Father Martin and his allies: intolerance masked as a plea for tolerance
See if you recognize this rhetorical strategy:
- Say that the people who disagree with you are motivated by hatred.
- Say that they’re dangerous extremists, a threat to civil society.
- Say that you are interested in genuine debate, but your opponents won’t allow it.
- Compare your opponents to Nazis.
- Insist that responsible people must disavow any connection with your opponents.
- Say that your opponents are intolerant.
It’s a clever technique: a campaign of intolerance, camouflaged as a plea for tolerance. And it’s picking up steam in the Catholic media.
The focus of the campaign is Father James Martin, the popular Jesuit, who has written a book questioning the Church’s stance on homosexuality. Father Martin insists that he has not contradicted the Church’s formal teachings, and deeply resents those who suggest otherwise. His critics observe that Father Martin cannot bring himself to repeat the Catechism’s statement that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered,” or the injunction that homosexual persons are called to chastity.
There is material here for an intelligent debate, is there not? Father Martin either does, or does not, step across the line that separates respectful questions about the presentation of Catholic doctrine from forthright attacks on the substance of that doctrine. But if you wish to pursue that debate, good luck.
Father Martin himself says that he welcomes debate. He has thanked authors of critical reviews of his book. “The conversation continues,” he announces on his busy Facebook and Twitter accounts. But he does not engage their arguments directly. An expert at rhetorical jujitsu, he answers questions with questions, or says that his critics have misunderstood his arguments, or questions why they have raised certain points.
Questions about his critics’ motivations come early and often from Father Martin and his supporters. After a gracious acknowledgment of a critical review, the Jesuit author himself quickly drops that subject, and returns to his oft-repeated lament that some people are consumed by homophobia. He does not name the haters, nor does he even imply that the author of a critical review might be among them. But since he does not acknowledge any valid reason for disagreement with his argument, the overall thrust of his social-media campaign is to suggest that criticism of his stance is beyond the pale.
There are, no doubt, some people who have made intemperate arguments against Father Martin, and launched ugly personal attacks. Anyone who is active in public debates has suffered that sort of treatment, and the internet has given cranks much greater scope. But frankly, I have seen nothing from Father Martin’s critics that even begins to compare with the wild assault by Massimo Faggioli, a strong admirer of the Jesuit’s book, on the site of the French Catholic journal La Croix. Faggioli charges that Father Martin is the object of “a campaign of hatred and personal attacks,” which he compares with “the neo-Nazi and white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.”
In a sweeping condemnation of Catholics who show any sympathy for tradition, Faggioli suggests that even those Catholics who plead for a liturgical “reform of the reform” might be classified among the “self-appointed cyber-militias [who] use extremist language of hatred in the defense of Catholic orthodoxy.”
Father Martin’s critics argue that Catholic institutions should not give the Jesuit a platform to promote his dissident views on homosexuality. Faggioli counters that Catholic bishops should not tolerate the “cyber-militas,” and accuses the hierarchy of being weak and passive in the face of the alleged extremist threat.
And Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego responds to that cue, writing in America that critics of Father Martin’s book “tap into long-standing bigotry” and expose a “cancer” within the Church. They are bigots, you see, because they are intolerant, and so they cannot be tolerated.
The Theological College at Catholic University handed Father Martin a sensational rhetorical victory by cancelling his proposed lecture and explaining that it was the fear of adverse publicity—not a concern for heterodoxy—that prompted that move. Within hours the New York Times had the story, and all of Father Martin’s critics were on the defensive. No matter how respectfully they had raised their arguments, no matter how carefully they had avoided ad hominem attacks, they were now grouped with the forces that opposed free discussion.
The rhetorical strategy is working. One side is effectively doing what it charges the other side with trying to do: shutting down debate.
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