On Monday, September 30, Pope Francis — the first Jesuit pope — sat down in the library of the Apostolic Palace with fellow Jesuit Fr. James Martin for a half-hour private audience. Gerard O’Connell, writing for the Jesuit-run America magazine, says, “It was their third meeting but their first substantial conversation.”
Be that as it may, Martin is hardly an unknown at the Vatican. He is both a popular and a deeply controversial figure. An editor for America and appointed by the pope as a consultor to Vatican communications in 2017, Martin is most identified with a relentless campaign to align the Church and her teachings with LGBT ideology. His 2017 book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity, was endorsed by progressive cardinals Kevin Farrell and Joseph Tobin, the latter of whom called the book “brave, prophetic, and inspiring” and deemed it a reminder that “LGBT Catholics … are as much of a part of our church as any other Catholic.”
Bishop McElroy of San Diego, who also gave an endorsement, took the sentiment further: “The Gospel demands that LGBT Catholics must be genuinely loved and treasured in the life of the church.” He said Martin’s book “provides us with the language, perspective, and sense of urgency to replace a culture of alienation with a culture of merciful inclusion.”
And Martin has certainly been included by this pope.
“Dear friends:” Martin tweeted after this week’s meeting. “Today Pope Francis received me for a private 30-minute audience in the Apostolic Palace, where I shared with him the joys and hopes, and the griefs and anxieties, of LGBT Catholics and LGBT people worldwide.”
The official Twitter account of the Jesuits was quick to weigh in:
No hidden agendas.
Just two brothers in the Lord in an honest conversation about how best to reach those who feel as if they are on the margins.
This is the Gospel at work in our Church today. pic.twitter.com/re6r5D8kvy
— Society of Jesus (@TheJesuits) September 30, 2019
Martin would not disclose the details of what he discussed with the pope, saying only that he and the pope “laughed several times” and that he “saw this audience as a sign of the Holy Father’s care for LGBT people.”
Martin constantly beats this drum: in his view, the Church needs to be better about embracing not just those with same-sex attraction, but those involved in active same-sex relationships. He is keen to challenge his critics, arguing that he never says anything in violation of Church teaching, but the defense is anemic, when one considers the implications of some of his statements. Among the most infamous of these was when he told a man at a talk at Villanova in 2017 that he hoped “in ten years” he’d be “able to kiss your partner or, you know, soon to be your husband” during the sign of peace at Mass.
Writing for LifeSiteNews, Dorothy Cummings McLean notes that Martin has garnered opposition from “high-ranking churchmen and respected Catholic lay academics (here and here) for dissenting from Catholic sexual teaching.” McLean continues:
Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, has called Fr. Martin “one of the most outspoken critics of the church’s message with regard to sexuality.” Cardinal Raymond Burke has called the celebrity priest’s teaching “not coherent with the Church’s teaching on homosexuality.”
Earlier this month, Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia released a statement noting that Fr. Martin’s “statements and activities” have caused confusion.
“A pattern of ambiguity in his teachings tends to undermine his stated aims, alienating people from the very support they need for authentic human flourishing,” Chaput wrote. “Due to the confusion caused by his statements and activities regarding same-sex related (LGBT) issues, I find it necessary to emphasize that Father Martin does not speak with authority on behalf of the Church, and to caution the faithful about some of his claims.”
Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois quickly issued a statement supporting Chaput, saying that aspects of Martin’s teachings are “deeply scandalous,” and his “messages create confusion among the faithful and disrupt the unity of the Church.”
O’Connell notes that the meeting between Martin and the pope took place not at Casa Santa Marta, where he lives, but in his private library, where he meets heads of state, members of the curia, and other dignitaries.
“By choosing to meet him in this place,” O’Connell writes, “Pope Francis was making a public statement. In some ways, the meeting was the message.”
It was a message that was no doubt received by the dubia cardinals, who, three years later, and having lost two of their number to death, still have not had their request for an audience with the pope granted, in order that they might discuss their grave concerns about his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia.
The meeting with Martin also sends another message: that the pope knows the controversial priest’s positions, making it impossible for positivists to explain away the favor Francis has shown Martin as a mere product of ignorance.
Another Jesuit, Fr. Thomas Reese, pressed the significance of Martin’s views — and the pope’s tacit endorsement of them — in a September 30 article for Religion News Service.
Referencing the pope’s infamous “who am I to judge” comments about a notoriously homosexual priest in his employ, Reese pivots immediately to an attack on those concerned with Martin’s agenda.
“Conservative Catholics are upset,” he writes, “that Francis is more concerned about sins of exploitation and injustice than sexual sins between consenting adults.”
“Consenting adults” in this context is less of a dog whistle and more of an air horn, the phrase having become synonymous in social discourse with the attitude that whatever goes on in the bedroom is perfectly acceptable, as long as everyone participating gives consent.
Reese goes on to condescend to Catholics who think “sexual sins are the worst kind of sin,” saying that “for the scrupulous, weekly confession was all about having dirty thoughts.”
On the matter of homosexuality, he continues:
Sex between people of the same gender was an unspeakable sin. I grew up in the 1950s and had no idea what homosexuals were until I was in my 20s, although “sissies” were subject to bullying in grammar school and high school. Perhaps I was just out of it.
At the same time, the clergy and the convent were always an attractive vocation for good gay Catholics. After all, if you don’t want to marry and can’t have sex, why not be a priest or nun? The priesthood or religious life gave you a socially acceptable explanation for why you did not marry.
Celibacy, however, is neither easy nor natural. Conservatives feel that any softening of the church’s approach to sexual sins will release a flood of promiscuity. Without chastity, there will be unwed pregnancies and disease. The only way to keep young people from having sex is by scaring the hell out of them.
Older people who grew up under this moral regime were appalled by the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Unwed pregnancies, abortions and disease did increase. They saw the church as the last bulwark against this cultural revolution.
But few people today worry about going to hell. Even using traditional Catholic morality, many moralists and confessors believe that most sexual sins occur under conditions where there is not “sufficient reflection” or “full consent of the will” to qualify as mortal sins, even if you believe that all sexual acts are “grave matter.”
Moralists, one assumes, like those involved in the drafting of Amoris Laetitia.
Reese pays lip service to the fact that sexual sins “were always grave matter” — the use of the past tense here is noteworthy — and says neither Francis nor Martin has “contradicted the church’s traditional teaching against sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman.” Nevertheless, he concludes, “Francis and Martin are simply imitating Jesus, who, by his example and words, taught us that our God is a compassionate Father who cares for all his children.”
Not judging disordered behavior that “cries out to heaven for vengeance.” Treating tolerance of the same as nothing more than a simple imitation of Jesus. The whole thing reminds me of a meme that was being passed around in response to Martin and Francis a couple of years back:
The Gospels can say whatever you want them to say if you redact them enough.
Martin’s lengthy but secretive audience aroused in me a darker thought: with another consistory for the creation of new cardinals taking place this Saturday (October 5), and Cardinal Kasper’s recent confirmation that the pope is absolutely stacking the deck in the hopes of ensuring an ideological successor at the next conclave, what if Martin is about to get a red hat?
You may think it far-fetched, but is it?
Canon 351 states that candidates to become cardinals must “have been ordained at least into the order of the presbyterate.” (Those who are not yet bishops must receive episcopal consecration when elevated.)
They are also supposed to be “especially outstanding in doctrine, morals, piety, and prudence in action.” Sadly, we already know from multiple consistories, perhaps especially the most recent one, that Francis doesn’t give a tinker’s damn about that particular requirement.
Though it wasn’t the only elevation to raise eyebrows, consider the case of José Tolentino Calaça de Mendonça, who was merely another controversial priest endorsing a strange Gospel at the beginning of 2018. Practically unknown, Mendonça garnered attention after writing an introduction to a book about feminist theology by Spaniard Sister Maria Teresa Forcades — a progressive Benedictine nun, social activist, and speaker known for her support of “queer theology,” homosexual relationships, contraception, abortion, and so-called “feminist ordination.”
“Teresa Forcades I Vila,” Mendonça said, “reminds us of the essential thing: that Jesus of Nazareth did not codify laws or lay down rules. Jesus simply lived. That is, he constructed an ethic of relationship; he embodied the poetry of his message in the visibility of his flesh; he displayed his own body as a premise.”
Evidently, his “no rules Jesus” caught the ear of the pope; in February of 2018, he was asked to give a Lenten retreat to Francis and other members of the curia. In September of that year, he was consecrated an archbishop and appointed archivist and librarian of the Holy Roman Church.
Last month, Mendonça was made a cardinal.
So what of Fr. Martin? As a popular speaker and author with a sizable following and the freedom to challenge the Church’s traditional understanding of human sexuality with impunity, it’s possible that he might not even want the job. But it would empower him in a way little else could; after all, a cardinal cannot be restricted in his movement throughout the Church. He could not be kept from speaking in a diocese by an orthodox bishop. Canon 357 §2 states, “In those matters which pertain to their own person, cardinals living outside of Rome and outside their own diocese are exempt from the power of governance of the bishop of the diocese in which they are residing.”
It’s a frightening thought, but as a practical matter, it seems it would change little. Martin has been acting without fear of consequence for years. A Cardinal Martin, however, would carry more weight. And he would have a vote in the next conclave.
Even if Martin simply continues as a priest, the Vatican and, by extension, an empowered network of Jesuits, has sent the clear message that his views are welcome, and the orthodox concerns of the faithful are not.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.