Now Professor George Can Hold Fr. Martin Accountable

Having followed from afar the discussion on the meaning and wisdom of Professor Robert George’s new alliance with Fr. James Martin, I came upon Austin Ruse’s article, “James Martin and the Question of the Kiss.” I ventured a comment. The comment got out of control (lengthwise). But to my surprise, Crisis Magazine deemed it worthy to repurpose as a column, which is published here for your consideration.

Normally, I detest it when people posture themselves as the great minds who “see both sides.” I hope that is not what I am doing, not being a great mind. But this is something like what I plan to do. So, with apologies, here goes.

I agree with Austin Ruse that Martin’s statements stand in contradiction to Catholic teaching, especially as they go one step beyond the theoretical to the practical. You would not tell someone you hope they can kiss their husband in church unless you FIRMLY BELIEVED that the person to be kissed could really be their husband. Or, to give another example, Martin’s book on Building a Bridge could be summed up thus: “Now that everyone has already agreed with me that homosexuality is a positive good, let’s explore ways we can talk nice to each other.” Martin is past proposing or arguing. He is evangelizing. Evangelizing implies a high degree of conviction.

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I also am not satisfied by Martin’s statement in America magazine, or his protestations that he has never challenged Church teaching on homosexuality. While it is true that he demonstrated that he can summarize Catholic teaching accurately, he has not, as far as I have seen, apologized for, corrected, or walked back any of his previous statements, which is exactly what a person would do if he changed his position significantly and wanted to be understood.

So, if Martin is explaining Catholic teaching on homosexuality in America, but at the same time refusing to acknowledge that his statements have departed from Catholic teaching, and even continuing to say things that would imply a departure from Catholic teaching, what is he doing? I see two possibilities. One is that he knows he is in a contradiction and is playing games—saying one thing to satisfy his superiors and critics, but other things to his fans. If this is the case, he is being deceitful. The other is that he is being clever, by which I mean that he feels he is avoiding contradictions by way of certain theological stratagems that we know only too well. (Though they have been around for so long, they are seen as standard tools of theological interpretation.) It’s like Humanae Vitae déjà vu:

The Received Teaching Theory: A teaching may be proclaimed by the magisterium, but in order for it to be a truth that Catholics must accept, it must be “received” by the people of the Catholic Church, the sensus fidelium. But if the great mass of Catholics reject the teaching, the sensus fidelium has determined that the teaching is not a truth from the Holy Spirit, and there is no expectation for people to accept it. Hence “This is the magisterium of the church, and I publicly proclaim to you that I acknowledge it! (Though I neglect to mention that I don’t hold it as true, since it has not been received by the Church.)”

The Fallible Doctrine Theory: For a teaching to be a truth that Catholics must accept, it must be proclaimed by the extraordinary magisterium. If it is not thus “infallibly declared” it is not infallible. If it is not infallible, then it is possibly mistaken. If it is possibly mistaken someone can say that it is mistaken. Thank you, Charles Curran. Hence, “I acknowledge that homosexual acts are objectively disordered according to the magisterium. (But I neglect to mention that this is not the infallible extraordinary magisterium, so I am not obliged to adhere to it.)”

The Magisterium of the Theologians Theory: The teaching of the magisterium is an honored tradition and must be “respected.” But the Holy Spirit also speaks through people today—the brilliant and prayerful theologians. Their conclusions are thus of the same weight as the magisterium. If their consensus differs from the magisterium, then what they say prevails.

The Freedom of Conscience Theory (or “Conscience is Supreme” Theory): Conscience does not apply moral norms of natural and divine law to concrete situations. It creates the moral norms themselves. It thus stands in judgment over (i.e., is supreme over) the moral norms taught by the Church. Hence, “Yes, I affirm that according to the magisterium, homosexual acts are gravely sinful. (But if your conscience tells you such acts are perfectly good, you should do them without guilt, because your conscience is supreme.)”

Such thinking is very much alive, if not habitual, to theologians on the left. A few years ago, I interviewed a prospective teacher to work in the theology department of our school. I had reservations about this person’s orthodoxy, so I said to him point blank: “In our high school, we strive to present the Magisterium of the Catholic Church faithfully, and to teach it to our students as persuasively as possible. Can you see yourself as contributing to this mission?” He replied with enthusiasm, “Absolutely!” But as it turned out, it wasn’t quite the case. I am not saying the person lied. But the way I understood the words “magisterium” and “faithful” were quite different from the way he understood them. (I have always thought it would be fun to write parody lyrics to Cole Porter’s “Always True to You Darling.” They would read something like, “I’m always true to Church teaching in my fashion. I’m always true to Church teaching in my way.”)

I have seen the same over the years among priests. Some of the most vociferous dissenters I have known would insist that they were loyal to the Church and became greatly offended at any suggestion that they were not.

So, now to Professor George.

At first, I found his befriending of Martin disturbing, but I think he has explained himself adequately.

I don’t think he is just letting Martin off the hook, as if telling him, “Just say the magic words (that you accept the magisterium). You can mean what you want by it. I won’t press. I will give you my stamp of approval, and you can get orthodox cred from being friends with Robby George, and I can get recognition for being the broad-minded dialoguer who reaches across the divide where none other dare reach.” To the contrary, George has made his position and intentions clear. He has always held to the teaching of the conjugal view of marriage and has the scars to prove it. He does not accept Martin’s view of homosexuality as “differently ordered” sexuality.

I also think that Professor George is doing a service to the Church, or at least we can make an honest case that he is. Prior to this partner-in-dialogue relationship with George, Martin could claim the moral high ground, as if to say, “These self-proclaimed orthodox Catholics don’t even try to talk to me or find out what I am saying or why. They just hurl their insults and condemnations without talking to me—like throwing stones from a distance.” But George has changed that—or at least denied Martin the ability to make any such claim. He has stepped forward as a partner in dialogue, in a spirit of sincerity and good will. He knows the issues like few others. He also knows the “theories” I summarized above, which have served as tools to evade responsibility for upholding the magisterium. He also knows where Martin’s position leads—that “differently ordered” sexuality justifies sexual acts that are “different” from conjugal. This is an important point worth fighting over, and I trust he will fight (amicably). Once you establish that the inclination is good (or indifferent), you have to allow for its exercise. This is the view at Out at St. Paul’s and Dignity. To them, telling a gay man to be chaste is like telling a bird not to fly. I am sure George knows this and realizes how much is at stake.

So again, the ball is in Martin’s court. If he continues to dialogue with George, he will not be able to complain that George is hostile, or is twisting his words, or does not understand. And for this to happen, George can’t just pretend to be a person of good will, so as to trick Martin into letting down his guard so he will say something damning. He has to actually BE a person of good will or, one might say, a friend.

So, the last question is, where does it go from here? As for Martin, he could try to give the appearance of dialoguing with George while all the while pressing a hidden (or not so hidden) agenda. But I don’t think he can sustain this with George. George is going to want serious discussion with serious answers. Martin is either going to have to reveal his agenda or break off the dialogue. Either way, George will have done us a service by forcing the truth into the light. And we should also be open to the possibility that Martin will actually change his mind. Such things are not unknown to happen, and it would also be something very positive and important.

George will need to make choices too. We should ask: as a partner in dialogue, will he pursue the tough questions and point out the logical contradictions between the magisterium and Martin’s statements—or the clear implications of those statements? Or, will he give Martin generous wiggle room, allowing statements that do not stand in clear, explicit, and direct contradiction to the Catechism to be regarded as within the boundaries of orthodox thought? Will there be a point at which George will break off dialogue, either because Martin is not giving clear answers, or because he refuses to engage?

Time will tell. For now, I think George is providing a service to the Church, because by stepping up to be Martin’s partner in dialogue, he has placed himself in a position to hold Martin accountable. George is uniquely qualified to do this, and I think for the present we should trust him.

(Photo credit: Michelle Bauman / CNA)


  • Fr. Peter Pilsner

    Fr. Peter Pilsner is the Director of Spiritual Activities at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Archdiocese of New York.

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