The Diabolical Tweets of Father Martin on Penance


October 18, 2018

Around six years ago, after the birth of my eldest son, while in prayer during Eucharistic Adoration, I asked the Lord to make him a priest, if that is his will. In the intervening years, he has, of his own accord, loved to play Mass and “baptize” his sister’s playthings, so perhaps my prayer will be heard. And yet, within recent months, I have come to question whether I want him to become a priest after all, on account of the evil infecting some, though by no means all or even most, of the clergy and would-be clergy.

You are familiar, unfortunately, with this contagion, so I will not detail it. That the evil of clergy-with-clergy, or seminarian-with-seminarian, sexual sin could grip men who say or hear Mass daily, from whose hands the blood of Christ drips or will drip in the confessional, or who pray the Liturgy of the Hours each day—that privileged souls such as these could fall, and so precipitously, is, I do not say surprising (for Lucifer fell, and Saint Peter was not immune from grave sin), but disheartening, even infuriating. And so, among my initial reactions was a yearning for a bit of Pauline mercy—Deliver such a one up to Satan, he commands, for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ—and then to wonder whether I want my oldest son (or now my youngest son, for that matter) to enter the seminary while some in the Church are subject to this blight.

But then, reflecting that sinful clergy have always been present, I renewed my desire that he become a priest, if, again, it is God’s will. And still further, remembering that I, too, am a man spared, thank God, from these particular sins but not immune, may God have mercy, from others, I recalled what is the proper response to the current crisis. The response is simply this: penance—penance on behalf of our fallen shepherds, whose judgment, we are told, will be more severe than ours; and penance on behalf of ourselves, for failing to avert this crisis with holy living and prayer and mortification for our pastors, rather than carping about them. Having come to this realization, I was all the more astounded to find Father James Martin contending, as he did in one of a series of tweets, that “in this case, to imply that the laity in any way, should perform any kinds of penance, including fasting, is simply wrong. The laity should not have to do one minute of penance for the crimes, sins and failings of the hierarchy and clergy.”

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Now, the law of charity compels us to interpret the words of others as favorably as possible. Nor should we forget with respect to our priests the example of David with respect to Saul: although by the time of his death Saul had clearly lost God’s favor and even long before pursued David’s life, David had Saul’s own slayer dispatched, asking, How is it that you were not afraid to put forth your hand to desecrate the Lord’s anointed? Our priests deserve our respect even if they have lost the right to it.

Therefore, it is not without some hesitation that I venture to criticize Father Martin, or rather his words (which I hope he has by now abjured), remaining mindful that what he probably intends is not to add to the sorrows of the laity and especially not the pain of the victims, owing to the gravity of the sins of some of the clergy. But I cannot remain silent when I see our Catholic faith undermined by one of its own, especially when that undermining strikes at the very expression of the unity of the Mystical Body of Christ and the very concepts of love and mercy which, I suspect, Father Martin considers himself serving with these words.

That said, we should criticize him fairly. Father Martin is not denying the necessity of penance in general nor, in general, its efficacy. Nor does he deny its need or its efficacy in this case, because he implies that the clergy, and not the laity, should do penance for their own sins. Nor can he mean to deny that it is praiseworthy in general for an innocent person to do penance for another; otherwise, how would he explain Job before his misfortune offering sacrifice for his children so that, if they had sinned, they would be pardoned? What would he make of the saints doing penance for sinners, or of, for example, the (perhaps legendary) account of Saint John the Apostle doing penance for the brigand that he might be saved? What would he say of Saint John Paul II urging us to approach Eucharistic Adoration “ready to make reparation for the great faults and crimes of the world”?

No, I assume, despite some language to the contrary in a follow-up tweet, that Father Martin does not mean to impugn penance by an innocent person on behalf of another in general. Rather, since he is careful to limit his opinion to “this case,” he seems to hold that, given the widespread and grave nature of these particular sins of the clergy (and he seems to be thinking of more than the sexual sins that I chiefly have in mind here), penance by the innocent laity is, based on these facts, “simply wrong” because it would “victimize people all over again,” as he added in the follow-up to the tweet already quoted. It is this opinion with which I take issue.

I disagree with at least two of Father Martin’s premises: first, that we laity are innocent, and second, that doing penance victimizes us in an intolerable manner. We are not innocent because we have failed to be holy, failed to insist on orthodoxy from our clergy, and failed to be orthodox ourselves. We have caviled about Father rather than interceded for him, or sacrificed for him. Do you think he was born a moral monster, or that he became one overnight? Of course not. Very likely he, like all of us, faced a continual series of forks, and slowly began to take the wrong ones, probably for what appeared to be good reasons. And, when he faced these momentous moral choices, did he fail to choose rightly because we failed to sacrifice and to pray for him? “Many souls,” Our Lady warned us, “go to Hell because they have no one to make sacrifices and to pray for them.”

And neither does doing penance for the clergy victimize us, at least not in any unwelcome sense. Rather, penance for our “victimizers” contributes to our own holiness and their salvation: we become more like Christ who, though utterly innocent, lived a life of total penance as a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering. For surely God is the real “victim” of every sin: against You, You alone have I sinned, laments David after ordering Uriah’s murder to conceal his adultery with Uriah’s wife. The Church prays rightly in the liturgy that “our praises add nothing to your greatness,” and it is likewise true that our sins detract nothing, in substance, from that greatness. Our sins do not “harm” God as our sins harm others. Nevertheless, every sin offends not merely a creature or creation but, most fundamentally, the Creator. And yet, who comes to atone for sin but God? By reason of the misery of the needy, and the groans of the poor, now will I arise, the Psalmist is inspired to make Almighty God declare.

And how does he arise? By a life of suffering and sacrifice, that is, by a life of penance. Which brings me, at last, to why it has been worth spending so many words on this subject, and to why I have engaged (let us admit it) in a bit of tedious sermonizing. I do not know whether Father Martin is the devil, as some all but claim. But I do know that his tweets are diabolical; they are in the same vein as that which incurred the stern censure of Saint Peter by Christ: Saint Peter, having just confessed Jesus as the Son of the Living God, could imagine him suffering and dying, and so rebuked him privately. Christ turned away to give symbolic effect to his blunt reply: Get behind Me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things. Likewise, the laity hastens to suffer and die for their fallen shepherds, and Father Martin takes them aside and tries to prevent them. Intentionally or not, here he is mindful of human things, not divine things, and of the things of men rather than the things of God. The things of God are prayer and penance and suffering and sacrifice—even by the innocent for the guilty—because the things of God are the things of love.

I suspect that, if pressed, Father Martin would not wish to deprive the laity of their opportunity to conform themselves to Christ; of their opportunity to lay aside their bitterness and grow in charity; of their opportunity to contribute in truth to the joy of heaven over a repentant sinner and to shorten his Purgatory; and of their opportunity to fulfill that command of God given in the Old Testament that no one shall present himself before the Lord empty-handed by appearing at their judgment with the souls of sinners as the fruits of their mortifications. But his tweets (hastily written, I hope) suggest otherwise.

And while he thinks he is doing us a favor he is all the while doing us a disservice: speaking of the contribution of the living to the purification of a soul after death, Benedict XVI remarked in Spe Salvi, “No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone.” And he followed these staccato remarks with this reminder: “As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them, too, the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well.”

This “utmost” demands penance, for ourselves and for our fellow sinners, both those for whom we have no culpability (such as poor Abercius, whose third-century gravestone bids us pray for him) and those for whom we may have some, however slight, culpability (such as our fallen clergy). “The salvation of many souls,” wrote Pius XII, “depends upon the prayers and voluntary mortifications offered for that intention by the members of the Mystical Body of Christ.” Since this is so, should we, in order to do the “utmost” for our own salvation and that of others, follow the tweets of Father Martin or the words of Christ? Unless you do penance, you will likewise perish. Oh yes, I know “do penance” can be rendered as “repent,” and that Christ did not have in mind giving up chocolate for Lent as a precondition for entering into heavenly glory.

But he did have in mind, I think, the virtue of penance, “that moral virtue,” Ludwig Ott writes, “which inclines the will to turn away inwardly from sin, and to render atonement to God for it.” He had in mind, I think, what Ott further describes as “an internal penitential disposition as well as external works of penance.” And since God commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves, should we not do penance for others as we do for ourselves? Indeed, along with prayer, penance is, in the face of the current crisis, almost the only effectual thing we laity can do. After all, this demon possessing the Church is not cast out but by prayer and fasting.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Repentant Saint Peter” painted by Rembrandt in 1631.


  • Justin Bradford Smith

    Justin Bradford Smith practices law in Texas, focusing on criminal and civil appeals. He is a graduate of Baylor University School of Law. Smith and his wife have three children.

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