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A challenge that Father Martin can no longer dodge

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 26, 2018

Father James Martin, SJ, a very talented writer and publicist, has spent the past year energetically pleading for a change in the Church’s approach to homosexuality, most notably in his book, Building Bridges. Martin is clearly dissatisfied with the current state of Catholic teaching on the issue. Yet when he is accused of undermining Church teaching, he angrily rejects the charge, claiming that his views are completely in line with existing doctrine.

This stance is confusing, to say the least. And Father Martin’s rhetorical tactics add to the confusion. Although he says that he hopes for a “conversation” on Catholic attitudes, he does not actually engage his critics’ arguments; he habitually attributes any criticism to “homophobia,” thus effectively shutting off debate on the merits of those criticisms. When he is challenged to affirm his acceptance of official Catholic teaching on the immorality of homosexual acts—as expressed in the Catechism, for instance—the loquacious Martin suddenly goes silent.

So how can an honest critic engage Martin in debate? Princeton’s redoubtable Robert George has done his utmost, with a searching analysis of Martin’s claim that his views conform with Church teaching. George’s essay is a model of gentlemanly scholarship; he goes to great lengths to treat Martin with respect, even with friendship, and to give Martin’s arguments the most sympathetic reading he can manage. For all his efforts, though, in his bid to explain how Martin can claim to be fully orthodox, this is the best that George can manage:

Still, I think a case can be made that, whatever Fr. Martin is doing, he is not exactly lying.

Stretching to the limit of his considerable powers, George does put forward one possible way to defend Martin’s claim that he accepts the teachings of the Church. It is not a compelling defense; George indicates some of its weaknesses, and makes it clear that if indeed this is the defense that Martin has in mind, he would welcome further debate. But that debate can’t take place unless Martin either confirms that George is right, or offers some other plausible explanation for his claim to orthodoxy.

So now the ball is in Father Martin’s court. He won’t find a more courteous interlocutor than Robert George. If he is sincere in his professed desire for a “conversation,” he will not have a better opportunity. (Indeed I suspect this was George’s reason for writing this essay: to leave Martin with no excuse for continuing to dodge a debate.)

And if Father Martin does not accept the challenge, I wonder whether even Robert George will be able to convince anyone that, in his repeated public calls for free and open debate on the topic of homosexuality, Martin “is not exactly lying.”

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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