The Catholic blogosphere and Catholic Twitter are abuzz with the clicking and tapping of comments on Father James Martin, S.J.,’s August 20 benediction at the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee.
Some have complained that Father Martin’s inclusion on the last night of the DNC is a hypocritical and inconsistent contrast to the treatment of Priests for Life National Director Father Frank Pavone, who was asked by unnamed Church authorities to withdraw himself from an advisory position on President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign. While Father Martin’s benediction is not an explicit endorsement of former Vice President Joe Biden, it at least suggests Father Martin’s benediction of the progressive Catholic politician seeking the Democratic nomination.
Choosing Father Martin to offer a benediction at the DNC convention was, however, an act of genius on behalf of both the Democratic National Committee as well as the wider progressive Catholic establishment in America of which Father Martin is one of if not the most prominent members.
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While constantly derided and challenged by right-of-center Catholics as a progressive or dissident Catholic potentially leading millions of Catholics into scandal and spiritual ruin, Father Martin is, in fact, much like former President Bill Clinton (who also has appeared at the DNC convention). He’s a tactful and skilled politician who knows just what to say and when. One might even call Father Martin—again, like former President Bill Clinton—a rhetorical genius.
While President Clinton represents, at least apparently, a more moderate and level-headed Democratic Party of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Father Martin is representative of a new breed of liberal Catholics who are much smarter than their predecessors.
The earlier generation of liberal Catholics in America and throughout the wider West attempted to do too much too fast and positioned themselves as intellectual adversaries of the Church’s traditional teaching. European theologians like Fathers Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Hans Kung, and Edward Schillebeeckx were intellectuals whose works came under examination by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Holy Office, and which at least appeared to challenge key Catholic doctrinal issues. By doing so they, and American writers like Fathers Charles Curran and Matthew Fox, put themselves at odds vis-à-vis the Church.
During the heady days of the 1960s and 1970s, such rebelliousness was attractive to young, liberal Baby Boomers mesmerized by the belief that they were living in the emergent Age of Aquarius.
However, following the conservative Catholic American renaissance inaugurated by Pope John Paul II’s 1993 World Youth Day, direct opposition to the Church has fallen out of fashion and, for the most part, earlier generations of Gen-Xers and Millennials have simply left the Church, as opposed to practicing the left-wing version of “recognize and resist.”
Although there has been a tremendous renaissance of traditional Catholicism among young Catholics, there are many Catholics who find themselves caught between two worlds. These younger Catholics, the children or the grandchildren of Baby Boomers, have (along with their “post-Evangelical” counterparts) combined progressive politics with elements of Catholic piety and have earned the tweetable moniker of “Left Caths.”
Unlike the earlier generation of post–Vatican II radicals, the Left Caths focus on the presentation of their ideas rather than intellectual content. They claim (perhaps sincerely) not to be combating the Church’s teaching, but rather to be presenting it in a more compassionate and inclusive manner.
The Left Cath method of form over function has been deeply attractive to many American Catholics who find themselves caught up in the recent resurgence of progressive politics that itself is more about branding than content.
America, despite our sincere and strong tradition of the belles lettres, has never been about the intellectual life. It has been much more about business—and show business, in particular—than it has been about heady theological and philosophical issues.
Father James Martin is a member of the off-Broadway production company Labyrinth Theatre, making him the perfect face of the Left Caths to present at the 2020 convention. He can make it seem as though one can still be a pious, pro-life Catholic and vote for a political party that is fundamentally at odds with traditional Catholic teaching on life issues, gender ideology, marriage, the liberty of the Church, and a whole laundry list of political and moral errors.
In the end, it is difficult to gauge what Father Martin really believes. Tempting as it may be to do otherwise, charity demands that we give him the benefit of the doubt.
Nonetheless, Father Martin and the other Left Caths, by creating the impression that faithful Catholics can support politicians many of whose policies radically diverge from Church teaching, have proven themselves to be a tremendous boon for the Democratic Party and the radical left writ large. If we want to win at politics, conservative and traditionalist Catholics must follow the method of the Left Caths and get a lot smarter.
Editor’s note: The title of this article has been amended.
[Photo credit: James Martin, SJ/Twitter.com]