Commentary: The Father Martin controversy

By Effie Caldarola
Catholic News Service

Effie Caldarola writes for the Catholic News Service column "For the Journey." (CNS photo)

Effie Caldarola writes for the Catholic News Service column “For the Journey.” (CNS photo)

The Theological College in Washington, the national seminary of The Catholic University of America, recently canceled a lecture by Jesuit Father James Martin.

Father Martin was to speak on his popular book, “Jesus: A Pilgrimage.” But the college announced that “in the interest of avoiding distraction and controversy” about his more recent book, “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity,” they were disinviting the Jesuit. A couple of other groups likewise canceled his appearances.

In doing so, they bowed to trolls and online vitriol, to organized cyber bashing that appears all too frequently in the comments section of online publications, to ad hominem attacks, to hatred. Personal insults and gay slurs have been hurled at Father Martin by a crowd of bullies masquerading as guardians of Catholic orthodoxy.

The college was not questioning the Catholic credentials of the book. “Building a Bridge” was endorsed by Cardinal Kevin J. Farrell, head of the Vatican’s office on the family, and many other prelates.

Catholic University of America quickly distanced itself from the cancellation. Father Matt Malone, editor of America Magazine, the Jesuit journal, defended Father Martin.

Father Malone called the attacks on Father Martin, an editor-at-large at America, “unwarranted, uncharitable and un-Christian,” and decried the online barrage as “invective that is as appalling as it is toxic.”

This column is not an endorsement of “Building a Bridge,” nor is it a book review. It’s on my list, but I haven’t read “Bridge” yet. That’s not the point.

This summer, I spent prayerful mornings on my patio savoring Father Martin’s meditations on his journey through the Holy Land in “Jesus: A Pilgrimage.”

Someone rightly described Father Martin’s writing as “gentle.” When a friend asked me for good Catholic reading material for her daughter-in-law going through the RCIA process, I quickly said, “Anything by James Martin.”

“My Life with the Saints,” “Between Heaven and Mirth,” “In Good Company” — these books are easy reading that surprise you with how much you’ve learned, and how joyful you feel to be a Catholic.

“Bridge” has not been without critics, left and right. Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of the Vatican’s office on liturgy, penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed in which he expressed disappointment that the book hadn’t more thoroughly explained the church’s view on sexuality. Father Martin responded by saying sexual morality was not the book’s focus.

This exchange was healthy dialogue, what the church needs. Under Pope Francis, dialogue has been encouraged, and while that road is sometimes bumpy, it’s yielding many graces. Father Martin has called his book an invitation to dialogue and prayer, and, in an interview with Religion News Service, specified that neither the book, nor he, would ever challenge church teaching.

Meanwhile, Father Martin’s online presence bursts with praise and thanks for his book, while the online minority of haters fill posts and blogs impugning Father Martin’s integrity, and hurtling homophobic smears that insult Father Martin and gay people in one swipe.

And we give in? Will we as church allow cyber bullies to silence a leading voice in the American church?

Although so far not employing actual violence, these right-wing zealots remind me of the antifa folks, who do threaten violence in an effort to curb speech that they consider fascist. They took aim at Ann Coulter this summer. I disagree with just about everything Coulter represents, but her right to express her opinions should be inviolable.

What can the church do about trolls? We must stand firm for open dialogue and Christian respect. Giving in because we don’t want “controversy” is a coward’s way out.

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