One of the nation’s most prestigious Catholic seminaries rescinded an invitation to James Martin, S.J., the popular writer and editor at large of America who was set to deliver a talk about Jesus to a group of alumni, the latest in a string of cancellations following the priest’s publication of a book calling for church leaders to be more respectful to L.G.B.T. Catholics.
In a statement released late on Friday, Theological College, a seminary affiliated with the Catholic University of America, said that it had invited Father Martin more than a year ago and that it had been “delighted that Father Martin was willing to join the community and share his wisdom with its alumni.”
But due to “increasing negative feedback from various social media sites,” the statement continues, “the decision was made to withdraw the invitation extended to Father Martin.”
The seminary said its decision was not a reflection on the merits of the claims against Father Martin, but was made “in the interest of avoiding distraction and controversy” at the school’s centennial celebration.
Theological College originally said the decision was made “after consulting with [Catholic] University and archdiocesan advisers.” But John Garvey, the university’s president, sought to distance the university from the decision in his own statement published Saturday.
He likened the campaign to rescind Father Martin’s invitation to efforts by left-leaning activists to shut down talks by controversial conservative speakers.
Universities and their related entities should be places for the free, civil exchange of ideas. Our culture is increasingly hostile to this idea.
“Universities and their related entities should be places for the free, civil exchange of ideas. Our culture is increasingly hostile to this idea. It is problematic that individuals and groups within our Church demonstrate this same inability to make distinctions and to exercise charity,” he said.
A version of Theological College’s statement available on the school’s website on Saturday afternoon, which appears to be amended from its initial statement, says that the decision was made “after considerable consultation with various constituencies.”
Mr. Garvey was in New York on Thursday for a previously scheduled visit about C.U.A. business and he met with the staff of America in the morning. Father Martin was delivering a talk at the Jesuit-run University of Scranton and he was not present at the meeting.The withdrawal of the invitation by Theological College had not been announced publicly or to the staff and it was not discussed during the staff meeting. Father Martin said Theological College made him aware of its decision on Thursday afternoon.
In a tweet published Saturday, Matt Malone, S.J., the president and editor in chief of America Media, expressed support for Father Martin:
Later on Saturday, Father Malone released a statement supporting Father Martin and calling the attacks against him the work of “a small but influential faction in the U.S. Church” and describing them as “unwarranted, uncharitable, and un-Christian.”
“In recent weeks, Father Martin has been subjected to repeated, calumnious attacks in social media and in print, involving invective that is as appalling as it is toxic,” he said. “It is one thing to engage in spirited debate. It is another thing to seek to stymy such debate through fear, misinformation, or blunt censorship.”
The Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States also issued a statement supporting Father Martin.
The Catholic University statement said that the seminary’s decision to disinvite Father Martin was made independently of the university and that it does not follow the university’s policy on campus speakers. It notes that Father Martin addressed university students last year.
“We regret the implication that Catholic University supported yesterday’s decision,” the statement says.
Father David Poecking, a graduate of the seminary and a priest in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, said in an email to America that he is confused by the school’s decision, calling the press release from the school’s rector, Gerald McBrearity, P.S.S., “unclear.”
“He cites Father Martin’s book, Building a Bridge, as marking the beginning of (but not necessarily the cause of) negative feedback to Theological College on social media websites,” Father Poecking wrote. “So does Father McBrearity find fault with the book, or Father Martin, or the negative feedback, or the social media websites?”
“To offer insinuations of fault without making a clear judgment seems evasive,” he continued. “The public reactions of Father Martin and some alumni seem to undermine Father McBrearity’s claim that the disinvitation is in the ‘best interest of all parties.’”
The decision by Theological College is the third instance of an organization disinviting Father Martin because of backlash to his book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. The Order of the Holy Sepulchre, a lay charitable organization, and CAFOD, a Catholic charitable organization based in the United Kingdom, also rescinded invitations to Father Martin.
Father Martin told America that he expected criticism of the book—“from the far left it would be ‘Not far enough,’ and from the far right, ‘Too far,’” as he put it— but he said he has been surprised by the “the torrent of hatred that it would unleash from the Catholic alt right.” He noted that the book had been given approval by his Jesuit superior and that it has been endorsed by two cardinals and several bishops.
The level of hate, personal attacks and homophobia is breathtaking.
But, he said, “The level of hate, personal attacks and homophobia is breathtaking.”
He noted that the canceled talks were to be about Jesus, based on his 2014 book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage, and not about the more controversial issue of L.G.B.T. people in the church. He questioned why the organizations that invited him succumbed to online pressure.
“I wasn’t there to talk about L.G.B.T. issues,” he said. “And as for handling pressure, what is the worst that could happen? A few protesters? Is that a reason to cancel a talk on Jesus?”
Conservative bloggers have been critical of Father Martin’s book and the invitations to him to speak at Catholic institutions.
ChurchMilitant.com, for example, called the invitation to Theological College “disagraceful” and LifeSiteNews.com promotes a petition urging the removal of Father Martin from a Vatican communications advisory committee, to which Pope Francis appointed him earlier this year.
Earlier this week, Father John Zuhlsdorf, who publishes a popular blog about traditionalist Catholicism, asked, “Does it seem right to you that a seminary should spotlight an open promotor [sic] of a homosexualist agenda?”
“I’ll grant you that a speaker might be capable of addressing more issues than just his primary focus. But there is no way around the fact that, right now at least, when Father Martin’s name comes up, the first thing you think is activist for a homosexualist agenda,” he continued. “I don’t get it.”
In a separate post on Saturday, Father Zuhlsdorf denied leading a campaign to rescind the invitation, writing, “I did NOT campaign for anything. I didn’t ask anyone to call [Theological College]. I asked some questions. Period.”
Other critics have questioned why Father Martin does not include a section in his book on church teaching, which prohibits sexual relations between two people of the same gender.
“The reason I avoided topics of sexuality is that it’s not a book on sexual morality or on the sexual behavior of L.G.B.T. people,” he said. “It’s on dialogue and prayer. It’s amazing that for some Catholics the only lens that they can see L.G.B.T. through is sex.”
As for the online commenters who call him a heretic or even a pansy, Father Martin said he simply mutes particularly aggressive Twitter accounts or deletes “hateful” comments left on his Facebook page.
But he said the institutional church faces a bigger challenge.
“The larger question is how will the church deal with trolls? How will the church deal with well-organized and well-funded online sites and individuals which are motivated by hatred, and which seem to have as much influence as local ordinaries in getting a lecture cancelled? Basically, how will we deal with Catholics who hate?” he asked.
Updated on Sept. 16 at 7:55 pm to include the statements issued by Father Malone, editor in chief of America, and the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States.