Fr. James Martin, Friendship and Dialogue, and the Truth about Human Sexuality

Fr. James Martin, Friendship and Dialogue, and the Truth about Human Sexuality

It is not merely that we “reject the sin, but love the sinner,” though we do that; we reject the sin because we love the sinner—radically love him, willing his good for his own sake, affirming the teaching of the Church in all its richness because we recognize that it is liberating and life-affirming.

Fr. James Martin, S.J. is a friend of mine—someone I admire for his impressive gifts and talents, and especially for his uncompromising pro-life witness and the great heart he has for people of all faiths (and none) who suffer, struggle, or are victims of misfortune or injustice. My friendship with Fr. Martin, who is best known for his efforts to shape Catholic ministry to our brothers and sisters who experience same-sex attractions or gender dysphoria, and my willingness to engage him in dialogue and commend him when I believe he is right, have upset some Catholics who fear that he works to undermine the Church’s teachings on sexual morality and marriage. They seem to want me to withdraw my friendship which, some have suggested, “gives him cover.” I must decline.

To be sure, there have been legitimate grounds for concern that Fr. Martin rejects some of the Church’s teachings on sex and marriage. Comments of his in various venues have invited the inference that he does not count these as Church teachings after all. So in an essay here at Public Discourse last October, I asked him to clarify his views. He has since done just that in an America magazine essay clearly, accurately, and quite beautifully setting forth the Church’s teachings on marriage as the conjugal union of a man and woman, on the intrinsic immorality of non-marital (including same-sex) sexual relations, and on same-sex sexual desires as objectively disordered.

Fr. Martin’s explicit recognition of these principles as genuine Church teachings—together with his repeated insistence that he does not reject any of the Church’s teachings—removes doubt (at least for those of us who take Fr. Martin at his word and do not suppose him to be lying about what he actually believes): Fr. Martin accepts the Church’s teachings, including those on sexual morality and the nature of marriage. Whatever ambiguity or perhaps error there may have been before his recent piece in America, Fr. Martin has left no room for detractors (or, for that matter, supporters) to suppose that he believes marriage can be between persons of the same sex or that homosexual conduct can be morally good—propositions that are clearly in defiance of Catholic teaching.

In particular, it would now be unfair for his opponents—and dishonest and disloyal for his friends—to suggest that he considers same-sex sexual relationships morally licit, much less capable of forming a marriage. For this would be to accuse Fr. Martin of lying either (a) in his recent America article spelling out the Church’s teachings on these issues, or (b) in his frequent and consistent denials that he rejects any Church teaching.

If Fr. Martin is lying, which I resolutely do not believe he is, then he, of course, is answerable for that to God. But please note that by the same token, anyone who falsely accuses him of lying is also answerable to God.

For my part, I will keep pursuing friendship with Fr. Martin, and truth-seeking, mutually respectful dialogue on points of disagreement—points that aren’t, then, matters of definitive, settled Catholic teaching. In that spirit, I want to highlight and again thank him for his recent articulation of Catholic teachings pertaining to marriage and homosexuality, and clarify the closely related pastoral questions on which we do disagree.

Father Martin Articulates the Church’s Teaching on Sexual Morality and Marriage

Brief background: In my Public Discourse essay, I addressed the puzzle of how Fr. Martin could deny that he rejects any of the Church’s teachings when some of his comments had seemed to contradict the Church’s teachings on (1) the nature of marriage as an inherently male-female union, (2) the intrinsic immorality of non-marital (including all same-sex) sexual conduct, and (3) the consequent status of same-sex sexual desires as intrinsically disordered (that is, not ordered to the true goods of conjugal union). Following Greg Brown, I surmised that Fr. Martin may believe that these three points don’t qualify as official Church teachings, because they haven’t been “received” (i.e., accepted) by many of those to whom they have been directed. In other words, I wondered aloud whether Fr. Martin was able to say that he accepted the Church’s teaching because he was engaged in a kind of mental reservation about what did and did not count as “the Church’s teaching.” I then wrote:

If I am wrong, as I would love to be [italics in the original], 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.

Here I effectively asked Fr. Martin to say whether he understands the magisterium of the Church to have officially and therefore authoritatively taught that marriage is inherently opposite-sex, that same-sex sexual relations (like all non-marital sex) are intrinsically immoral, and that desire for them is thus intrinsically disordered.

Six months later, in an article in America magazine, Fr. Martin affirmed, with no hint of ambiguity or evasion, that these are indeed the magisterium’s teachings—an affirmation which, coupled with his repeated and explicit denial that he rejects any Catholic teaching, proves that Fr. Martin accepts these teachings on marriage and sexual morality as valid, true, binding in conscience. Please permit me to quote him at length:

[I]n the eyes of the church simply being gay or lesbian is not a sin—contrary to widespread belief, even among educated Catholics. That may be one of the most poorly understood of the church’s teachings. Regularly I am asked questions like, “Isn’t it a sin to be gay?” But this is not church teaching. Nowhere in the catechism does it say that simply being homosexual is a sin. As any reputable psychologist or psychiatrists will agree, people do not choose to be born with any particular sexual orientation.

But when most people ask questions about “church teaching” they are referring not to this question, but to restrictions on homosexual, or same-sex, activity as well as the prohibition on same-sex marriage. Homosexual acts are, according to the catechism, “intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to natural law.” (The bulk of the catechism’s attention to homosexuality is contained in Nos. 2357-59.) Consequently, the homosexual orientation (and by extension, any orientation other than heterosexuality) is regarded as “objectively disordered.”

Where does this teaching come from, and what does it mean? While this teaching has some biblical roots (Gn 19:1-29; Rom 1:24-27; 1 Cor 6:10; 1 Tm 1:10), we can perhaps best understand it from the church’s traditional reliance on natural law, which was itself heavily influenced by the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas (who himself drew on Aristotle).

Natural law is founded on the idea that God’s divine will and divine plan for the world and for humanity are not only revealed in the natural world but are, perhaps more important, self-evident to the human mind. During my philosophy studies, the Catholic sister who taught us medieval philosophy told us, “Aquinas wants us to see that the world makes sense.” One can understand God’s plan, says Aquinas, not only by observing nature but also by using our reason.

We can begin with the Thomistic idea that the world “makes sense.” From that starting point, Aquinas would say that it’s clear that everything is “ordered” toward something. Its Aristotelian telos, or endpoint, should be obvious both to our eyes and to our reason. For example, an acorn is quite obviously “ordered” toward becoming an oak tree. A child is “ordered” toward becoming an adult. Likewise, every act is judged according to whether it is properly oriented toward its proper end. In terms of sexuality, all sex is “ordered” toward what are called the “affective” (love) and “generative” (having children) ends, within the context of a marriage.

Consequently, according to the traditional interpretation of natural law, homosexual acts are not ordered toward those specific ends and so they are deemed “disordered.” Thus, “under no circumstances can they be approved,” as the catechism states. Consequent to that, the homosexual orientation itself is viewed as an “objective disorder” since it can lead to “disordered” acts.

Here we need to make clear that the phrase “objective disorder” does not refer to the person himself or herself but to the orientation. The term is also not a psychological description but comes from the perspective of philosophy and theology. Moreover, it does not detract from the inherent dignity of any human being, since God creates all human beings equal and good.

This leads to the church’s official teaching on chastity for “homosexual persons.” Since homosexual activity is not approved, the person may not engage in any sort of sexual activity: “Homosexual persons are called to chastity.” Here the catechism means celibate chastity, since every person is called to the chaste expression of love—even married couples. (Broadly speaking, chastity, in Catholic teaching, is the proper use of our sexuality.)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church also states that gays and lesbians can and should approach “Christian perfection” through chastity, with such supports as “the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace.” In other words, gays and lesbians, the catechism states, can live holy lives.

Needless to say, all these considerations rule out same-sex marriage. Indeed, official church teaching rules out any sort of sexual activity outside the marriage of a man and a woman—thus the church’s prohibitions on activities like premarital sex, adultery and masturbation.

Who can say fairer than that?

On April 7, 2018, I responded to Fr. Martin in a tweet:

I commend Fr. James Martin for a clear statement of Catholic teaching on homosexual acts: reject sin, love sinners. All people have dignity.

It’s worth noting in particular Fr. Martin’s excellent explanation of an often misunderstood teaching of the Church: namely, that wayward sexual desires—including homosexual desires (he writes “orientation,” a term I myself do not favor)—are disordered: meaning, again, not ordered to the goods of conjugal union. He correctly notes that this teaching does not suggest that persons (as opposed to desires a person may happen to have) are disordered, nor does it “detract from the dignity of any human being.”

Exactly. In clarifying this important Church teaching, Fr. Martin also clarifies his own view, as I had urged in my Public Discourse essay (whether or not it was among the items that prompted Fr. Martin’s America article—which is something I simply don’t know). There I noted that one way Fr. Martin seemed to be contradicting the Church’s teaching was in his call to replace the word “disordered” with “differently ordered.” For the latter seems to imply not disorder, but simple variety (like being blonde or brunette, or right-handed or left-handed). But in America, he clearly identifies the disordered nature of same-sex sexual desires as part of the Church’s teaching. Since he doesn’t reject the Church’s teaching (as, once again, he’s repeatedly noted), he recognizes that such desires are in fact not rightly ordered—and explains why in America with sensitivity, firmness, and clarity.

The article also makes other true and essential points with charity and grace:

But there is more to the church’s teaching on this topic in the catechism. Perhaps mindful of the specialized philosophical and theological language, the church teaches that “every sign of unjust discrimination” against gays and lesbians (again, here “homosexual persons”) must be avoided, and gays and lesbians must be treated with the virtues of “respect, compassion and sensitivity.”

Fr. Martin is absolutely right. And he is right to remind his readers of this great truth. It, too, is proclaimed by the Church. It is definitive Church teaching and is in no way inferior in standing to the Church’s teachings on the nature of marriage and the immorality of non-marital sexual conduct.

Fr. Martin also observes that when it comes to those who experience same-sex desires and even those who act on them, “the Gospel values of love, mercy and compassion are the building blocks of all church teaching.” This, too, is true—and beautiful. Indeed, I do not see how any Christian could deny it. And I thank God that it’s true, for which of us is not a sinner who falls short and is constantly in need of love, mercy, and compassion? I would add that it is deeply un-Christian to vilify those who experience same-sex attraction or to regard those who yield to the temptation to engage in homosexual acts as somehow more depraved than those who commit other sexual sins—or sins of, say, dishonesty, pride, greed, or envy.

On all of this, I’m on the same page with Fr. Martin, as I understand him in light of the America article. We stand with the Church. It is not merely that we “reject the sin, but love the sinner,” though we do that; we reject the sin because we love the sinner—radically love him, willing his good for his own sake, affirming the teaching of the Church in all its richness because we recognize that it is liberating and life-affirming.

Points of Disagreement

So where do we disagree?

Mainly, I think, on whether same-sex attraction (or other forms of feeling related to sexuality, such as the dysphoria or dysmorphia people have in mind when they use the term “transgender”) is a valid basis for establishing one’s identity, and whether we ought to recognize and affirm identity built around same-sex attraction (or those other forms of feeling). Fr. Martin believes we should. I believe we shouldn’t.

This is a deep, multidimensional, and important debate. The right answer will determine, for example, what sort of language we ought to use (“same-sex attracted” vs. “LGBT+”) and whether we ought to affirm celebrations of certain forms of “identity” such as those celebrated in “Pride” parades and other events. For those who join Fr. Martin and me in affirming the Church’s teaching on the nature of marriage and the wrongness of non-marital sexual acts, the debate implicates descriptive (sociological) as well as directly normative issues.

One such question is whether, as a matter of fact, homosexual conduct and relationships integrated around it are among the things centrally being celebrated in Pride events. If so, I assume that Fr. Martin would join me in saying we ought not to be celebrating sin. But since he has urged the Church to recognize “Pride” and even encourage Catholic families to affirm “Pride” events, it must be the case that Fr. Martin does not understand these events to be celebrating homosexual conduct or relationships integrated around it. That’s a point to be debated—again, not as a normative question, but as a sociological matter—a matter of social meaning: what do planners and participants in Pride events mean to be celebrating?

On the question  whether we ought to affirm “LBGT identity” and speak in terms that signal that affirmation, I strongly believe my position against doing so is more consistent both with the overall teaching of the Church pertaining to marriage and sexuality and with the values that teaching upholds. But I have no doubt that Fr. Martin would contest that point. Since, however, I cannot say that the magisterium of the Church has definitively adopted the position I affirm—I’ve had to draw some inferences, and I’m certainly not infallible—it is incumbent on me to listen carefully to Fr. Martin’s counterarguments and to be willing to give them fair, open-minded consideration. I am confident he would adopt the same attitude towards my arguments. He recognizes, as I do, that the point of debate in this domain is not for adversaries each to seek victory, but for friends jointly to seek truth—not as a cold abstraction, but for its life-giving, liberating goodness. In the end, I know that I, and I believe Fr. Martin, will be happy and grateful to be guided by the wisdom of the Church herself. It is certainly superior to any that I might possess; I suspect that Fr. Martin would say it is superior to any wisdom he has been given. No one who regards himself or herself as a faithful Catholic would imagine that his or her wisdom surpasses the wisdom of the Church.

Having said these things, I would appeal to Fr. Martin to reconsider his support, which has been enthusiastic and vocal, for organizations such as New Ways Ministry and Out at St. Paul’s—organizations that unambiguously contradict and seek to undermine the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexual morality. His support for these organizations—motivated by his laudable desire to reach out in a welcoming spirit to those whom they purport to serve—leads people to wonder whether he is being honest in saying that he does not himself reject the Church’s teachings. New Ways Ministry has twice been severely rebuked by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Out at St. Paul’s has explicitly claimed that Pope Francis is “wrong” to reaffirm the Church’s teaching on marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife. Fr. Martin stands with the Pope and the Church, as I do. But that cannot be done consistently with an endorsement of Out at St. Paul’s.

Friendship and Dialogue

To those of my fellow Catholics who think I should shun Fr. Martin or devote my thinking and writing to defeating and embarrassing him, I must say that I do not see things your way. If you think that I am being “duped” (as some have said), I ask you to consider that he himself endures criticism—some of it abusive—for befriending and engaging in dialogue with me (and, again, for his firm and consistent pro-life advocacy). Furthermore, he has accepted me as a friend despite my criticisms of some of his past statements, and he has been willing to clarify his position when I and others expressed concern that he might be engaging in a kind of evasion. (I have no doubt that he will likewise give honest consideration to my fraternal appeal to him to reconsider support for ministries that undeniably contradict the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexual morality we both embrace.) This is what good dialogue partners do. He should be commended. Let the dialogue continue.

Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.

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