On August 26, 2020, Crisis Magazine published an article entitled, “The Genius of Father Martin,” a title that was later edited to read, “The (Evil) Genius of Father Martin,” as shown in the title’s current form. The article suggested that Fr. James Martin’s prayer offered at the Democratic National Convention was “an act of genius on behalf of both the Democratic National Committee as well as the wider progressive Catholic establishment in America.”
Fr. Martin’s prayer was a petition to “Open our hearts to those most in need,” including the “unborn child in the womb.” He also said before the convention, “if the Republicans invite me, I’ll pray the same prayer” (just as then-USCCB president Cardinal Timothy Dolan did in 2012). Crisis argued, however, that Fr. Martin’s convention appearance was a brilliant strategic move to advance the idea that “one can still be a pious, pro-life Catholic and vote for a political party that is fundamentally at odds with traditional Catholic teaching.”
The article serves to delineate two sides: Post-Vatican II Liberal Catholics (or “radicals” or “Left Caths”) who claim to embrace progressive politics and present the Church’s teaching “in a more compassionate and inclusive manner;” and the “conservative Catholic American renaissance inaugurated by Pope John Paul II’s 1993 World Youth Day.” The article states that Father James Martin and these “Left Caths” create “the impression that faithful Catholics can support politicians many of whose policies radically diverge from Church teaching” which has proven “to be a tremendous boon for the Democratic Party and the radical left writ large.”
Translation: Left Caths are bad, and Traditional Catholics are good.
However, the author fails to note that one can also argue that conservative and traditional Catholics also create “the impression that faithful Catholics can support politicians many of whose policies radically diverge from Church teaching,” namely capital punishment, policies toward migrants—including but not limited to placing minors in detention camps (especially in conditions that are not safe in terms of COVID)—immigration policies that are hostile to people of the Islamic faith, and policies promoting structural racism that has had a detrimental effect—especially on Black and Brown people.
Regarding the politicians the “Left Caths” support, the issues radically divergent from Church teaching are primarily on the issue of abortion and LGBTQ policies.
In the Church’s eyes, neither party gets it right, and neither party has the right to claim moral high ground.
Many conservative and traditional Catholics deceive all Catholics by asserting that the politicians they support are “with the Church,” when many of these candidates’ views oppose fundamental aspects of Catholic teaching.
The article deceptively suggests one group is good and right with the Church, but in fact glosses over that group’s vast differences with the Church, particularly its social teaching and preferential option for the poor.
While charity demands the benefit of the doubt, as St. Ignatius of Loyola specifies in the Spiritual Exercises (22), the article’s tactic is congruent with the activity of the evil spirit described in the Exercises as an Angel of Light (332) who offers “holy and pious thoughts that are wholly in conformity with the sanctity of the soul” until this Angel of Light endeavors “little by little to end by drawing the soul into his hidden snares and designs.”
The good and holy thought in this example—being against the evil of abortion—is taken to the extreme of supporting politicians who are against abortion but who are not against policies that are detrimental to the poor, the marginalized, and those on Death Row. Nor are many of these politicians against policies that promote structural racism.
Neither major U.S. party has it right when it comes to conformity to Church teachings. Therefore a Catholic faces a complex decision. As the U.S. Bishops wrote in their voter’s guide, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, “Aided by the virtue of prudence in the exercise of well-formed consciences, Catholics are called to make practical judgments regarding good and evil choices in the political arena.” Voting decisions in the U.S. today can be very difficult, and it isn’t always easy to discern which candidates will better serve the common good.
While I would like to presume that Crisis is seeking the benefit of souls and is trying to guard the faithful from being led astray, I believe the impact of this article is predictable: it reinforces the tightly-held beliefs of an established echo chamber of supporters while simultaneously enraging and widening divisions with those the article defines as “Left Cath.”
Additionally, I believe those who have left the Church, those who are contemplating leaving the Church, and those who are either non-Christian or non-believers of any faith might read the Crisis article and feel reaffirmed that the Church is not for them. Believers fighting among themselves is not proof of the existence of God but the existence of wounded pride.
Therefore, the efforts of Crisis might actually impede efforts to take part in Christ’s mission to go after the Lost Sheep (cf. Lk 15: 3-7).
Turning my attention to the man the article names as the (evil) genius, Fr. James Martin, SJ:
- I invite the contributors and readers of Crisis, as an exercise, to prayerfully read and contemplate Matthew 7:3-5: “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?”
- Have you met Fr. Martin? Have you sat down and spoken with him (even virtually)? Do you have the credibility to assess his character and intention, especially when calling him an “(evil) genius” could be viewed as rash judgment, if not calumny and libel?
I have met Fr. Martin. While I was in graduate studies at Fordham University as a Jesuit, I did get to know Fr. Martin, brief though it was. In that time I found him to be a very present, caring, kind, and down-to-earth person. I didn’t feel like I was in the presence of a celebrity. I would not describe him as someone who would “hold court.” My experience of Fr. Martin was of a man who loves Christ and takes very seriously his Jesuit vocation, particularly the call to minister to those on the margins. This has been particularly evident in Fr. Martin’s personal and social media outreach to the LGBTQ community and his publication of Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity.
As the Crisis article critiqued, Fr. Martin and those they call Left Caths do appeal to a more compassionate and inclusive approach. The ideological approach Crisis seems to favor stresses the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit, let alone any patience for empathy or kindness. However, any number of Gospel passages indicates Jesus favored the latter, and his modus operandi was compassion and inclusion: Jew and Samaritan, Poor and Tax Collector, Pharisee and Roman. In Jesus’ public ministry, he loved all and ministered to all. Even the woman caught in adultery did not preclude this essential part of his ministry (cf. Jn 8:1-11).
Neither does one’s sexual orientation preclude the ministry of Fr. Martin, who follows Jesus in the Society that bears His Name. The gift of the Exercises and the placement of Jesuits in ministry with those on the margins is that the relationship is not hierarchical but horizontal. When being with those on the margins, one can experience how much God loves and values these people and how much they deserve dignity and justice. Fr. Martin spent a portion of his formation working with refugees in Nairobi, Kenya, which he described in This Our Exile: A Spiritual Journey with the Refugees of East Africa. This experience formed in Fr. Martin a heart attuned to the sufferings of others. Such an experience is paramount to knowing and following Christ, for His Sacred Heart is one that “loves all people, suffers with all of those experiencing injustice, and is especially close to the marginalized.”
Does Fr. Martin enjoy his vast social media reach, his popularity and the recognition which provides opportunities such as to pray at the Democratic National Convention? My experience of Fr. Martin would suggest that he would be happy doing whatever the Lord and his superiors asked of him. I believe his social media presence is solely a means for Fr. Martin to present to the world that Jesus loves all and welcomes all. From a Christian standpoint I see no reason to argue with someone who wishes to promote that image of Jesus. To discredit Fr. Martin’s ministry would suggest that Jesus does not love all nor welcome all, which would actually be heresy.
For anyone with personal knowledge of Jesuits, the truth is, in human frailty and imperfection, Jesuits can be their own toughest critics. That said, for a Jesuit—let alone a former Jesuit like myself—to have such a positive experience with another Jesuit and to have that experience be consistent is an endorsement that is not given lightly.
The Crisis article’s central thesis—that “Left Caths” are leading Catholics astray by suggesting it is acceptable to support political candidates whose policies are contrary to Church teaching—actually reveals that they themselves are the ones who ignore political positions and policies that are contrary to Church teaching, thereby undermining the article’s argument as well as the traditional ideologue’s credibility for moral high ground. Fr. Martin, remember, explicitly prayed for the unborn, asking for God’s help that we may become “a nation where every life is sacred.” Moreover, painting Fr. Martin as an “(evil) genius” is calumnious and denigrates his commitment to his Jesuit vocation, which is inherently rooted in Christ. The article does little but increase the divide and animosity within the Church, which impedes the important call to reach those who have left the faith or contemplating doing so. We must promote the heart of Christ’s mission, not undermine it.
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