, and especially for his uncompromising pro-life witness and the great heart he has for people of all faiths (and none) who suffer, struggle, or are victims of misfortune or injustice. My friendship with Fr. Martin, who is best known for his efforts to shape Catholic ministry to our brothers and sisters who experience same-sex attractions or gender dysphoria, and my willingness to engage him in dialogue and commend him when I believe he is right, have upset some Catholics who fear that he works to undermine the Church’s teachings on sexual morality and marriage. They seem to want me to withdraw my friendship which, some have suggested, “gives him cover.” I must decline.
To be sure, there have been legitimate grounds for concern that Fr. Martin rejects some of the Church’s teachings on sex and marriage. Comments of his in various venues have invited the inference that he does not count these as Church teachings after all. So in an essay here at Public Discourse last October, I asked him to clarify his views. He has since done just that in an America magazine essay clearly, accurately, and quite beautifully setting forth the Church’s teachings on marriage as the conjugal union of a man and woman, on the intrinsic immorality of non-marital (including same-sex) sexual relations, and on same-sex sexual desires as objectively disordered.
Fr. Martin’s explicit recognition of these principles as genuine Church teachings—together with his repeated insistence that he does not reject any of the Church’s teachings—removes doubt (at least for those of us who take Fr. Martin at his word and do not suppose him to be lying about what he actually believes): Fr. Martin accepts the Church’s teachings, including those on sexual morality and the nature of marriage. Whatever ambiguity or perhaps error there may have been before his recent piece in America, Fr. Martin has left no room for detractors (or, for that matter, supporters) to suppose that he believes marriage can be between persons of the same sex or that homosexual conduct can be morally good—propositions that are clearly in defiance of Catholic teaching.
In particular, it would now be unfair for his opponents—and dishonest and disloyal for his friends—to suggest that he considers same-sex sexual relationships morally licit, much less capable of forming a marriage. For this would be to accuse Fr. Martin of lying either (a) in his recent America article spelling out the Church’s teachings on these issues, or (b) in his frequent and consistent denials that he rejects any Church teaching.
If Fr. Martin is lying, which I resolutely do not believe he is, then he, of course, is answerable for that to God. But please note that by the same token, anyone who falsely accuses him of lying is also answerable to God.
For my part, I will keep pursuing friendship with Fr. Martin, and truth-seeking, mutually respectful dialogue on points of disagreement—points that aren’t, then, matters of definitive, settled Catholic teaching. In that spirit, I want to highlight and again thank him for his recent articulation of Catholic teachings pertaining to marriage and homosexuality, and clarify the closely related pastoral questions on which we do disagree. (“Fr. James Martin, Friendship and Dialogue, and the Truth about Human Sexuality”, Public Discourse, 6-17-18)
Dr. George cites at length Fr. Martin’s answers to his questions, from his article, “What is the official church teaching on homosexuality? Responding to a commonly asked question” (America, 4-6-18). I cite a good portion of it:
Homosexual acts are, according to the catechism, “intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to natural law.” (The bulk of the catechism’s attention to homosexuality is contained in Nos. 2357-59.) Consequently, the homosexual orientation (and by extension, any orientation other than heterosexuality) is regarded as “objectively disordered.” . . .
In terms of sexuality, all sex is “ordered” toward what are called the “affective” (love) and “generative” (having children) ends, within the context of a marriage.
Consequently, according to the traditional interpretation of natural law, homosexual acts are not ordered toward those specific ends and so they are deemed “disordered.” Thus, “under no circumstances can they be approved,” as the catechism states. Consequent to that, the homosexual orientation itself is viewed as an “objective disorder” since it can lead to “disordered” acts. . . .
Since homosexual activity is not approved, the person may not engage in any sort of sexual activity: “Homosexual persons are called to chastity.” Here the catechism means celibate chastity, since every person is called to the chaste expression of love—even married couples. (Broadly speaking, chastity, in Catholic teaching, is the proper use of our sexuality.)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church also states that gays and lesbians can and should approach “Christian perfection” through chastity, with such supports as “the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace.” In other words, gays and lesbians, the catechism states, can live holy lives.
Needless to say, all these considerations rule out same-sex marriage. Indeed, official church teaching rules out any sort of sexual activity outside the marriage of a man and a woman—thus the church’s prohibitions on activities like premarital sex, adultery and masturbation.
Fr. Martin ends his article by stating:
[I]t is important for the institutional church to understand the lived experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics. It is also important for this group of Catholics to understand what the church believes and teaches.
Dr. George in his article above then notes his disagreements with Fr. Martin:
So where do we disagree?
Mainly, I think, on whether same-sex attraction (or other forms of feeling related to sexuality, such as the dysphoria or dysmorphia people have in mind when they use the term “transgender”) is a valid basis for establishing one’s identity, and whether we ought to recognize and affirm identity built around same-sex attraction (or those other forms of feeling). Fr. Martin believes we should. I believe we shouldn’t. . . .
On the question whether we ought to affirm “LBGT identity” and speak in terms that signal that affirmation, I strongly believe my position against doing so is more consistent both with the overall teaching of the Church pertaining to marriage and sexuality and with the values that teaching upholds. But I have no doubt that Fr. Martin would contest that point. Since, however, I cannot say that the magisterium of the Church has definitively adopted the position I affirm—I’ve had to draw some inferences, and I’m certainly not infallible—it is incumbent on me to listen carefully to Fr. Martin’s counterarguments and to be willing to give them fair, open-minded consideration. . . .
Having said these things, I would appeal to Fr. Martin to reconsider his support, which has been enthusiastic and vocal, for organizations such as New Ways Ministry and Out at St. Paul’s—organizations that unambiguously contradict and seek to undermine the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexual morality. His support for these organizations—motivated by his laudable desire to reach out in a welcoming spirit to those whom they purport to serve—leads people to wonder whether he is being honest in saying that he does not himself reject the Church’s teachings. New Ways Ministry has twice been severely rebuked by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Out at St. Paul’s has explicitly claimed that Pope Francis is “wrong” to reaffirm the Church’s teaching on marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife. Fr. Martin stands with the Pope and the Church, as I do. But that cannot be done consistently with an endorsement of Out at St. Paul’s.
So there it stands. One can have various opinions as to Fr. Martin’s overall views on these matters (I confess to being skeptical, myself). In those areas where they disagree, Dr. George notes that they are not yet defined by the Church, and so diverse opinions are able to be held (though he thinks his opinion — and I fully agree — is “more consistent both with the overall teaching of the Church pertaining to marriage and sexuality”).
As regards Pope Francis’ opinion of Fr. Martin and his ministry work, then, why could it not be along the same lines of Robert George’s opinion: i.e., an orthodox Catholic accepting at face value a proclamation of Fr. Martin that he, too, accepts Church teaching on the wrongness of homosexual acts, and an endorsement of his outreach efforts only in ways that are perfectly consistent with the teaching of the Church and the Catechism?:
2358 . . . They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. . . .
That seems plausible to me, and it remains true, that — in light of other very clear statements of Pope Francis on the grave sinfulness of homosexual acts and same-sex “marriage” –, we have no reasonable, objective grounds to believe that he thinks any differently in his remarks to Fr. Martin. Dr. Robert George added (which will be a good conclusion):
[W]hich of us is not a sinner who falls short and is constantly in need of love, mercy, and compassion? I would add that it is deeply un-Christian to vilify those who experience same-sex attraction or to regard those who yield to the temptation to engage in homosexual acts as somehow more depraved than those who commit other sexual sins—or sins of, say, dishonesty, pride, greed, or envy.
On all of this, I’m on the same page with Fr. Martin, as I understand him in light of the America article. We stand with the Church. It is not merely that we “reject the sin, but love the sinner,” though we do that; we reject the sin because we love the sinner—radically love him, willing his good for his own sake, affirming the teaching of the Church in all its richness because we recognize that it is liberating and life-affirming.
Summary: I offer an explanation & interpretation of Pope Francis’ glowing statements to Fr. James Martin (with an analogy to Dr. Robert George), which doesn’t entail the pope 1) denying any Church teaching on homosexuality, or 2) lying.