It would be hard to name a media figure in American Catholicism who is more popular than Father James Martin, in part because he is witty, candid and concise. He understands how journalists work, pays attention to deadlines and is relentlessly cooperative.
Martin has his points to make and he makes them, both with his words and with strategic silence. If conservative Catholics want to have a constructive debate with Martin, they need to take all of this into consideration. Attack this particular priest and lots of mainstream journalists will feel like you are attacking them.
This brings us to the mini-media storm surrounding the decision by leaders of Theological College -- the National Seminary at the Catholic University of America -- to rescind a speaking invitation to Martin. While he was planning to speak about themes in his book "Jesus: A Pilgrimage," this controversy centers on Martin's most recent book, "Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity."
When you are reading news coverage of this debate there are several key points to consider.
(1) This action was taken by seminary leaders, not by the Catholic University of America. Still, CUA is the only pontifical university in the United States and has a special relationship with the U.S. Catholic bishops. As its mission statement notes, CUA was "founded and sponsored by the bishops of the country with the approval of the Holy See."
(2) Mainstream Catholic leaders have criticized Martin's book (most notably Cardinal Robert Sarah, leader of the Vatican’s liturgy office), as well as conservative groups such as the Church Militant. Were Martin's mainstream critics quoted?
(3) Martin has warmly embraced New Ways Ministry, an LGBTQ advocacy group that for decades has attacked Catholic teachings on sexuality. This is crucial because the Vatican condemned New Ways in 1999 -- specifically the work of Sister Jeannine Gramick and the late Father Robert Nugent -- with its investigation focusing on their book "Building Bridges." In 2010, the president of the U.S. bishops stressed that "New Ways Ministry has no approval or recognition from the Catholic Church. ..."
This controversy -- for seminary leaders -- was almost certainly linked to New Ways and the book "Building Bridges," as well as to Martin and his book "Building a Bridge." Last year, New Ways honored Martin with its annual "Bridge Building Award." Did that link make it into news coverage?
So what ended up in the Associated Press report on this controversy, the story seen in most American newspapers and in others around the world? Let's start at the beginning:
NEW YORK (AP) -- Citing a social media backlash, the seminary at the Catholic University of America has canceled a talk by a popular Jesuit priest whose latest book advocates for more compassion for gays within the church. In a rare public rebuke, the university’s president said Saturday that he opposed the seminary’s decision.
The Rev. James Martin, editor at large at the Jesuit magazine America and author of several books on Catholicism, said he had planned a seminary talk on Jesus, not his recent book on LGBT people, “Building a Bridge,” which has been backed by two U.S. cardinals and three bishops.
Far-right Catholic sites such ChurchMilitant.com and some conservative Catholic writers have denounced the book, and that had led to online campaigns to pressure Catholic institutions against hosting Martin. The seminary in the nation’s capital, called the Theological College, said it had experienced “increasing negative feedback from various social media sites” about Martin’s talk and, as a result, decided to cancel the event.
Stressing that the controversy focuses on "more compassion for gays within the church" is, of course, precisely how Martin and his supporters would frame things. (It helps to look at Father Martin's Facebook page and compare the main post with the major themes in mainstream coverage.) Meanwhile, for his critics the issue is whether Martin's strategic silence on other themes in Catholic teachings on sexuality can be considered an act of compassion by a Catholic priest.
The AP story -- as it should -- offers blunt details about the attacks on Martin by online conservatives. However, it simply nods to the criticisms by Cardinal Sarah in a Wall Street Journal op-ed (paywall protected), with zero details about his disagreements with Martin, which echo those of many other mainstream Catholics. A Catholic News Agency story about that op-ed noted:
Cardinal Sarah stressed the importance of both truth and love.
“To love someone as Christ loves us means to love that person in the truth,” he said. “Those who speak on behalf of the Church must be faithful to the unchanging teachings of Christ because only by living in harmony with God’s creative design do we find deep and lasting fulfillment.”
Cardinal Sarah summarized Catholic teaching on same-sex attraction: the person is good because he or she is a child of God. Homosexual attractions are not sinful if not willed or acted upon, even though they are not in harmony with human nature. However, homosexual actions are “gravely sinful and tremendously harmful to the well-being of those who partake in them.”
“People who identify as members of the LGBT community are owed this truth in charity, especially from clergy who speak on behalf of the Church about this complex and difficult topic,” the cardinal continued.
The AP story notes that Pope Francis recently appointed Martin as an adviser to the Vatican’s communications department.
That's important, in part because the 1999 Vatican condemnation of New Ways was signed by (wait for it) Cardinal Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI.
So what does the Associated Press report say about New Ways and the specific contents of Martin's approach to LGBTQ issues? Basically, nothing. There is this:
Martin said his book does not challenge church teaching. “It simply builds on the catechism and the Gospels,” he said in a telephone interview. “Jesus is very close to me in prayer and I’m convinced that reaching out to people on the margins is still what he wants me to do.”
As you would expect, there is far more detail in the reporting over at Crux -- the Catholic-market news website that had already published quite a bit of editorial debate about the Martin book. Note this key summary material:
Martin has been the subject of numerous attacks from Catholics who object that his book does not more faithfully or comprehensively present Church teaching on same-sex relationships. Earlier this month, Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to criticize the book.
Despite such backlash, Martin’s book has received praise from the head of the Vatican’s office for family life and other high-ranking Church officials.
Content linked to New Ways and the condemnation of its work by the Vatican and the U.S. bishops? None.
What about the deeper coverage offered by The Washington Post? That story by Sarah Pulliam Bailey (a former member of the GetReligion team) notes, in summary:
The decision exposes a rift between Catholics in the United States. Many have lauded the approach of Pope Francis, who has focused more on appointing pastoral bishops than enforcing strict theological boundaries, while many conservative U.S. bishops have resisted any expansion to gay rights.
Caught in the middle of this rift is Martin. His book did not address his own sexuality, but these right-wing sites assign him labels such as "homosexualist."
"My provincial asked me not to talk about my sexuality, and I'm okay with that," said Martin, referring to his religious superior in the Jesuit religious order.
The Post story also noted:
Many Catholic universities, such as the University of Notre Dame and Georgetown University, which are run by religious orders, regularly invite controversial speakers. But Catholic University has a special place of significance in the church because it is run directly by the U.S. bishops.
A statement from Catholic University said the seminary's disinvitation does not reflect advice from the university's leadership. "We regret the implication that Catholic University supported yesterday's decision," the statement says.
"The campaigns by various groups to paint Fr. Martin's talk as controversial reflect the same pressure being applied by the left for universities to withdraw speaker invitations," said John Garvey, president of Catholic University. "Universities and their related entities should be places for the free, civil exchange of ideas. Our culture is increasingly hostile to this idea. ... "
So what is going on here? There is much more to say, but let me wrap this up.
This is my opinion: The mainstream coverage is, in part, being framed strictly in terms of a clash between Martin (with lots of nods to Pope Francis) and online Catholic conservatives (with nods to Donald Trump-era social media tactics). What voices were lost in this approach?
It's easy, with a few clicks of a mouse, to find mainstream Catholic critiques of Martin and his most recent book -- with the Cardinal Sarah essay being the most obvious example, out of many. It is also true that seminary leaders cited the current online campaign against Martin's work.
In media terms, however, a debate between Father Martin and the Church Militant is a slam dunk. It also creates colorful stereotypes of the brave reformer taking on the radical right. However, digging deeper -- including New Ways and Cardinal Ratzinger in the mix, for example -- gets closer to the heart of the actual debate that is taking place among Catholics.
Were seminary leaders willing to discuss that angle of this controversy? Were mainstream journalists interested in asking those deeper questions?