In the weeks since Theological College at the Catholic University of America disinvited Jesuit Fr. James Martin from speaking at an upcoming reunion event, there has been a well-deserved outcry of indignation and support around the country. Father Martin –author, speaker and editor at large for America Magazine – was targeted by “far right” Catholic activist groups for his willingness to discuss the importance of building bridges between the church and the LGBT community in the United States. Several other universities also canceled scheduled speaking engagements with Father Martin and related scholars seeking to raise public consciousness.
The seminary, part of the Catholic University of America, was founded by the U.S. bishops in 1887 and carries a papal charter. In its statement sent to alumni on September 15, it said it had “made the decision in an attempt to avoid distraction and controversy during the centennial anniversary, after it experienced ‘increasing negative feedback’ from various social media sites.” It is worth noting that the president of Catholic University disagreed with the decision and proclaimed that the cancelation did not reflect University beliefs regarding the importance of open dialogue.
I find myself deeply troubled over the nature of public discourse in our country today, and especially concerned about attempts to stifle voices on college and university campuses. Protests from both liberal and conservative protagonists are not new: our Constitution was framed to protect freedom of speech and includes – in fact, advocates for – the right to share our views without fear or reprisal. But the bias, personal judgment and hostility being openly expressed against people with differing opinions, ideas and practices is a smear on the ink with which the First Amendment was penned.
It was this narrow vision, aggressive willingness to judge and distasteful activism that motivated Father Martin to write his new book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity. Pursuing a path consistent with Catholic teaching, he examines this complex subject and the challenges it creates for the Church, for the LGBT community and for all Americans.
Writing in America, The Jesuit Review, Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego takes umbrage with the Catholic right and applauds Father Martin for his courage to tackle such a divisive subject. He writes: “Using a methodology that is fully consonant with Catholic teaching, employing Scripture, the rich pastoral heritage of the church and an unadulterated realism that makes clear both the difficulty and the imperative for establishing deeper dialogue, Father Martin opens a door for proclaiming that Jesus Christ and his church seek to embrace fully and immediately men and women in the LGBT community.”
Bishop McElroy points out that Building a Bridge is a serious book, and any such work invites substantive criticism and dialogue. He also says that Father Martin’s arguments have pointed to important problems that do not have easy answers and to the reality that dialogue must always proceed both in respect and in truth. He also proclaims that the concerted attack on Father Martin’s work has been driven by three impulses: “homophobia, a distortion of fundamental Catholic moral theology and a veiled attack on Pope Francis and his campaign against judgmentalism in the church.”
Following the announcement of Father Martin’s “disinvitation,” Cardinal Blase Cupich issued a statement saying the Archdiocese of Chicago had invited Father Martin to speak next year during Lent at the Holy Name Cathedral. In an article published September 27 in the Chicago News praising Father Martin’s work and his new book, Cardinal Cupich said, “Make your own decisions, your own mind about him, by reading exactly what he wrote.”
I would hope with Christian charity that others in the episcopate would have the courage and pastoral sensitivities to let their voices be heard, lest they forget they are shepherds of the entire flock. They just need to imitate Francis.
A statement released last year by the Board of Directors for the Association of American Colleges & Universities also reaffirms the value of open discussion and the exchange of differing opinions. They opined: “The clash of competing ideas is an important catalyst, not only for the expansion of knowledge but also in students’ development of independent critical judgment.”
At Sacred Heart University, we embrace the value of discussion and debate. In fact, we actively solicit differing opinions regarding subjects of interest and relevance to our students, our faculty and supporters and the many communities we serve. Ours is a platform for learning, not a stage for willfully restraining opinions that might cause discomfort or acrimony. Father Martin is the recipient of an honorary degree from our University, and we will gladly invite him to join us again to share his views and wisdom.
Bishop McElroy reflects that Pope Francis “continually reminds us that the Lord unceasingly called the disciples to reject the temptation to judge others, precisely because it is a sin so easy for us all to fall into and one so injurious to the life of the church.” When activists stoop to direct or indirect threats of violence as a strategy for achieving selfish and misguided goals, voices of reason must prevail. Capitulation only rewards their arrogance and strengthens their intent. Our resolve to invite discussion and contemplate difficult topics must be even stronger. Institutions of higher learning– and the messengers we attract – must never be silenced.