New Ways Ministry’s “Fr. James Martin Effect”

In late October 2016, Jesuit Fr. James Martin received the annual “Bridge Building Award” from New Ways Ministry, a dissident, pro-gay-identity, pro-gay-sex, pro-gay-“marriage” group whose work was long ago condemned by both the Roman Curia and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. At the award event, Frank DeBernardo, executive director of the group, compared Martin’s impact with the so-called “Pope Francis effect.” Regarding Martin, a giant in Catholic social media, DeBernardo said:

Well, at New Ways Ministry, we often speak of the “James Martin Effect.” When he posts something [from] New Ways Ministry social media on his social media outlets, the number of views our material receives is usually about twenty times higher than usual. Being mentioned by Fr. Martin is better than being mentioned by the New York Times or CNN.

Is DeBernardo right? Is there a “James Martin Effect”? Maybe so. Consider these observations:

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  • Alongside the endorsement of the book by New Ways Ministry co-founder Sr. Jeanine Gramick, there appear blurbs of praise from Cardinal Kevin Farrell, head of the Roman Curia’s newly formed Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life; Cardinal Joseph Tobin, Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey; and Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego.
  • At the April 28-30, 2017, New Ways Ministry symposium in Chicago, speakers include two bishops: Thomas Gumbleton, retired auxiliary bishop of Detroit, and John Stowe, bishop of Lexington, Kentucky.

Maybe one should agree with DeBernardo that the “James Martin Effect” is quite real.

Part of the Problem? Part of the Solution?
What ought a Catholic think of the harmonic convergence of Fr. Martin’s talk and book, the work of New Ways Ministry, and the book endorsements from several bishops? It would be praiseworthy if it were the case that: 1) New Ways Ministry was no longer pro-gay-identity, pro-gay-sex, and pro-“gay-marriage”; 2) the Vatican had withdrawn its 1999 condemnation of New Ways Ministry and its “permanent” prohibition against Sr. Jeanine Gramick working in this ministry area; and 3) the USCCB had formally set aside Cardinal Francis George’s 2010 letter from the conference, in which he states:

No one should be misled by the claim that New Ways Ministry provides an authentic interpretation of Catholic teaching and an authentic Catholic pastoral practice. Their claim to be Catholic only confuses the faithful regarding the authentic teaching and ministry of the Church with respect to persons with a homosexual inclination.

Unfortunately, however, it’s not the case. New Ways Ministry continues to confuse the Catholic faithful. It seems right to ask: if the group is both doctrinally and pastorally deficient, how can Catholic clergy stand with the group, wholeheartedly defending and endorsing its work with no cautions or admonitions for the faithful?

A Sampling of Confusion
The dissident group’s “James Martin Effect” was also in play in November 2015, when Martin publicly stated via Facebook that “…New Ways Ministry has as much a right to speak as anyone in the church and by the way were granted several interview[s] (and official credentials) at the recent Synod on the Family.”

The effect was also felt in a 2013 video titled “Who Are We to Judge?”, when Martin stated that “…the idea that someone would come out and be honest and transparent and open about the way that God created them, I think is terrific, I think it’s something that the Catholic Church can support.” Keeping in mind this truly foundational error (that Martin appears to state that God himself is the author of same-sex attraction), let’s see if there are other discernible problems in his “Bridge Building Award” address.

At the outset of his live talk, Martin acknowledges several of his “heroes” who are present: “first and foremost, Sr. Jeanine Gramick, a pioneer in LGBT-Catholic relations, who … teaches not only with her words but with her life. Second … Frank DeBernardo, for his tireless leadership of New Ways Ministry.” Notably, DeBernardo authored the group’s 2011 booklet promoting same-sex “marriage,” titled “Marriage Equality: A Positive Catholic Approach.” Martin also praised a boy present, a high-school junior, “who just came out during a retreat.”

For the sake of space, and since Martin’s talk itself exists in both video and text form online, I’m going to broadly cite several key areas of confusion I observed in his talk.

1. On the “unique gifts” the LGBT “Community” brings to the Church
The problem here is that the real focus of Church teaching and pastoral activity is the human person and not any “community.” While all can acknowledge the existence of a social entity referred to as the “LGBT community,” it is the individual who receives pastoral aid and affirmation from the Church.

In fact, the USCCB’s 2006 document on “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination,” refers not to an “LGBT community” but rather to a “gay subculture,” saying that persons experiencing same-sex attraction should not be encouraged “to participate in ‘gay subcultures,’ which often tend to promote immoral lifestyles.”

Should this be a surprise? The Church has never taught that we are obligated to affirm or welcome a “subculture” that exists in contradiction to the natural moral law. Our pastoral efforts focus on individuals, not categories. In fact, Martin praises Jesus’ own focus on each person he encounters in his public ministry. Jesus reaches beyond “categories,” Martin tells us. Thus, isn’t the Church correct to focus on the person with same-sex attraction and not the “category” of “LGBT community”?

As to “unique gifts,” the concrete example Martin first offers is that “some of the most gifted music ministers I have known in my almost 30 years as a Jesuit have been gay men.” Is this accurate or just a stereotype? I’ve been a “music minister” for more than 35 years, and I can’t see how my sexual attractions have anything to do with my musical gifts.

Later, Martin also asserts that “LGBT people” offer the gifts of “compassion, forgiveness, and perseverance to the Church,” and that “gay”-but-celibate clergy and religious are themselves gifts to the Church as well. Okay. But these are all gifts unique to specific individuals, not arising merely from a global “community” experience or as a direct consequence of one’s sexual attractions.

2. “People [and Groups] Have a Right to Name Themselves”
This assertion points to a deep confusion about homosexuality—something now even more confusing regarding the transgender phenomenon—do attractions and emotions really give rise to our identities? Are we our longings and feelings? Do they define us, or are we called to define them in accord with a clear understanding of our God-given sexual identities as either man or woman rather than “gay” or “straight”?

Catholics simply cannot give in to the ideologies of orientation and gender. Every person deserves more than inaccurate labels that only separate us more from our true selves. Relativizing sexuality into “sexualities” is a distortion of the truth, and the Church must make truth clear in its teachings and pastoral practice.

3. “Almost all the [Church] firings in recent years have focused on LGBT matters”
The confusion here is the claim that the Church has intentionally selected “LGBT” issues over and above other reasons for terminating employment. But there is no real evidence of this—at all. Rather, people can be fired for a variety of reasons that pertain to public scandal in the Church. Most such firings will be handled discreetly, unless the fired employee seeks publicity. So, ask instead—who seeks publicity when terminated after giving public scandal?

4. “Saying that one of the deepest parts of a person—the part that gives and receives love—is ‘disordered’ in itself is needlessly cruel”
This assertion cries out for a follow-up question or two—is the homosexual inclination really the part of a person “that gives and receives love”? Do homosexual acts count as giving and receiving love? The acts are “intrinsically disordered,” and the inclinations are “objectively disordered,” according to the Church’s teaching on the natural moral law. Is the terminology needlessly cruel, or quite needfully accurate? It needs explanation, not elimination.

In addition, what happened to Martin’s insistence that groups have rights to their own terminology and names, which should be accepted as a sign of respectful listening to that group? Why must the Church do away with the very terms that convey the admittedly-inconvenient truth that certain sex acts and certain inclinations are not ordered toward God’s plan for human sexuality?

Much, Much More to Consider…
Space won’t permit more direct considerations, but there is more to behold on the video of Martin’s talk, particularly in the video’s concluding question-answer time. Now, it wouldn’t be fair to come away thinking that there are no points of agreement between portions of Martin’s talk and what the Church professes—there are. But the good elements are simply overshadowed by the kind of confusion long associated with the errors of New Ways Ministry.

Watch the video. For example, eyebrows will likely raise when Martin states that “of course the hierarchy is not the only group that speaks with authority” and that “holy sisters like Jeanine Gramick” also “speak with authority.”

Also, your curiosity may be piqued by Martin’s response when asked a rather provocative question, (considering it was a New Ways Ministry event): “How should the Church educate the LGBT community about some of the health dangers of anal sex?” Martin merely says, “…I have zero experience with [that] and, I’m being serious, zero expertise, so I don’t know how I would answer that question.”

Finally, there was this question from a Baltimore-area priest, who said:

I’m looking for some pastoral advice … a couple called me on Friday and said, Father, we’re getting married next June … what time do the gay and lesbian pre-Cana classes meet?…. now, I have married gay couples, and I know I’m not allowed to do that…. But, would you [Fr. Martin] like to collaborate in developing a pre-Cana course for gay and lesbian couples [vigorous applause erupts]? I’ll put my name to it—you don’t have to put your name to it [laughter]…. You don’t really have to do it, but what is your response to that?

After an uncomfortable-seeming grin and pause, Martin asks the priest, “What does your bishop say? … I’m not trying to be flip with these things, but one works within the confines of what the ordinary will allow you to do, basically. So, you’re asking me what I would do, I mean, I’d have to ask my Provincial for something like that, because that’s really, sort of, pushing the boundaries…”

Then again, isn’t that what New Ways Ministry says the “James Martin Effect” has already done—push the boundaries? Sounds like there could be a brave new world waiting on the other side of that brand-new bridge.


  • Jim Russell

    Jim Russell lives in St. Louis, Missouri. He writes on a variety of topics related to the Catholic faith, including natural law, liturgy, theology of the body, and sexuality. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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