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James Martin Does Teach Heresy: A Response to Trent Horn

Recently, I listened to a podcast from last summer by my friend and colleague, Trent Horn, titled, “Exposing Fr. Martin’s Slippery Tactics.” As usual, Trent was lucid, compelling, and impeccably intellectually honest and fair. Decrying those who assume the motives, intentions, and “real” beliefs of Fr. Martin, Trent asks a rhetorical question and issues a warning:

Is Father Martin a heretic? Don’t throw around ‘heretic’ like it’s just the insult of the week, it’s a very specific term. Canon law says in paragraph 751, heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth, which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith….But here’s the thing, Father Martin has never officially gone on record to say that some article of the faith like this is wrong, he hasn’t done that. So he doesn’t meet the formal definition of heresy, so he’s not guilty of heresy. And when you say that, he can easily say, ‘But I’m not guilty of heresy, these people don’t know what they’re talking about.’

Of course, Trent is absolutely right in this respect: we should listen carefully to others and with charity, not assuming motives and other things that we do not know and about which we therefore have no business making assumptions. As St. Thomas says, “Unless we have evident indications of a person’s wickedness, we ought to deem him good, by interpreting for the best whatever is doubtful about him.”[1] Charity is always our preeminent moral obligation, even when we think we have cause to be suspicious.

But Mr. Horn’s claim that Fr. Martin is in no way a heretic set me to thinking: is that claim true? Is it true that Fr. Martin never rejects or challenges any official teachings of the Church?

I’ve come to believe that he does reject at least some important, official Church teaching, though it’s possible that it may not have occurred to him that he has done so. In what follows, I will attempt to demonstrate that Fr. Martin does in fact teach heresy, making him at least a material heretic.[2]

First, let’s try to understand Fr. Martin’s position and what he actually claims.

To begin with, in multiple places Fr. Martin has contended that the teaching of the Church that people with same-sex attraction (PSSA) must remain celibate does not apply to PSSA, precisely because this teaching of the Church (CCC 2357-9) was never received by the community to which it was directed.[3] In one instance he says the following:

To take a theological perspective, a teaching must be “received” by the faithful.  It’s a complex topic (and I am no professional theologian) but, in general, for a teaching to be complete it must be appreciated, accepted and understood by the faithful.  The tradition is that the faithful possess their own inner sense of the authority of a teaching.  That’s the sensus fidei or sensus fidelium

This has always been part of church teaching.  In any event, it seems like the majority of the LGBT Catholic community does not agree with the church’s teaching on same-sex relations: that is, they are impermissible. From what many LGBT people tell me, that particular teaching doesn’t fit with their own experiences as human beings who love and are loved.  So that teaching, it seems, has not been “received” by the LGBT community, which is the community most affected by it (see also here and here).[4]

It appears that in this clever way Fr. Martin is claiming to uphold all of the Church’s official teachings. It’s an attempt to “have his cake and eat it too”: Fr. Martin can claim that he is not challenging any of the Church’s teachings, because, at least in this case, the “teaching” he is challenging is not valid, because the “teaching” has not been received (accepted).

Thus it seems that there are two important elements in Martin’s stated position. First is the argument that a teaching is not valid unless it is accepted by the community to which it is directed, and, second, the claim by Fr. Martin that he neither challenges nor rejects any official teachings of the Church, and therefore he cannot be accused of being a heretic or teaching heresy.

Martin’s “Reception” Tactic

First, let’s look at the argument that a teaching is not binding upon a community unless it is accepted by the community to which it is directed.

His argument can be stated in the following propositions:

1.) Only teachings of the Church that are accepted (received) by the community to which they are directed are binding upon that community

2.) The community of PSSA have not received the Church’s teaching that homosexual contact is morally illicit and thus they must remain celibate[5]

3.) Therefore, PSSA are not morally obligated to remain celibate

The argument as it stands has a serious problem. If 1.) is correct, then the community of thieves might well refuse to accept the commandment not to steal. The community of drinkers might simply not “receive” the teaching to avoid drunkenness. Those who worshiped the golden calf may have done so with impunity, if they refused to accept the injunction against worshiping false gods and idols. The community of the Protestant Reformers and all of their followers would have had no moral obligation to respect or obey the Magisterium, since they clearly did not “receive” their teachings or authority. And so on. The results are absurd. Thus, 1.) must be rejected as false. Consequently, the conclusion 3.) is also false.

The Catholic Teaching on the Sensus Fidelium

In contrast to Martin, let’s look at what the Church actually says about this doctrine of the Sensus Fidelium. First, I will quote from the 2014 document prepared by the International Theological Commission of the Vatican. As Kwasniewski notes in his important treatise True Obedience: although not magisterial, this document accurately conveys the consensus of the theologians of all times.”[6]

‘Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world’ (1 Jn 4:1). The sensus fidei fidelis confers on the believer the capacity to discern whether or not a teaching or practice is coherent with the true faith by which he or she already lives. . . . The sensus fidei fidelis also enables individual believers to perceive any disharmony, incoherence, or contradiction between a teaching or practice and the authentic Christian faith by which they live. They react as a music lover does to false notes in the performance of a piece of music. In such cases, believers interiorly resist the teachings or practices concerned and do not accept them or participate in them. [As St. Thomas says:] ‘The habitus of faith possesses a capacity whereby, thanks to it, the believer is prevented from giving assent to what is contrary to the faith, just as chastity gives protection with regard to whatever is contrary to chastity.’[7]

Now what does this document say regarding the receiving of teaching?

Alerted by their sensus fidei, individual believers may deny assent even to the teaching of legitimate pastors if they do not recognise in that teaching the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd. ‘The sheep follow [the Good Shepherd] because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run away from him because they do not know the voice of strangers’ (Jn 10:4–5). For St. Thomas, a believer, even without theological competence, can and even must resist, by virtue of the sensus fidei, his or her bishop if the latter preaches heterodoxy. In such a case, the believer does not treat himself or herself as the ultimate criterion of the truth of faith, but rather, faced with materially ‘authorized’ preaching which he or she finds troubling, without being able to explain exactly why, defers assent and appeals interiorly to the superior authority of the universal Church.[8]

Note that last phrase “appeals” to the “authority of the universal Church.” What does the authority of the universal Church say about the homosexual acts in question that Martin says are not “received”? We will turn to that in a moment. Lastly, let us quote a Magisterial text that Martin will claim he accepts, Lumen Gentium:

The holy people of God shares also in Christ’s prophetic office; it spreads abroad a living witness to Him, especially by means of a life of faith and charity and by offering to God a sacrifice of praise, the tribute of lips which give praise to His name. The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when ‘from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful’ they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accepts that which is not just the word of men but truly the word of God. Through it, the people of God adheres unwaveringly to the faith given once and for all to the saints, penetrates it more deeply with right thinking, and applies it more fully in its life…

Christ, the great Prophet, who proclaimed the Kingdom of His Father both by the testimony of His life and the power of His words, continually fulfills His prophetic office until the complete manifestation of glory. He does this not only through the hierarchy who teach in His name and with His authority, but also through the laity whom He made His witnesses and to whom He gave understanding of the faith (sensu fidei) and an attractiveness in speech so that the power of the Gospel might shine forth in their daily social and family life. They conduct themselves as children of the promise, and thus strong in faith and in hope they make the most of the present, and with patience await the glory that is to come. Let them not, then, hide this hope in the depths of their hearts, but even in the program of their secular life let them express it by a continual conversion and by wrestling ‘against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness’ (Lumen Gentium, 12, 35).

Notice again what is said here, it is through this sensus fidelium that the faithful “adheres unwaveringly to the faith given once and for all to the saints.” So once again, what does the “faith given once and for all” say about this issue? Understood properly, the sensus fidelium guides the faithful in holding “unwaveringly” (rigidly?) to this faith, in order to reject errors and heresies which deviate therefrom.

Overturning Traditional Morality

Let us turn then to what the Catechism says regarding same-sex activity. It states, “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which represents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.’ They are contrary to the natural law (2357).”

What is natural law? The Catechism describes natural law thus: “The natural law, present in the heart of each man and established by reason, is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men.” The Catechism goes on in this same paragraph to quote Cicero: “For there is a true law: right reason. It is in conformity with nature, [and] is diffused among all men (1956, emphasis mine).”

Notice that the precepts of the natural law apply universally to all men, all rational creatures, precisely by virtue of their rationality. Fr. Martin himself acknowledges the universal applicability of the precepts of the natural law. He writes, “Natural law is founded on the idea that God’s divine will and divine plan for the world and for humanity are not only revealed in the natural world but are, perhaps more important, self-evident to the human mind” (emphasis mine). So, natural law applies to all human beings, and the teaching of the Church is that homosexual acts are prohibited on the basis of divine tradition and on the basis of natural law. This natural law argument prohibiting homosexual activity is precisely the argument St. Paul makes in the opening chapters of the book of Romans. This is what forms the true sensus fidelium which should guide the faithful on this matter.

So Fr. Martin claims that he simultaneously:

4.) Does not challenge any official Church teaching;

5.) Believes PSSA are to remain celibate as a mandate of natural law which applies to every human being, yet

6.) Believes that the Church’s teaching that PSSA remain celibate is not an official, binding teaching, because it has not been accepted by the community to which it is directed, twisting the true doctrine of the sensus fidelium into an erroneous idea about “reception.”

Fr. Martin cannot hold 4.), 5.), and 6.), simultaneously, as he claims he does, while at the same time denying that he teaches heresy. If he wishes to contend 4.), then he must accept 5.). But if he accepts 5.), then logically he must reject 6.), since the injunction for PSSA to remain celibate is according to the Church a precept of the natural law, and as such it applies universally and must be received by every human community and every human being. There is no option for PSSA (or anybody else) not to “receive” this teaching, because the teaching is official and universally binding by dint of the natural law, and this according to the teaching of the Church. Thus, insofar as Fr. Martin holds 6.), he is being heretical, and insofar as he teaches 6.), he teaches heresy. For holding or teaching 6.) requires him to let go of 5.), and in so doing to let go of 4.).

Fr. Martin might claim in response that he himself is not heretical because he does not hold to 6.), but only observes that PSSA affirm 6.). In that case, if he loves those with SSA, then he should teach and admonish them not to hold 6.); he should stop offering 6.) to them as a possibility and instead, out of concern for their souls, warn them of the error of thinking that the prohibition on homosexual activity somehow does not apply to them.


[1] ST II-II, q60, a4.

[2] A material heretic teaches heresy, but not obstinately.

[3] Note: technically, Fr. Martin uses the phrase “the LGBT community,” but for clarity and simplicity I will use “PSSA.”

[4] On the idea of a teaching being received, see an interesting article, “‘Sensus Fidei’ and Fr. Martin,”  by Gregory Brown First Things (August 7, 2017).

[6] Peter Kwasniewski, True Obedience: A Guide to Discernment in Challenging Times (Sophia Institute Press, 2022), 44.

[7]Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church,” nn. 61–62.

[8] Ibid., 63.

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