By Regis Martin
Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.
I was away for a few days recently, an experience I cannot recommend enough. Few pleasures can compare with those that come undistracted by news media. What wonders it does for the soul! Of course, sooner or later, you’ve got to resurface and, in my case, that was at the airport where, amid a sea of countless masked strangers, I made the mistake of picking up a newspaper. A local columnist, whose name meant nothing to me, had been dipping his pen in a deep vat of vitriol. His target? Mother Church, of course, and the Pope who is her head.
It was a bit odd, however, owing to his professed love for the current occupant, whom he commends for an otherwise “revolutionary approach to breaking so many barriers of Catholic dogma.” But, then, you see, Francis had actually gone ahead and restored one of those barriers. Which one exactly? Well, it was the one standing athwart same-sex unions, which had pretty much been in place since the founding of Christianity itself. For which transgression the pope was now seen as an impediment to human happiness.
It seems that His Holiness, when asked whether the Church might bless such unions, flat-out refused, which left the columnist feeling both angry and betrayed. “While I love this pope and understand he has the weight of trying to change 2,000 years of ecclesiastical teachings, he can’t have it both ways. He should not be preaching understanding, love and respect for people on the one hand, but on the other denigrating people for their sins. As the Good Book says, none are righteous, not one.”
Let’s leave aside, shall we, the obvious distinction here—a distinction that appears to have entirely escaped the author’s attention—which is that it’s perfectly consistent with Catholic teaching to both love the sinner and yet hate the sin. Wasn’t that, after all, the practice of Jesus Christ? In not condemning the woman caught in adultery, for example, did He not also remind her not to do it again? And aren’t many of us made to feel the distinction each time we go to Confession? It is the place where, in unburdening yourself of sin, you experience God’s love, which is tough love because it includes the admonition to stop doing it.
My question, however, is to ask where exactly is this guy coming from? Granted, in an earlier age, one in which there was greater clarity about matters of belief and behavior, one would not ordinarily conclude from anything he’d written that in fact, he was a Catholic. But nowadays, given the extreme diversity of views among even Church-going Catholics, anything goes. I should not be surprised, in other words, to read a couple of paragraphs later what has now become the standard disclaimer among those who routinely dissent from the Church’s doctrine and discipline: “As a Catholic, I don’t agree with much of what the Church does, but that”—he goes on rather expansively to add—“is on par with most people I know in every other religion. We try to follow the good parts of what jives with us and shy away from the rules we find out of step with our beliefs.”
Evidently, among those many rules he feels the need to “shy away from,” are those that apply to the practice of what used to be called unnatural sex or, putting it more simply, sodomy. And if the Church will not bless such unions, inasmuch as they are not part of God’s plan, not to mention the norm of nature itself, and are therefore sinful, he will simply ignore the Church. And why not? If her judgments are, in his mind, hopelessly antique then, of course, they have no standing in the moral universe in which he chooses to live. So, he advises his LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters not to get worked up about wanting a blessing from a guy in a Roman collar. “You don’t need a priest to pass along a message to the Lord. You’ve had His ear the whole time and can cut out the middle man anytime you want.”
This is not even Catholic lite. In fact, it is so far from anything recognizably Catholic that one might as well be talking to a gerbil. What is troubling, however, is the fact that for all his aberrations from orthodoxy, he yet persists in thinking of himself as a Catholic and that, minus a detail or two, both he and Pope Francis are on the same page.
How did this happen? And what can we do about it?
Two things, it seems to me, need to happen straightaway. One, we’ve got to acknowledge the proportions of the problem, which are immense and far-reaching. We are, without question, in the midst of a massive crisis of faith, what Newman described almost two centuries ago as “a headlong flight into infidelity.” Only worse.
And, secondly, we have got to realize that the cause of the runaway apostasy we face is not attributable merely to great numbers of ill-instructed laity. Their loss of faith is real enough, but it is in large part the result of another crisis, which is one of nerve, of a failure of courage among too many of our Lord’s Spiritual who, while they may know the Faith, are too fearful to defend or promote it. What could possibly account for a failure of such magnitude?
Don’t ask the bishops, because they won’t tell you.