Many people were shocked when Theological College in Washington (DC), the national seminary of the Catholic University of America, recently canceled a lecture by Fr James Martin SJ.
The popular Jesuit author was to speak on ideas he raised in his 2014 book, “Jesus: A Pilgrimage”. But the seminary disinvited him because of “increasing negative feedback from various social media sites” related to the priest’s newest book on the Church and gay Catholics, “Building a Bridge”.
The cancellation does not only concern Fr Martin and the Church’s LGBT community. Actually, it should worry all Catholics. That is not only because this was the third time that the Jesuit was disinvited from giving a previously arranged lecture. More seriously, it was linked to a campaign of hatred and personal attacks against the priest.
This sort of vitriol is profoundly changing the communion of the Catholic Church. And not just in its ethos, but also in the way it functions. It signals a new kind of censorship that uses verbal violence to intimidate individual Catholics, as well as institutions within the Church – institutions that exist (also) to protect the rights of Catholics.
The small groups that are behind the campaign that persuaded a prestigious Catholic seminary in the US capital to rescind its invitation to Fr Martin have grown over the last few years. They make up a Catholic cyber-militia that include “news” organizations like the Detroit-based “Church Militant” and bloggers such as Fr John Zuhlsdorf, an American priest known as “Fr Z” who, strangely enough, is incardinated (that is, belongs to) an Italian diocese, but lives in the United States.
These cyber militants are not alone. Rather, they are part of the “age of anger” from which the Catholic Church is not immune. These groups and individuals are particularly active and influential in the Catholic Church in the United States. Much of this is the result of more than thirty years of episcopal appointments under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, which recast the US episcopate in the image of the “cultural warrior”.
These small groups – active mostly in cyberspace, but also with an impact on the real life of the Church – have felt affirmed and encouraged by the kind of American Church politics shaped in the United States and enforced by the Vatican.
That is until Francis was elected pope. Since then the landscape of the institutional Church in the United States has slowly begun to change.
The saga of Fr Martin indicates several important things. First, it shows that these fringe groups are small but not that marginal or unrepresentative of a particular kind of American Catholicism. Just two months ago, critics of the now well-known article by Antonio Spadaro SJ and Marcelo Figueroa in the Vatican-vetted Jesuit-run journal La Civiltà Cattolica said the authors had exaggerated the importance of groups like Church Militant. But the cancellation of Fr Martin’s talks confirms that these groups have power in the Church and can influence important institutional decisions.
It is interesting to read the La Civiltà Cattolica article synoptically with its criticisms two months after its publication – that is, after the neo-Nazi and white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and this latest campaign against Fr James Martin.
The second lesson of this story is that what happened to the popular Jesuit author is indicative of a more general radicalization of the conservative backlash – not just on LGBT issue, but also on other matters such as the liturgy.
For example, if a Catholic priest or a bishop today were to celebrate Mass adopting the same type of liturgical inculturation that John Paul II used during his global travels – such as in Central America or in Australia – he would be accused of heresy.
Recall that Pope Francis, despite being deeply rooted in the Church’s tradition, was accused of his supposed lack of conservative orthodoxy very early in his pontificate. That was well before the debate over marital issues that took place within the Synod of Bishops at the 2014-2015 assemblies and was then followed by the publication of Amoris Laetitia.
In some quarters of the Catholic Church, theological extremism has become mainstream. It is connected to the heated debate concerning the “reform of the liturgical reform”, where certain self-appointed cyber-militias use extremist language of hatred in the defense of Catholic orthodoxy. They see this as no vice and no sin.
But the most important – and worrying – lesson to be drawn from the Fr Martin saga has to do with institutional and ecclesiological issues. Even as Pope Francis has tried to stress the prime virtue of mercy, certain Catholics have ramped up the use of the language of hatred and new channels of intimidation. This is the story of an institutional Catholic Church that is trying to change and the virulent reaction against it.
The remarkable fact is that the victims of this reaction are not only priests like Fr Martin, but also the institutional Church, and particularly some bishops and cardinals. Martin’s best-selling book, Building a Bridge, has been approved by his Jesuit superior and publicly endorsed by two US cardinals (Kevin Farrell and Joseph Tobin) and several bishops.
Other cardinals, such as Blase Cupich in Chicago, have also defended it. It seems pretty clear that the two cardinals with some jurisdiction in the matter, Donald Wuerl in Washington and Timothy Dolan in New York, were trumped by groups like Church Militant – groups with no canonical approval.
We should remember that two years ago Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia took a clear position against the tactics and the spirit of the Lepanto Institute and of Church Militant. This was on the eve Pope Francis’ visit to the United States and the World Meeting of Families in Chaput’s diocese.
This past weekend the Fr Martin’s religious superiors felt the need to issue a public defenseof the priest’s faithful work and good standing. It was another sign that these new Catholic cyber-militias pose a challenge to the institutional Church different from the usual, post-Vatican II liberal-progressive criticism. Instead, it was more evidence that we now live in a “post-post-Vatican II Catholicism”.
The institutional Church during Pope Francis’ pontificate has begun using the weapon of censorship more prudently than in the past. French Dominican Yves Congar, who was one of the most important theologians to be censored in the 20th century, wrote in his diary in 1954:
“The bishops have bent over backwards in passiveness and servility: they have an honest and childlike reverence for Rome, even a childish and infantile reverence […] For them this is ‘the Church’ […] The ‘Holy Office’ in practice rules the church and makes everyone bow down to it through fear or through interventions. It is the supreme Gestapo, unyielding, whose decisions cannot be discussed.”
We don’t know what Congar would say today. But the situation has changed significantly in absentia of an institutional change. As Martin’s case shows, the Catholic cyberspace has become the new magisterial police and this frightens the institutional Church. Catholic social media is the new Holy Office, but with little or none of the theological and cultural qualifications that the old Holy Office possessed.
There used to be only one doctrinal watchdog. It was in Rome. But local bishops and superiors of religious orders back then could sometimes stand up and defend their priest (as was the case of liberation theology).
This system of institutional control over orthodoxy has now become more complicated. It is one of the perverse effects of a more decentralized Catholicism (a decentralization, by the way, that we really need). Those who are calling the shots now are not the pope, the Roman Curia or the cardinals and bishops. Neither are they the religious orders, theologians or Catholic universities.
Those who appear to be in charge on sensitive issues today are the verbally violent propagandists on Catholic social media. It is ridiculous to use the “both sides” are at fault argument as some have tried to do. It is all too clear where the Catholic hatred is coming from on social media.
If it were not such a serious matter, one might joke that we now have new kind of imprimatur that comes from the Catholic twittersphere. And the irony is that these new anti-modernist crusaders are the real novatores, the modernist initiators of an ecclesiology that does not exist and that humiliates the Church, including its institutional leaders who seem powerless before the social media pressure.
This is yet another case of the hierarchy’s loss of control over the institutional Church in the last half a century. On the one hand, we see more pressure on ecclesiastical power holders coming from private citizens and organizations with the financial means to fund the Church’s activities. On the other hand, we see the exercise of greater freedom by new Catholic movements, of which the Catholic cyber-militias are a particular subset.
But the case of Fr. Martin also shows that something more is at work. There is now an ecclesiology of Catholic social media that has completely bypassed, not only the way the Catholic Church has worked for centuries but also the way it is supposed to work today.
The Church is a community where the faithful (all of us) have rights – an important purpose of Canon Law.
With the emergence of Catholic cyber-militias, everyone’s membership is at stake.
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