Tonight, the Democratic convention will feature a prayer by the Jesuit Fr James Martin, no doubt provoking another round of debate about Democrats vs Republicans, abortion vs other “life issues”, and the merits of dialoguing with politicians as opposed to denouncing them. For non-US citizens, it’s a relief to be able to sit out these – by now, entirely predictable – arguments. But tonight’s event has another significance: it confirms the status of Fr Martin himself as one of the most influential priests in the English-speaking world.
Fr Martin’s gifts as a communicator have made him famous; what has made him controversial is his habit of saying things which seem in tension with Catholic orthodoxy. To take a recent example, Fr Martin last week urged his social media followers to read a spiritual autobiography by “the great James Alison”. Who is the great James Alison? A former Dominican friar and a well-known critic of aspects of Catholic doctrine. Last year, Alison declared that “despite the endless moralistic hullabaloo which surrounds them, sexual acts between consenting adult members of the same sex are about as inconsequential as any human activity can be. They harm no one…if Father X goes on holiday each year with his friend Brian, can anyone say whether they have sex or not? More to the point: who on earth could care!” This year, Alison has been in the news for attempting to popularise a revised (and, technically speaking, sacrilegious) version of the Mass in which laypeople can say the words of consecration.
When Fr Martin uses the phrase “the great James Alison”, he isn’t directly contradicting Catholic doctrine. But, in my view, he is undermining it. And as has been pointed outbefore, these ambiguous statements are common in Fr Martin’s work. He has responded, on the subject of the Church’s teachings about sexual morality, that he has “never challenged those teachings, nor will I.” It’s a curious expression. Brad Pitt has never challenged string theory, but that doesn’t tell you whether, and in what sense, he agrees with it. It’s also a pretty cold way of referring to Catholic truth. If you asked me, “Does God love me?” or “Do we have a duty to help the poor?” and I said: “I’ve never challenged those teachings, nor will I,” you would quite reasonably be baffled.
Fr Martin’s statements and silences on Catholic morality are especially sad at a time like this. So many people are broken-hearted by sexual sin, what they have done or what others have done to them, and searching for the peace which can only be found in the Church. So many people are intrigued by Catholicism but puzzled by the sex stuff: Do Catholics really believe all this? Why? Fr Martin could have used his intelligence to defend the Church’s teachings; he could have used his skill as a communicator to throw light on their beauty; he could, at least, have used his huge public platform to affirm these doctrines as unchangeable truths. He has done none of the above. But often, where there is confusion, he has brought more of it.
Before this turns into a rant, it’s worth saying that Fr Martin has done a good job of defending the reputation of St Teresa of Calcutta, and of speaking up for the unborn. On the one occasion when I corresponded with him he was very nice – and everyone I know who has had direct contact with him says the same.
But I’m only half-joking – less than half – when I say that my real worry about his appearance at the convention isn’t that he’ll give some kind of Catholic credibility to the Democrats. It’s that the convention will increase the public prominence of Fr James Martin.