The Bite of Catholic Rhetoric: Ross Douthat versus Fr. James Martin

When your humble author first heard of a discussion on the need for civil Catholic discourse between the New York Times’ resident Harvard-educated conservative Catholic, Ross Douthat, and the public face of the Catholic LGBT movement in America, Fr. James Martin, S.J., he admittedly turned a little queasy. It seemed as though it would be a lovely fireside chat between two Catholic celebrities in which they would set aside the charade of differences they put up for the hoi polloi in the public sphere, engage in careless whispers expressing how they agree on the “important things,” and then swap some tips on how to get a table at that new Somali-El Salvadorian fusion restaurant that just opened up in midtown Manhattan.

Well, dear readers, your humble author is humble enough to admit that he was wrong – sort of.

The discussion was quite good, and remarkably honest. Upon first glance, there are two surprising takeaways.

The first is that Fr. Martin is much more intelligent than meets the eye. While he is best known as the smiling SpongeBob-esque traveling salesman for the LGBT movement, Fr. Martin emerged from the discussion as a Mephistophelean wordsmith who knew exactly what to say to lure Douthat onto his side (or at least attempt to do so). While he does use “old liberal” therapeutic language (which he calls being “charitable and loving”), Fr. Martin wielded his words as craftily as the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, making his arguments sound somewhat orthodox but carefully laying hidden messages for liberals with ears to hear. At one point, Fr. Martin joked that if he tweeted that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, he would “get hate tweets asking why [he] didn’t like the Holy Spirit.” The implication in this (bad) joke is that Fr. James is always orthodox, and the crazy traddies and conservatives who trash-post on his Twitter feed are just nitpicking lunatics with nothing better to do.

The second important takeaway from the dialogue is that Ross Douthat is an honest and sincere Catholic. Douthat stuck to his guns, and, in contrast to Fr. Martin’s seductive, Bernardin-esque theological “lounge language,” Douthat fought with simple Socratic honesty. He admitted that he is often forced into being civil because of his largely liberal audience and even, despite attempts by America Magazine and the National Catholic Reporter to paint a rose-colored portrait of the affair, appeared to clash with Fr. Martin at times. Douthat even was able to take a jab at Fr. Martin, slyly stating, “One of us is wronger than the other.”

More important than these initial thoughts, the chat between Fr. Martin and Mr. Douthat raises more important questions. What is the properly Catholic form of public discourse? Is Fr. Martin right that Christians should use Sesame Street-speak and only say nice things? The answer to this question is extremely important, for it unlocks the modus operandi of not only Fr. James Martin, S.J., but of Pope Francis himself and ultimately reveals how wrong both men are.

Despite attempts by Cardinal Walter Kasper, et al. to challenge the authenticity of the Gospels, the foundation and model of the Christian life is Jesus Christ himself, and it is nothing new to say that Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself used very strong language (and even physical violence) in his debates with those in error, calling the Pharisees in Matthew’s Gospel “serpents” as well as a  “generation of vipers” and even telling them they may be subject to “the judgment of hell.” In John’s Gospel, our Lord further calls the Jews who rejected Him children of the devil. These strong words would get our Lord blocked on social media and probably His account suspended as well.

Rather than “building a bridge” and using Elmo-talk to the Corinthians, St. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, thunders, “Know you not that the unjust shall not possess the kingdom of God? Do not err: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, Nor the effeminate, nor liers with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor railers, nor extortioners, shall possess the kingdom of God.”

This condemnatory and stronger rhetoric has been the hallmark of Catholic rhetoric from the Gospels to…well, Vatican II. In fact, this language has always been used with obstinate sinners and heretics.

When treating the vice of clerical sodomy in his famous Book of Gomorrah, St. Peter Damian writes that the vile sin “prepares snares for the one who walks, and for him who falls into the pit, it obstructs the escape. It opens up hell and closes the door of paradise. It makes the citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem into an heir of the Babylonian underworld. From the star of heaven, it produces the kindling of eternal fire. It cuts off a member of the Church and casts him into the voracious conflagration of raging Gehenna.” Certainly, we would not find these words of the great medieval saint in Fr. Martin’s Twitter feed or his infamous Building a Bridge.

Even when the Church first encountered Protestantism, she used “hateful” and “divisive” language to describe the Lutheran heresy. Pope Leo X in Exsurge Domine refers to Protestants as “foxes” and “lying teachers.” Moreover, with a bit of Italian prejudice for his northern European neighbors, the Medici pope calls Luther “a wild boar from the forest” who seeks to destroy the Italian vineyard of the “triumphant Church.” Rather than dialogue, Leo X argues that the writings of Martin Luther be “condemned, reprobated, and rejected.” It would be hard to imagine such words used today at the USCCB’s Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs when Catholic prelates sit down for chats with graying liberal Protestant bishops, who, when they are not tending their blue-haired social justice warrior flock at church, are tending to their forty-plus cats at home.

Even “modern” popes such as Pope Pius IX  used very strong language to condemn the errors of the Enlightenment and liberalism. In Quanta Cura, Pope Pius IX refers to liberal notions as “evil” and “perverse” and “absurd,” which should be “detested” by all Catholics – Catholic bishops themselves, according to the late holy father, should “exterminate” these evil opinions. Pope Pius’s language would be later echoed by one of his successors, Pope St. Pius X, one of the last popes to follow the example of Jesus Christ and condemn error with rhetorical force.

Sadly, the Catholic press is one of the few places where one can encounter the strong and clear language that Jesus Christ, our Lord, used to condemn error. It is therefore all the more important that Catholic rhetoric elsewhere keep its bite.

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