Father James Martin and Ross Douthat discuss civility in public & church discourse
“If we can demonstrate, as a church, that we can disagree with one another” with civility, “then we can say to our neighbors, ‘This is still possible,’” America’s president and editor in chief, Matt Malone, S.J., said, introducing the topic of the night.
Mr. Douthat and Father Martin modeled a style of dialogue that was fair, friendly and unafraid of divergent views.
Occasional rhetorical combatants in the public sphere, James Martin, S.J., editor at large for America, and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat managed to demonstrate the subject of their discussion before a sold-out audience on Dec. 13: the challenges of maintaining a civil dialogue on religion. Mr. Douthat and Father Martin—both prominent U.S. Catholics known for their public disagreements about the church, especially under Pope Francis—modeled a style of dialogue that was fair, friendly and unafraid of divergent views at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture’s Loreto Theater in New York City.
“I’ve been looking forward to this event more than any other in our season,” said William Spencer Reilly, executive director of the Sheen Center.
Father Malone started the conversation by asking: Is there a duty for Christians to represent a certain kind of voice in the public discourse?
“Yes, but it’s contextual,” Mr. Douthat responded.
Father Martin said he focuses on being “charitable and loving” in his public statements.
“There’s a pointlessness in flame-throwing rhetoric,” he explained, when writing for a largely liberal and secular audience that does not share his perspective. But in his column, he said, he sometimes feels “boxed into civility,” arguing that civility is not always appropriate, and there is room for polemic in his work.
Father Martin said he focuses on being “charitable and loving” in his public statements. Though he does not speak for the Jesuits, as a Jesuit priest, he understands that his statements reflect on the Society of Jesus, America magazine and the church.
As a public Catholic, Mr. Douthat said that he tries to balance the value of civility against the necessities of rhetorical vigor. He wants to show “liberals and secular people that conservative and Catholic views are worth reading,” while simultaneously acting as a “champion for those who already agree with me.”
Father Martin sees his writing as a ministry, in which he supports those who share his views but also challenges those who do not.
Ross Douthat: The central question facing the church is what we mean when we say ‘doctrine can develop’?
The conversation then shifted to the current controversies within the Catholic Church under Pope Francis. For Mr. Douthat, the often-heated debates about divorce and remarriage, L.G.B.T. issues and more are not just intellectual exercises but arguments that have practical effects on the lives of the faithful. These debates, he said, point to the “central question facing the church: What do we mean when we say ‘doctrine can develop’?”
Father Martin disagreed, suggesting that development of doctrine is “a central question but not the central question.” Rather, “the central question for Catholics is: Who is Jesus?” Essentials have stayed the same, but doctrine has always developed, Father Martin said. He also noted that those who critique Pope Francis’ teachings (especially “Amoris Laetitia”) are some of the same people who said Catholics could not disagree with Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II.
For Mr. Douthat, the debate over the development of doctrine indeed is fundamentally a debate on the question of “who is Jesus Christ?”
Catholic teaching on divorce and remarriage, he pointed out, is based on Jesus’ actual words (Mt 19). Mr. Douthat is sympathetic to criticisms of “Amoris Laetitia” because the Catholic Church is unique among Christian groups in its strong adherence to this Gospel command.
Father James Martin: The central question for Catholics is who is Jesus?
But, according to Father Martin, Pope Francis is not “throwing out the rules” but raising up the Catholic traditions of the primacy of conscience and the requirements of mercy.
When asked how the church can have important arguments without replicating the worst aspects of the current public discourse, Father Martin said one must first assume that the other person has good intentions and must sincerely try to understand your opponent’s opinions.
“In the Gospels, Jesus takes people seriously,” Father Martin said. “He also speaks in their language.” Mr. Douthat agreed with these preconditions, adding that “it is also important to recognize that divisions can be real and ultimately unbridgeable.”
While he said he and Father Martin get along personally, Mr. Douthat said that the theological division between them is deeper than he once thought. “One of us is wronger than the other,” he said, wryly.
Father Martin responded by saying that under Pope Francis, there appears to be more division among Catholics because Francis welcomes debate. No theologians have been silenced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope Francis, he noted.
Ross Douthat about Father Martin: “One of us is wronger than the other.”
According to Father Martin, this is a sign that the Holy Spirit is working. Mr. Douthat took issue with this, saying that in the church’s history, eras of severe disagreement were eras of crisis, apostasy, schism and civil war.
Mr. Douthat and Father Martin were also asked to discuss what they liked and disliked about Pope Francis, respectively, a question that was met with knowing laughter from the audience. Mr. Douthat said that he appreciated how Pope Francis has “created a mass iconography of the church’s ministry to the poor and marginalized.”
Father Martin described his misgivings about some of Pope Francis’ statements on women and suggested that Francis could be stronger on the church’s sex abuse crisis. He also noted the scolding nature of some of Francis’ off-the-cuff advice to lay people and clergy.
Toward the end of the conversation, Mr. Douthat and Father Martin took some questions from the audience. One audience member asked whether or not it is “a great oversimplification to speak of things in terms of liberals and conservatives?”
Father Martin noted Father Malone’s policy against using those labels to describe Catholics in America’s writings. “Those words really smack so much of the public political discourse that they are unhelpful,” Father Martin explained.
Ross Douthat: Pope Francis has “created a mass iconography of the church’s ministry to the poor and marginalized.”
Mr. Douthat argued that while liberal and conservative may be imperfect terms when applied to the church, he has a hard time finding better labels for the real divides that exist among Catholics.
The evening ended with thoughts on prayer. Mr. Douthat was asked whether he prays before writing his column. He explained that, while it is easy to talk about writing as a ministry, there are practical considerations that get in the way of treating it that way. But when writing about some important church matters and when criticizing Pope Francis, Mr. Douthat said he does pray.
But “if the Holy Spirit is working through [the column], it is due to gratuitous grace,” he said.
The final question to Father Martin was whether there is a place for Catholic contemplative practices in the public sphere. “The public square is full of noise,” Father Martin said. “Contemplative approaches invite us into silence.”
“The public square is full of noise,” Father Martin said. “Contemplative approaches invite us into silence.”
Observing that no reviewers wrote on the section on prayer in his book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity, Father Martin asked, “Do people today feel more comfortable with dialogue than with prayer?”
It is “not only valuable but essential” for prominent Catholics, he said, to invite people into spaces of silence and prayer.
Co-sponsored by The Sheen Center and America Media, this conversation on religion was the first of three scheduled “Civility in America” dialogues. The next two will be on media and politics.