For quite some time, Fr. James Martin, SJ, puzzled me, as he puzzles many Catholics still. He insists that he does not reject any of the teachings of the Catholic Church, yet when it comes to the question of marriage and same-sex sexual partnerships, he talks as if he does.

Now the Church’s teaching on these matters could not be clearer, or longer standing, or more firmly established by the Church’s magisterium, which follows the Scriptures: Marriage is the one-flesh (“conjugal”) union of husband and wife, and non-marital sexual acts—be they heterosexual or homosexual—are inherently immoral. Yet those who reject the Church’s sexual ethic and want it to change think Fr. Martin supports their view. And those who affirm the Church’s sexual ethic think Fr. Martin opposes their view. People on both sides hear in Fr. Martin’s words approval of homosexual sexual relationships—relationships that the Church teaches cannot be approved.

So the questions are: Does Fr. Martin in fact reject the Church’s teachings on sex and marriage? And if so, why does he insist that he “do[es] not reject the teachings of the Church”?

It’s a puzzle. But I think it has a solution.

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A Great Communicator

Fr. Martin is an immensely gifted writer and speaker. He obviously loves being a priest and spreading the Gospel. Audiences find him engaging, funny, and winning. I met him once and found him exceptionally personable, even charming. I like him.

I also like a great deal of what he says, even in the general area in which I have found him puzzling. He fervently preaches Christ’s message of loving acceptance of everyone, and above all Christ’s particular solicitude and affection for the despised and the marginalized. To that end, Fr. Martin has made it a special mission to proclaim the need to imitate Christ’s love of our brothers and sisters who experience or act on same-sex desires. (I stand firmly with Fr. Martin in affirming this teaching and against anyone who rejects it.) He is also critical of those he regards as having failed to treat them as a follower of Christ should. When Fr. Martin wants to be unambiguous in upholding the Church’s teachings, he can be extremely clear and forceful. When he wants to condemn evildoers and evildoing, he can thunder like an Old Testament prophet.

A case in point: He harshly faults what he calls the “institutional Church” for what he regards as its history of marginalizing people who experience same-sex desires or form same-sex sexual partnerships. He has attributed most people’s opposition to redefining marriage to bigotry, compared those who won’t attend same-sex weddings to racists, and even declared that a great many critics of his approach are motivated by an anger fueled by repressed same-sex desire. And in an op-ed proving just how clear (and memorable) a communicator he can be, Fr. Martin branded some such conjugal-marriage supporters as “vicious” and “hysterical” members of “a kind of Catholic alt-right.”

Still he insists, “I do not reject the teachings of the Church.” He said exactly that when I recently described him as rejecting the Church’s moral teaching—which I did in the course of publicly supporting an invitation to him to speak at the seminary at Catholic University of America, against many Catholics’ vigorous opposition. He replied in a tweet saying that I was wrong about his views and telling me, with some measure of indignation, “Stop.” Some of his supporters took things a step further, accusing me of “lying” and calumny.

But Fr. Martin gave just the opposite impression moments later when I tweeted in reply, “Thank you, Father. May I take this, then, as an affirmation of the Church’s teaching that marriage is the conjugal union of husband and wife, and that sexual acts of any type outside the marital bond are immoral? If so, I am happy to correct what I said.” In response, I did not get a “yes.” Or a “no.” Fr. Martin fell silent, though we had just been exchanging tweets. It turns out that he always refuses to answer such questions or engage those who ask them. He simply refuses to say what the Church in fact says, namely, that though we must love those who experience and even act on same-sex desires, homosexual acts are wrong and sinful—morally and spiritually harmful to those engaging in them. And his supporters then jump in to say that those asking him to clarify his view are “attacking” him, even conducting an “inquisition.”

Again, puzzling.

What Father Refuses to Say

Now as Fr. Martin knows, I am not his enemy. Far from it: I have defended him when critics have treated him unjustly—and some have indeed been abusive toward him, as Archbishop Charles Chaput has pointed out. And I have publicly thanked Fr. Martin for upholding the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of human life, including the life of the child in the womb. I thought his open support for that teaching would alienate many of his most ardent followers—fervently devout social liberals. And indeed he took heat from them for that clear and forceful pro-life witness (as I took heat from his Catholic critics for praising and defending him).

So Fr. Martin knows I am not out to get him. On the contrary, I think he is an extraordinary talent whose witness is an enormous asset. But that witness is weakened when he gives critics fodder for easy charges of duplicity: barely veiled dissent from the Church’s teaching combined with indignant insistence that he “does not reject” it. That is why I have respectfully put this question to him.

If I am wrong, as I would love to be, about Fr. Martin’s fidelity to the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexual ethics, he could establish that instantly by saying what he so far refuses to say. Since he is willing to say abstractly, “I do not reject the teachings of the Church,” it is puzzling that he is not willing to affirm concretely (or even say that he “does not reject”) the Church’s teachings that marriage is the conjugal union of husband and wife and that non-marital sexual acts are morally wrong. It’s especially puzzling since these are issues he has made central to his work and witness—issues on which the Church’s teaching is today reviled by so many, especially among our secular cultural elite.

Preaching the Fullness of Truth

I’m glad that Fr. Martin preaches love and acceptance of fellow children of God who experience same-sex attraction, regardless of whether they act on those desires. Amen. Bravo! That’s authentic—and indispensable—Catholic teaching. Let’s shout it from the rooftops. I lament only his choice to omit another key part of the Church’s teaching. He sometimes explains his unwillingness to proclaim its teachings on marriage and sexuality by saying that everybody already knows what the Church says on those issues. But this is a poor excuse. For one thing, everyone already knows that the Church says we should love people unconditionally, yet Fr. Martin (rightly!) exhorts us time and again to live by that message. The case for preaching the Church’s good news on sex and marriage is no weaker.

Indeed, loving people fully requires us to proclaim moral truths, since living virtuously, even in the face of strong temptation, is always ennobling and liberating, and yielding to sin is always enslaving. That, too, is essential Catholic teaching. No one would be more effective at communicating that teaching than Fr. Martin. No one would be better at modeling what he himself says the “institutional Church” desperately needs to learn how to do: proclaim the Church’s teaching without alienating those with same-sex attractions or in same-sex relationships. No one possesses in greater abundance the talents needed to explain how the Church’s teachings on marriage and unconditional love are harmonious—indeed, inseparable—parts of Jesus’s Gospel of love. And explaining that link is just as essential to Fr. Martin’s chosen mission—his critical mission—of making same-sex-attracted people feel loved by Christ and at home in His Church.

So why won’t Fr. Martin do it? Some of his conservative Catholic critics think they know. Fr. Martin, they say, is a liar—a “perfidious priest.” He is simply lying, they insist, when he professes full support for the Church’s teachings. They point, for example, to his expression of “reverence” for same-sex sexual partnerships; to his comparison of conjugal-marriage supporters to racists; to his professed hope that one audience member would be free to kiss his “soon-to-be husband” at Mass; and to his proposal that the Church replace its teaching that same-sex desires are “objectively disordered” with the idea that they are “differently ordered.”

Now Fr. Martin’s critics are right that these statements are difficult to square with his insistence that he does not reject the Church’s teaching. For example, calling same-sex sexual desires or relations “differently ordered” would change the substance of the Church’s teaching and not simply its tone, as Fr. Martin supposes. “Wrongly ordered” or “not properly ordered” might be fair substitutes for “disordered,” but “differently ordered” clearly is not. If Fr. Martin thinks same-sex desires are ordered to something simply different from (and no less appropriate than) conjugal marriage, then he does reject the Church’s teaching. There’s no way around that. End of story.

Still, I think a case can be made that, whatever Fr. Martin is doing, he is not exactly lying. And where such a case can be made, I believe charity requires us to make it. (To state what should be obvious, gratuitously impugning Fr. Martin’s integrity would be deeply unjust.) If I’m right, Fr. Martin can say that he supports the Church’s teaching without saying anything he considers technically false—even if he does in fact reject the Church’s teaching on sexuality and marriage.

The Solution to the Puzzle

In other words, I think the puzzle presented by Fr. Martin’s public statements has a solution—indeed, that it has been solved. Greg Brown, a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Chicago and former assistant editor of Public Discourse, has suggested that Fr. Martin sincerely denies that the Church really does teach the immorality of homosexual conduct.

What (I hear you exclaim)? Everybody knows the Church teaches just that! As I’ve already noted, Fr. Martin himself has said everyone knows the Church teaches it. How can I (or Greg Brown) say that Fr. Martin doesn’t believe what he says everyone knows?

The answer proposed by Greg Brown appeals to Fr. Martin’s theory of what really counts as “the Church’s teaching”—what it has authoritatively taught. Indeed, Fr. Martin’s recent comments all but prove this hypothesis, thus solving the puzzle (listen to this, starting at 2:53). Here is what he says:

One of the things that I’ve, um, I’ve thought about a lot is the notion—and, you know, we’re in a theology department—the notion of, of uh, teachings being “received.” So, and uh, it’s a tradition that I think most people don’t know about, because it hasn’t been really talked about for the last 30, 40 years, nor has conscience, really, uh, but, you know, for a—briefly put, and I’m not a theologian, but, you know, for a teaching to be really, um, authoritative, it is expected that it will be received by the People of God, by the faithful.

So you look at something like, say, the Assumption. So the Assumption is declared, and people accept that. People, they go to the Feast of the Assumption, they believe in the Assumption, it’s received. From what I can tell, um, in the LGBT community, the teaching that, um, LGBT people must be celibate their entire lives—not just, you know, before marriage, as it is for most people, but their entire lives—has not been received.

Now, I say this and people go crazy. And this is simply based on LGBT people I speak to. Now there are some that believe—I would say it’s a very small percentage of people—but that’s a very simple fact. You can say that they don’t agree with it; I would say that the teaching has not been received by the community to which it was largely directed.

And so the question is, you know, what do we do with that? Now . . . that reflection, you know, what do we do with a teaching that has seemingly not been received by the community to which it was directed, is a theological question that bishops and LGBT people need to think about.

Well, there you have it! When Fr. Martin says he supports the Church’s teaching, he isn’t saying that he supports what most people mean by “the Church’s teaching,” including what the popes and bishops (or “institutional Church”) have for centuries taught on marriage and sexuality in what they themselves see as exercises of their apostolic authority. He means that he accepts the Church’s truly authoritative teaching, which he thinks does not include the propositions that homosexual conduct is immoral or even, perhaps, that marriage is exclusively the union of man and woman. Why not? Because, he says, “the community to which it was largely directed” has not “received” this teaching—at least if you discount the voice of the “small percentage” who do accept it. Or in plain English, the Church’s teaching on sexuality isn’t authentic teaching because those who’ve rejected that teaching have, well, rejected it.

So when Fr. Martin professes full support for the Church’s teaching, I believe he is making a genuine effort to avoid lying by relying—implicitly—on what some call “mental reservation” (an often dubious distinction—see 6.c here). He doesn’t reject what he sincerely regards as the Church’s real teachings—teachings “received” by more than a “small percentage” of those to whom they are “largely directed.” No, he only rejects statements that he honestly thinks aren’t fully Church teachings, even though they’re presumed to be just that, by foes and friends alike of the Church and its moral vision.

Greg Brown has ably set forth just some of the damning flaws in Fr. Martin’s understanding of what counts as an authoritative teaching of the Church. Brown’s analysis seems to me utterly decisive. My point here is merely to show that it is Fr. Martin’s understanding—his misunderstanding—of what counts as the Church’s teaching that solves the puzzle his own teaching presents.