The most recent controversy involving CNA’s reporting of a meeting between Fr. James Martin and Pope Francis illustrates well just how much Martin has become a lightning rod, in social media and beyond, for his advocacy for and on behalf of LGBT Catholics. But why?

It is superficial to think that the controversy is reducible to a question of Fr. Martin’s orthodoxy, as he rebuffs claims of his supposed heterodoxy. I also don’t believe Martin’s “lightning rod” status can be solely attributable to his work alongside groups like New Ways Ministry, for example, whose advocacy have placed them at odds with the teaching of the Catholic Church.

The main issue–never really discussed directly–is that Martin represents a starkly different approach to evangelization than the one advanced by the Church previously, perhaps best represented by St. John Paul II. This is not an indictment of Martin, however, or a criticism of John Paul. The question of how best to evangelize is one that the Catholic Church has struggled with since the beginning. Even still, evangelizing in the world today has its own unique set of opportunities and challenges, and the Church is continuing to discern the best way forward. As Pope Francis argues, an approach which emphasizes mercy and accompaniment–an approach also taken by Fr. Martin–is best suited for our postmodern world. 

The 20th century saw momentous shifts in culture, art, politics, and philosophy.  A can-do optimism–at the same time progressive, rationalist, and humanist–was upended by unspeakable atrocities, which laid bare the mortal flaws that lie at the heart of humanity. And while the rhetoric and alarmism surrounding the Cold War temporarily lifted the “burden of ennui,” as one cardinal once put it, the post-Cold War experience has largely been one of radically autonomous individuals thrown into the winds of a world without meaning. We are adrift.

At the end of the Cold War, however, one could hardly be faulted for being optimistic. In the early 1990s, John Paul presented a positive vision of a Church engaged in both the “new evangelization” and ongoing philosophical dialogue. Fides et Ratio and Veritatis Splendor encapsulate the theology of a pope who believed that the Church had a vital role to play in the modern world–an era in which reason and truth still held sway. There was just one problem: modernity was passing away.

John Paul eventually recognizes this new “postmodern” philosophy in Fides et Ratio, but it is hardly given a full treatment. It “merits attention,” but for John Paul, postmodernism has no clear, defining principles, which makes it hard to address directly. For the late pontiff, it can be marked by “nihilism” and the “total absence of meaning” which gives way to despair. He writes, 

This nihilism has been justified in a sense by the terrible experience of evil which has marked our age. Such a dramatic experience has ensured the collapse of rationalist optimism, which viewed history as the triumphant progress of reason, the source of all happiness and freedom; and now, at the end of this century, one of our greatest threats is the temptation to despair.

But if one were to ask John Paul whether he still believed that the Church should spend her energies discussing philosophy and truth with the world (among other things, of course), the answer would have been an unabashed, “yes.” He said in 1992, “What is needed is a more effective transmission of the Christian message by reasoned argument and by example.” He also writes in 1993, in Veritatis Splendor,

In order to “reverently preserve and faithfully expound” the word of God, the Magisterium has the duty to state that some trends of theological thinking and certain philosophical affirmations are incompatible with revealed truth. In addressing this Encyclical to you, my Brother Bishops, it is my intention to state the principles necessary for discerning what is contrary to “sound doctrine”, drawing attention to those elements of the Church’s moral teaching which today appear particularly exposed to error, ambiguity or neglect. 

The Church has benefitted and continues to benefit from John Paul’s body of work. The Catechism and his systematic Catholic theology have given the Church a valuable defense against the temptation to abandon truths–and Truth itself. The Church “moves on” from John Paul and his theology at her own peril. But what postmodernity makes clear is that most effective evangelization today does not involve questions of philosophy per se. While never abandoning the whole of the “treasury of the Church,” philosophical argumentation can no longer effectively serve as the tip of the spear. Our postmodern society largely has no grounding, no categories whatsoever, to understand or appreciate principles such as truth or goodness. The self-defeating claims of postmodernism are impossible to uproot on philosophical grounds once they have taken hold. 

Additionally, the problems of postmodernism go beyond philosophy as a scientific discipline. Francis recognizes that postmodernism is a homewrecker. He writes, “Globalization and postmodern individualism promote a lifestyle that makes it much more difficult to develop stable bonds between people, and it is not conducive to promoting a culture of the family.” Francis says that postmodernism leads us to believe that “we belong to no one.”  

By the grace of God who can work the greatest miracles from the most profound evils, these challenges open up pathways for the Church to evangelize. They are an opportunity for the Church to minister to people where they are suffering most: precisely in their profound isolation from one another and from God. The solution, as Francis proposes, is “closeness.” Cardinal Bergogolio said in 2008, at a Eucharistic Congress in Quebec, “In this fragmented postmodern world, the time has come to turn toward a true sacrament of closeness.” 

“Closeness,” as it turns out, is a major theme of Francis’ papacy. He writes in Evangelii Gaudium, “To be evangelizers of souls, we need to develop a spiritual taste for being close to people’s lives and to discover that this is itself a source of greater joy.” And later he also writes this beautiful passage:

Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length. Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people. 

This describes fairly well the ministry of Fr. Martin, who simply does not find it necessary to insist on theological or philosophical categories in his work with gay Catholics. Whereas Catholicism would often seem to be a burden laid upon the shoulders of LGBT people, Martin wants to make clear that it is precisely the Church, and only the Church, where true community, freedom, peace, and growth can be found. There is no argument that needs to be made; there is nothing that needs to be said; all that is needed is a radical orientation to the other in whom we find our joy. Those we are trying to reach need to be convinced through our love that they too belong to the Church. Once in the embrace of a welcoming community, those hard conversations can be had, but it seems that Martin is acutely aware that placing conditions on the unconditional love of Jesus is a sure way to pervert the Gospel and impede our work of evangelization.   

The angst over Martin and his ministry is underpinned by a fundamental misunderstanding of how best to evangelize today. Understandably, there is a desire to revert to the effective preaching of St. John Paul II and his insistence on both reasoned argument and the new evangelization. But in the 25-30 years since he wrote Fides et Ratio and Veritatis Splendor, the world has shifted dramatically, from the last gasp of modernity into the grasp of postmodernity. As Francis says, “It is not a matter of applying rules or repeating what was done in the past, since the same solutions are not valid in all circumstances and what was useful in one context may not prove so in another.” Respecting the contributions of John Paul, the Church must not be afraid of pursuing new roads of evangelization that are more effective for today, including the path Martin has taken.

Image from a stage production of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. This play is cited as an example of postmodern art because of its depictions of meaninglessness and absurdity. 

Source: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:En_attendant_Godot,_Festival_d%27Avignon,_1978_f22.jpg

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