Fr. James Martin, an American Jesuit, author and media personality,

Comment: Priest caught in vicious smear campaign

  • September 28, 2017

Fr. James Martin, an American Jesuit, author and media personality, has appeared in this column before for his humour and humility, including his intimate 465-page portrait Jesus: A Pilgrimage.

One can tell through his books and social media presence that Martin thinks deeply and spreads widely the teachings of Jesus, particularly with young adults.

Unfortunately, for the last several weeks Martin has been the victim of a vicious online bullying campaign by so-called “alt-right” Catholic groups. These “cyber-militia” Catholics don’t see the irony in their campaign of hatred in what they claim is in the name of Jesus and the Gospel. Martin has been called a “heretic,” a “pansified” priest, a “homosexualist” and a whole lot worse. A cursory scan of some of these vile posts makes one want to simultaneously laugh at the ignorance and get nauseous over their intolerance.

They’ve so far pressured institutions to cancel three of Martin’s speaking engagements even though he was not to speak about his latest book, the subject that has them so riled up.

Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity urges dialogue between the Church and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Before publication, Martin’s Jesuit superior approved it (and several Cardinals endorsed it) as being in line with Church teachings. Members of the LGBT community — and their parents, siblings and friends — have applauded Martin for opening civilized dialogue that can lead to them feeling more welcome by the Church. So far, the book has sold more than 25,000 copies and sales are spiking due to the alt-right controversy.

“As I was writing the book, I knew that it would be a somewhat controversial topic, even though I was careful to stay well within the bounds of Church teaching,” Martin wrote in The Washington Post on Sept. 21. “My reflections, which can be summarized as a call for respect on both sides, were based on the Gospel and on the Catechism’s call for the Church to treat ‘homosexual persons’ with ‘respect, compassion and sensitivity’. ”

Regardless, the ultra-conservatives are incensed. The attacks have been relentless.

Thankfully, more and more are standing beside Martin against the bullies, even conservative Catholics like Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, who has publicly supported the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage.

“Some of the recent attacks on Martin, sparked by his book Building a Bridge, have been inexcusably ugly,” Chaput wrote in conservative Catholic journal First Things. “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 an anti-bullying show of support, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago invited Martin to speak for two nights in his archdiocese after he was disinvited elsewhere.

Robert McElroy, bishop of San Diego, made an impassioned plea in America Magazine, not only in defence of Martin, but for all Catholics to cut “this cancer of vilification (that) is seeping into the institutional life of the Church.”

In other words, dialogue and civil discourse are paramount and must override bigotry, petulance and distortions.

“Many analyses of Fr. Martin’s arguments have pointed to important problems that do not have easy answers and to the reality that dialogue must always proceed both in respect and in truth,” Elroy cautions.

“The concerted attack on Fr. Martin’s work has been driven by three impulses: homophobia, a distortion of fundamental Catholic moral theology and a veiled attack on Pope Francis and his campaign against judgmentalism in the Church.”

All good points, especially the third. Many ultra-right Catholics do not like our Pope. I know this from emails I’ve personally received and reading elsewhere.

For example, a young Denver priest urges followers to ignore Martin because he advocates “sodomy,” but he also has harsh things to say about Pope Francis elsewhere on his blog. After Francis spoke to the U.S. Congress in 2015, this priest accused the pontiff of “trying to usurp His power” because Francis did not use the words “Jesus” or “Christ.”

I checked the transcript of Francis’ Washington address and the priest is correct on that point: during the 4,000-word speech, Francis did not say Jesus or Christ. But he did say “God” 11 times.

Just as the campaign against Martin distorts fundamental Catholic moral theology of love and empathy, so too does this young priest distort facts to diss Pope Francis. Increasingly, on all issues, we must move from “ad hominem trashing,” as Chaput says, and into civil debate “both in respect and in truth,” as McElroy says. If that happens, maybe some good will come out of the attacks upon Fr. Martin.

(Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at bob@, or @bbrehl on Twitter.)

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