When it was announced last year that Fr. James Martin, SJ, was being brought in as a “consultor” to the Vatican’s communications team, reactions were predictably on a spectrum ranging from deeply perplexed to blood-vessel bursting outrage. Known for his role as editor-at-large for the far-left Catholic rag America Magazine as well as his boundary-pushing views on the Church and homosexuality, Fr. Martin is the kind of name that gets an instant reaction when brought up in any conversation. And among orthodox Catholics, it’s decidedly not a positive one.
Fr. Martin became the second high-profile Jesuit to join the Vatican’s propaganda arm, joining “papal mouthpiece” and editor of La Civiltà Cattolica (LCC), Fr. Antonio “2 + 2 = 5” Spadaro. Together, the two wayward spiritual sons of St. Ignatius have a media audience of some 60,000 souls baked right in, just based on print circulation. Online, America and LCC are globally ranked #25,181 and #838,795 respectively by Alexa.com. This means America‘s footprint is far larger in the digital age, but LCC’s status as a 150-year-old Jesuit publication with direct oversight from the Vatican’s Secretariat of State gives it a unique prestige.
Still, since he’s joined the team, Fr. Martin’s role seemed fairly subdued. While Fr. Spadaro made a bit of a name for himself going after the pope’s “enemies” online (joined by Fr. Thomas Rosica of Salt & Light TV, papal biographer Austen Ivereigh of Crux, and Villanova “theology” professor Massimo Faggioli), Martin has continued to wage a one-man media war to promote his own books, his own causes, and his own unique vision for a decidedly different Church than any the popes and saints of old would have recognized. And with a gigantic social media audience (174,000 Twitter followers; 561,848 Facebook fans), he has the clout to move opinions.
But he’s been getting a lot of pushback.
Recently, a parish in New Jersey canceled a talk by Fr. James Martin after Catholic group Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) got over 12,000 signatures on a petition to pull the plug.
Fr. Martin was, to say the least, not happy. Not content to simply accept that faithful Catholics didn’t want to hear his heterodox message, he called for a war against those ragged few out there still fighting in defense of the authentic teachings of the Church:
It’s time for bishops, priests and lay leaders finally to stand up to the hate-mongering of online groups with no standing whatsoever in the church, who seek to substitute their spurious authority for legitimate church authority, and who seek to run the church by fear and hatred.
— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) January 28, 2018
As John Zmirak wrote in response to Martin’s comments at The Stream:
Have you got that? Bishops should step in and condemn lay Catholics who criticize Fr. Martin. Or else they’re complicit in giving in to “hate.” Catholics should face public condemnation by their bishops if they dare to disagree with Martin’s new, Caesar-friendly stance on same-sex sin.
Think of Martin’s position as a special advisor to the Vatican. Of his friendly relations with many bishops. Of his long list of media buddies. (He worked with Martin Scorcese on the movie Silence, and appears on Stephen Colbert’s show.) Don’t be surprised if he finds some takers. He’s doubtless hoping to see compliant bishops condemn groups like TFP. He hopes they’ll ban them from churches, denounce them in Church newspapers, as if they were indeed some kind of hate group.
Zmirak also made another important point about the rhetoric Martin uses:
When faithful Catholics speak out against him, he accuses them of “hate speech,” which in some places is borderline illegal. He casts the organizations that criticize his stance as “extremists,” even “alt-right.” He’s trying to smear orthodox Christians with the dung-soaked brush of disgraceful racism.
As someone who has been subject to such accusations myself, I can attest to the fact that these labels are applied without the slightest concern for the truth — or the damage done.
Just days after Fr. Martin’s comments, Joseph Bernstein, Senior Tech Reporter for Buzzfeed, published a piece on Fr. John Zuhlsdorf — known to the Catholic blogosphere as Fr. Z — that was anything but flattering. “Meet the Blogger Priest Firing Red Pills At the Vatican”, reads the headline. “Fr. Z’s critics say he’s an ‘alt-right’ priest. He says they’re snowflakes who should toughen up. His surprising rise to prominence shows that in 2018, even the longest-lasting institution in the Western world isn’t immune to the strains of the social internet.”
Notice the language. “Alt-right priest.” Just the kind of label Zmirak was talking about. And who showed up in the article to comment on Fr. Z? The man himself, Fr. James Martin. Martin had previously had another speech cancelled — this time at Catholic University — in part because of a post Fr. Z had written drawing his reader’s attention to it.
“For me the saddest thing about Father Z’s blog is how cruel it is,” Martin told BuzzFeed News. “It’s astonishing to me that a priest could traffic in such cruelty and hatred.”
Fr. Z told BuzzFeed News that it was not his intention to sic the Zedheads — as he affectionately calls his readers — on Martin, and added that though he did not think it was appropriate for Martin to speak, he, too, had been disinvited from similar engagements for his views.
“I don’t whine about it though,” said Fr. Z. “This isn’t bean bag.”
The zinger from Fr. Z might be a cheering moment for Fr. Martin’s critics, but with characterizations like “the sometimes shockingly antagonistic attitude of Fr. Z and his ilk toward the Vatican and liberal culture has invited comparisons to the alt-right”, the overall piece is little more than instant wish-fulfillment for Fr. Martin.
The attack on faithful Catholicism is nothing new, but it seems to have taken on a new and dangerous edge. We’ve seen the culture at both Christendom College and Franciscan University — both seen as seedbeds of authentic Catholicism — come under fire from progressive Catholic bloggers in the past month after alleged mishandling of accusations of sexual misconduct. Voices critical of the current Vatican regime have suffered reprisals, from the retributive actions taken against some academics and priests who have signed the various theological critiques of Amoris Laetitia to the unjust firing of Josef Seifert for publishing articles questioning that same document to the attacks on the dubia cardinals and the Kazakhstani bishops. It seems that suppressing orthodoxy is becoming trendy. And it isn’t going to stop. I received an inquiry from a “journalist” several days ago about our financial records here at 1P5 — a clear indication that if they can find something to use against us, they will. I can’t imagine we’re alone in that.
Strangely, I think we can take this as a positive sign. It means that while we may be outnumbered, we’re winning — or at least heavily influencing — the war for public perception. Nobody bothers to attack someone who doesn’t pose a threat.
Nevertheless, I ask your prayers for all the men and women who are out there courageously standing up for the truth against unscrupulous opposition. The people looking for ways to discredit their critics don’t let the 8th Commandment get in their way. And as anyone who has ever been dragged through the mud knows, it isn’t a pleasant experience.
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 eight children.