In the decades immediately following the Second Vatican Council, there emerged those who saw the council as a progressive break with the past. They were distraught when Paul VI affirmed the Church’s teaching in Humanae Vitae. For the decades that spanned the pontificates of St John Paul II and Benedict XVI, they came to understand themselves as a kind of loyal resistance. They wrote books on “the evolution of Catholicism,” and stressed the importance of how moral theology must “develop,” usually in accord with “lived experiences” rather than revealed truths. One of the most prominent dissenters, Professor Charles E. Curran, even titled his memoir Loyal Dissent. But at some point this group realized that their sand-in-the-oyster approach was always going to be a losing strategy in the Church, and that they’d never find their pearl of great price this way.
Today, a new strategy can be seen. The new strategy is to turn the tables so as to make it seem as though the historic and orthodox teaching of the Church must always be questioned in light of new “pastoral needs.” The Church’s teaching is never to be denied, and no explicit dissent allowed, lest things fall back into the older, failed strategy. But the new strategy nevertheless has the effect of making the historic and orthodox teaching seem “outdated” against daunting new realities. For the new strategists, Church teaching is always something “negotiable” when brought into dialogue with culturally ascendent trends.
This new strategy has been evident in the German’s “binding synodal path,” which runs ahead with an ambitious agenda for changing Church teaching (don’t call it dissent) even against the Holy Father’s clear instruction. It is evident in the Amazon synod (paid for by the Germans) which uses “pastoral needs” to go on the offensive for a relaxation of clerical celibacy — relaxations, as the new strategists must insist, that will entail no change in the Church’s universal teaching. This new strategy is also observable in America magazine’s Editor-At-Large, Fr James Martin, S.J. And most recently, it has been observed by none other than the Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles J. Chaput, OFMCap.
Yesterday Archbishop Chaput, who turns 75 next week, published a column warning the faithful of “the confusion caused” by Fr James Martin’s “statements and activities regarding same-sex related (LGBT) issues.” While applauding Fr Martin for some aspects of his outreach, especially his emphasis upon the dignity of all human persons, Archbishop Chaput was also firm: “I find it necessary to emphasize that Fr Martin does not speak with authority on behalf of the Church, and to caution the faithful about some of his claims.”
For his part, Fr Martin, as the consummate new strategist, responded that he has never denied Church teaching, and has been “assiduous” in “not challenging church teaching.” He very carefully says that he knows that same-sex relations and same-sex marriage are impermissible and immoral “under church teaching,” but maintains his studied ambiguity as to whether he gives the full assent of his intellect and will to it. Rather, as so often, he doesn’t want to talk about what the Church teaches about sex, but rather to “encourage Catholics to see LGBT people as more than just sexual beings.” Yet that is a non sequitur, and also a straw man, and part of the very ambiguity which Archbishop Chaput rightly calls to task. That Fr Martin’s response is a non sequitur, however, is a sign that he doesn’t want to be put on the defensive. This is precisely the strategic turn that must be resisted, otherwise he will be put at a serious disadvantage because Archbishop Chaput’s charges are serious and substantial.
Archbishop Chaput highlights five errors in particular that the faithful must avoid in the teaching and activities of Fr Martin: (1) that Fr Martin is wrong to identify people according to their sexual attractions when he insists on using the phrase “LGBT Catholics”; (2) he is wrong to teach that a gay essentialism which suggests “a person’s behavior is predetermined, and that intellect and free will have little role in the formation and control of his or her sexual appetites,” which is “both false and destructive, especially to young people;” (3) he is wrong to teach that the Church’s teaching on same-sex attraction as “objectively disordered” is cruel and that he “misrepresents” the teaching of the Church; (4) he is wrong to lead the faithful to embrace and accept Pride Month, and organizations that advance what is contrary to Church teaching on human sexuality; (5) he is wrong to teach that for Church teaching to be authoritative it must be “received,” and thus wrong to give same-sex attracted Catholics the false impression that Church teaching does not have binding authority upon their souls.
As I tell my students, clarity is charity. Archbishop Chaput shows immense clarity, and so immense charity for Fr Martin, and especially for the faithful who may be misled by these errors. It is actually the duty of a shepherd to do this, whether the errant are corrected by it or not. As St Augustine says in the first book of The City of God, the bishop is a watchman who has a uniquely heavy responsibility to condemn sin, and to warn us of danger. So it was good to see other bishops join Archbishop Chaput too. Bishop Paprocki of Springfield immediately issued a full statement supporting Archbishop Chaput’s “helpful caution to Catholics about Fr James Martin,” stating that “Fr Martin’s public messages create confusion among the faithful and disrupt the unity of the Church,” calling Fr Martin to repentance. Bishop Rick Stika of Knoxville also praised Chaput’s “column on the theological and moral errors of Fr. Martin,” adding that great error causes pain by setting people up for pain. What’s important to see is that bishops are behaving like bishops again, protecting their flocks instead of leaving them vulnerable to sin and error.
Like all the new strategists, Fr Martin will not directly deal with any of these substantive concerns. The new strategist does not want to be put on the doctrinal defensive, and so simply changes the subject. They know that loyal dissent is a losing strategy. Instead, the new strategists politely decline being put on the defensive and then go on the offensive on other fronts. Sometimes they will go on the offensive against their critics but fail to deal with doctrinal substance. But usually they proceed by leveraging cultural support to advance the changes they seek. The Germans’ embrace of the dissenting Central Committee is evidence of the latter.
Yet Archbishop Chaput has done something important. He has set down a blueprint for restoring the proper dynamic, namely to keep sin and error on the defensive, to be kind and generous, but also firm and clear in teaching the faith delivered once for all. That’s the strategy which has worked for a very, very, long time, and will continue to work for those bishops who have the courage to lead.