I think I’ve finally wrapped my mind around Fr James Martin SJ’s method for undermining sound doctrine and leading souls astray without ever actually committing heresy.
Others have described him as “going right up to the line, and never crossing it.” This is a fair metaphor, but not completely accurate. Martin frames his arguments in a way that seems compelling, not only emotionally but logically. The key, however, is that there’s always one element left unsaid; one point deliberately evaded in order for the logic to inhere. If the unsaid thing were introduced, the argument would fall apart.
Three Revealing Tweets
A series of three tweets posted recently gives a good example. In the first, he wrote: “#BorisJohnson, a twice-divorced man, whose girlfriend recently had a baby with him out of wedlock (and who also has another child out of wedlock) was married in a Catholic ceremony in Westminster Cathedral, the seat of English Catholicism. At the same time, a same-sex couple….
The second went: “…who are both Catholics (unlike Mr. Johnson, who was confirmed as an Anglican) cannot have their civil union blessed even in private by a priest because “God does not and cannot bless sin…”
And the third: “Mr. and Mrs. Johnson were married within the rules of the Catholic Church. And I wish them well. I also wish that the same mercy and compassion that was offered to them, recognizing their complex lives, could also be extended to same-sex couples who are lifelong Catholics.”
Martin dances around, but never says outright, the one thing that is really the crux of the whole question. The evasion is seen in two ways: his putting the phrase “God does not and cannot bless sin,” in scare quotes and his using the euphemism about the “complex lives” of the same-sex couple.
Having avoided the noteworthy specific, he is then able to analogize the “complex lives” of the same-sex couple and that of Johnson and his wife, and to imply that a blessing of the former’s “union” would constitute “the same mercy and compassion” as has been shown to the latter.
As Martin presents it, this all seems reasonable. Many readers might feel tempted to agree. But this temptation relies on missing what Martin has left out of the presentation.
One matter — the one that makes all the difference — is ignored. The solitary fact that makes the argument either sound or fallacious is simply omitted. This is the question I tweeted to Martin (though not really expecting an answer): “Are the same-sex couple to whom you refer having sex?”
This question cuts through to the root of the issue. Its answer would make clear what we are supposed to assume from phrases like “complex lives.”
Does He Disagree?
What is suggested by Martin quoting the phrase from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) — “God does not and cannot bless sin” — rather than simply stating it? The only obvious inferences would be that he disagrees with the statement or else he thinks the claim does not apply to the Johnsons’ marriage or the same-sex couple.
It’s clear enough that Martin’s position is the second one. Martin acknowledges in his third tweet that the Church blessed the Johnsons’ marriage according to the legal forms of the Church. Their marriage, in other words, does not violate the CDF statement. His implicit contention is that blessing the same-sex couple’s union would no more violate the standard.
However, his own logic defeats itself. In the beginning of his tweet series, he makes clear that there were many obvious things about the Johnsons’ relationship before marriage that were at least “irregular.” The whole reason the Johnsons’ case does not run afoul of the CDF’s statement is that their marriage is itself the remedy.
Far from “blessing sin,” in such a case the solemnizing of a marriage is the very thing that removes what had been the occasion of sin.
This returns us to the central, vital question of sex. The Church gives to the same answer to the question in both cases, and by doing so reveals the failure of Martin’s analogizing. Why can the Church bless the Johnson’s marriage? Because sex belongs in marriage. Why can the Church not bless the civil union of a same-sex couple who are presumed to be having sex? Because sex belongs in marriage.
Evading the Issue
This is why Fr Martin must, for his argument to work, evade the issue of sex and its proper place in marriage. By being so evasive, he can avoid having to answer whether he thinks the Church is right that marriage is solely the union of a man and a woman.
He can pretend that the Church is here giving different answers to one single question, letting the Johnsons get away with something it won’t let the same-sex couple have, rather than actually giving one single answer to two very different questions. Martin knows that getting the right answer depends upon asking the right question; and so he refuses to ask it.