On Tuesday, February 18, 2020, JD Flynn wrote an essay in First Things arguing that Father James Martin, an American Jesuit known for his ministry and pastoral outreach to the LGBT community, presents “a vision of the human person at odds with Catholic teaching.” In the piece, Flynn quoted neither Father Martin nor any Church teaching with which Father Martin is clearly at odds.
Then, on Thursday, February 20, Flynn published an article for Catholic News Agency (where he is the editor-in-chief) reporting that two anonymous bishops from the Southwestern United States said that during their February 10 ad limina visit with Pope Francis, the Holy Father was visibly upset when the subject of Fr. Martin came up because he felt “used” by the way a 2019 meeting between Martin and himself had been presented by the (presumably secular and/or left-leaning) media. (If you had difficulty following who told whom what during the preceding sentence, there’s a reason for that.) According to the report, these unnamed bishops claimed that Pope Francis told them that Martin had received “a talking to” from his superiors.
The social media reaction to the story was animated, with many questioning the timing of the story (ten days after the meeting where the comments were allegedly made), the subjective nature of the subject matter (much of the article was based on personal impressions of Francis’s reactions), as well as the use of anonymous sources. Others supported the account because it reaffirmed their impressions of Fr. Martin and his apostolate.
The next day, Friday, February 21, one of the bishops present at the ad limina meeting, Archbishop John Charles Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico went on the record with his recollection of the discussion. According to Wester, Martin was indeed discussed at the meeting, but his name was raised by some of the bishops, not the pope. Wester’s impression was that Pope Francis was neither visibly upset nor angry with Martin and his ministry, and that according to his recollection, “I have no memory at all of the Pope being angry, upset or annoyed. He spoke gently and patiently throughout our meeting.” Archbishop Wester additionally stated that he had no recollection of the pope saying Martin had been given a talking-to, or that the meeting with Martin was not meant to have “any significance.”
For his part, Fr. Martin took to Twitter shortly thereafter to thank Wester and assert, “I never heard anything negative from Jesuit superiors, nor was I ever given a ‘talking to.’ That’s also false.”
In other words, the Archbishop issued an open challenge to Flynn’s article, with its reliance on anonymous sources with (by definition given their anonymity) unknown agendas. In addition, Father Martin publicly contested the claim that his superiors disapproved of his apostolate, or that they ever admonished him. By putting their names and reputations behind their assertions, Wester and Martin have put CNA in a position that makes it appear that the news outlet was trading in rumor, conjecture, and subjective interpretations rather than verifiable fact.
The standard to which many on the Catholic right hold Fr. Martin is astounding. It’s difficult to believe that he would receive the same kind of suspicion and heightened scrutiny if his apostolate was perceived to be lacking on almost any other social or moral issue facing the Church. It’s next to impossible to imagine somebody like George Weigel or another conservative or libertarian Catholic in the “mater si, magistra no” tradition coming in for this kind of treatment from a purportedly orthodox, mainstream Catholic outlet like CNA. It would be one thing if Father Martin were perceived to be shaky on abortion or euthanasia; there is precedent in the teachings of recent Popes for holding Catholic public figures to a higher standard for orthodoxy on those issues. But the pastoral care of LGBT people—the only subject on which Father Martin claims expertise; he has explicitly denied that he is seeking to challenge actual Catholic doctrine—is not the same kind of non-negotiable. Father Martin (like Weigel) is a Catholic public figure in good standing whose work has been endorsed by multiple bishops and cardinals. He is also (unlike Weigel) a priest who has been appointed to a position in the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communications.
Why report anonymous rumors as news at all? In the aftermath of the CNA story, Deacon Greg Kandra wrote an essay detailing the Associated Press’s ethical guidelines for the use of anonymous sources. The essay went on to explain why, in Deacon Kandra’s opinion, CNA’s use of them in this story fell short. I would add one more observation: If the first two bishops that CNA spoke to who were present at the meeting were unwilling to allow their names to be used (why?), there were thirteen more who could be consulted (of whom Archbishop Wester, so far, has come forward). So why rely on those first two nameless bishops? The names of the fifteen US bishops present are a matter of public record. This borders on calumny against Fr. Martin.
In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis discusses how relying on subjective interpretations and emotions when speaking about someone else can distort the truth::
“At times, it may be necessary to speak of the difficulties of a particular brother or sister. In such cases, it can happen that an interpretation is passed on in place of an objective fact. Emotions can misconstrue and alter the facts of a matter, and end up passing them on laced with subjective elements. In this way, neither the facts themselves nor the truth of the other person are respected” (fn 74).
It’s certainly possible that Father Martin from time to time speaks and acts imprudently in a way that leads other Catholics to have “difficulties” with his message. If this is the case, others might legitimately draw attention to such issues. Personally speaking, I don’t pore over every word Martin says or writes, so I couldn’t say for sure. But he’s been extremely clear that he does not intend to speak or write in a way that challenges Church doctrine. Distrusting and disbelieving his assertions of this rises to a level of suspicion and subjective interpretation that ought itself to be held to a higher standard.
To Flynn’s credit, his First Things article does cite Martin’s assertion that he does not challenge doctrine on homosexuality, and Flynn says that he is willing to take Martin at his word on this. But this is a sleight of hand; the article immediately pivots to claiming that Martin is undermining Church teaching on a far more fundamental issue, i.e. what it means to be a human person. Unfortunately, Flynn produces absolutely no hard evidence that Martin is undermining anything other than a series of narratives and talking points that people on the Catholic right frequently claim are Church teaching when talking about homosexuality. These are theological and psychosociological fanfictions and increasingly shopworn old chestnuts that purport to dictate–in unapologetically prescriptive terms–how LGBT people must and must not be spoken to or about. For example, Flynn provides no specific, dispositive rationale for his belief that “lavender graduations” affirm “the world’s lies about who [the participants] are.” He, and other partisans of the “appetities aren’t identity” perspective on homosexuality, seem completely unaware of even the possibility that a gay person might find that being gay affects his or her sense of self in ways ranging beyond his or her sexual proclivities. If there is any actual evidence that Church teaching mandates this lack of awareness, Flynn doesn’t provide it.
Even if Martin was not a priest in good standing with the backing of powerful figures within the Church (most of us are not so lucky, and many of us are better people and better Catholics than many who are so lucky) he is owed the basic respect of not being repeatedly slandered like this. The relentless public attacks on his orthodoxy and faithfulness to the Church are gravely unjust and violate the Eighth Commandment. Nobody deserves to have their reputation run over like this. This is a form of Catholic McCarthyism, in which merely the perception of disagreement with Church teaching justifies almost any personal attack in the name of heresy-hunting.
In another footnote in Gaudete et Exsultate Pope Francis says clearly: “Detraction and calumny are acts of terrorism: a bomb is thrown, it explodes and the attacker walks away calm and contented” (fn 73). When directed at someone perceived to be an enemy to the Church, this deadly evil can be deceptively packaged in pious justifications and even works of mercy including:
- Fraternal correction
- Defending the faith
- Safeguarding orthodoxy
- Speaking the truth
- Admonishing sinners
- Protecting others from scandal
Fr. Martin’s supercritics in Catholic media would do well to take Pope Francis’s words to heart, from when he spoke to the Italian press last spring: “To be a humble journalist does not mean to be a mediocre one, but rather to be aware that through an article, a tweet, or a live television or radio broadcast you can do good but also, if you are not careful and scrupulous, you can do harm to others and sometimes to entire communities. I am thinking, for example, of how certain clamorous headlines can create a false representation of reality. Correction is always necessary when one is wrong, but it is not enough to restore dignity, especially at a time when, through the Internet, false information can spread to the point of appearing authentic. Therefore, you journalists should always consider the power of the tool you wield, and resist the temptation to publish insufficiently verified news.”
Our Catholic faith calls us to a high standard of comportment, especially when publicly criticizing or relating events and conversations that present others in a negative light. It is my sincere prayer that JD Flynn and CNA apologize to their readers and especially to Fr. Martin for their irresponsible reporting and handling of this story. Perhaps more bishops will come forward and challenge Archbishop Wester’s account, but it was highly unprofessional to publish the story in its initial form. CNA has been a wonderful news resource in the past and has the potential to still be a wonderful news resource today; it’s my fervent hope that they hold themselves to a higher standard in the future.
EDIT 2/23/2020: Cheyenne, Wyoming Bishop Steven Biegler has gone on the record backing up Archbishop Wester’s version of events.
Nathan Turowsky went to elementary school in Vermont, high school in New Jersey, and college in Massachusetts, where he now lives. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and has a classically Millennial patchwork employment history.