If you’re looking for a Catholic priest who inspires people—and makes them laugh and think—James Martin, SJ, is your guy. At the Ignatian Solidarity Network’s annual conference, he’s greeted like a rock star by swarms of young Catholics who devour his books and remember him as Stephen Colbert’s “chaplain” on the Colbert Report. To say this is unusual is an understatement. Millennials are leaving the church in droves, turned off in part by an institution that has made opposition to same-sex marriage central to Catholic identity in the public square.
This generation of Catholics remains inspired by the church’s rich social justice tradition, has no patience for the culture wars, and is disgusted that their religious leaders are often perceived to be fighting against the human rights of gay people. When I heard the news last Friday that the seminary at Catholic University of America canceled a scheduled talk from Martin because a network of Catholic right attack dogs launched an ugly campaign against him, I cringed. The already-thin thread barely connecting these young Catholics to the institutional church just got thinner. Self-inflicted wounds are hard to heal.
This campaign centered around Martin’s recent book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity—a thoughtful and important work that is anything but radical or heretical. In it, Martin urges the church and the LGBT community to engage in respectful dialogue. He asks the church to think about how language can wound. He doesn’t ask church leaders to drop their opposition to same-sex marriage. Building a Bridge has been endorsed by several bishops and prominent cardinals. Simply put, Martin is not a theological gunslinger looking for a showdown over the church’s hot-button teachings on sex and marriage. He’s an orthodox priest in good standing. The priest was recently appointed by Pope Francis as a consultor to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications. His seminary talk wasn’t going to be about LGBT issues. Martin planned to talk about Jesus, himself something of a controversial figure, you could say. So what’s the fuss about?
Self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy such as Church Militant, based in suburban Detroit, have gone after Martin relentlessly, branding his views on homosexuality as anathema. When a group of zealots who show no sense of Christian decency and consistently target faithful people have more sway over a seminary than the cardinals and bishops who endorsed Martin’s book, it raises serious questions we can't dismiss. In an unusual move, Catholic University released a statement clarifying that the seminary’s decision was made “independently of the university.” President John Garvey underscored that “universities and their related entities should be places for the free, civil exchange of ideas.” While it’s good to see the clarification, this is a distinction without a difference in the court of public opinion. “Theological College is the seminary attached to the university,” Stephen Schneck, a recently retired Catholic University professor who directed the university’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, told me. “Like any unit of the university it should not be able to reject the policies of the university leadership. Something is wrong if Theological College can operate in public life in ways that undermine or are contrary to the values of the university.”