Thursday, May 21, 2009

Father James Martin's strife with the saints

"Why do we Catholics so often bayonet our own troops?"

That question posed last week by Mark Shea in the wake of the vitriol following Christopher West's "Nightline" appearance, applies even more to the treatment of Father James Martin S.J. following his CNN appearance last Sunday.

The author of My Life With the Saints,* interviewed on CNN after President Obama's speech at Notre Dame, made some comments that sparked outrage among pro-life bloggers such as Insight Scoop's Carl Olson. They were made more dramatic by the fact that Martin defended his points even as EWTN host Raymond Arroyo, interviewed alongside him, countered with an articulate defense of Magisterial teachings on life. The layman was correcting the priest, and, to many of those schooled in the breadth of Church teachings on the culture of life, the priest was closer to the views of the prevailing culture than those of the Magisterium.

Among Martin's statements that caused offense were his response to whether Obama deserved the honorary degree from Notre Dame:

I mean, I think first of all, if anyone deserves a degree in law, it’s this constitutional law scholar. I think that needs to be kept in mind. But also, I think the pro-life world is a lot broader than simply abortion. I don’t think you can just sweep the death penalty, torture -- things like that under the carpet. The pro-life world is really what Cardinal Bernardin called ‘a consistent ethic of life.’ I think, unfortunately, for a lot of people in the pro-life movement, life begins at conception, but seems to end there. I mean, it just cannot be about simply abortion, and I really lament the fact that -- that some of the bishops have turned the Gospel of Jesus Christ into simply abortion. And so, I think we need to look at a broader perspective here.
When Arroyo argued that Obama represented a "pro-abortion policy," Martin responded:
I don’t think you can call President Obama pro-abortion. I mean, someone who talked about convening a task force between pro-life and pro-choice people is certainly not someone who is pro-abortion. I don’t know anyone who’s pro-abortion, and I think that label is really very misleading.
I am among those who believe Father Martin is in the wrong on this issue, but that is not my purpose in calling attention to his words. The Jesuit had an opportunity to articulate Catholic teaching in the media spotlight and he blew it. His misstep, however, regardless of whether it reflects deep-seated dissent or simple ignorance, has since been overshadowed and, to my mind, eclipsed, by the unpardonable behavior of numerous people who should know better.

Since the controversy broke, Martin has engaged in dialogue with Olson and several other pro-life bloggers, and, while not offering a complete retraction, has accepted correction on some points. He has also made it clear that he is "unabashedly pro-life." Throughout, he has conducted himself with the utmost civility.

The same cannot be said of many blog commenters and others who have vilified Martin with visible glee, as though they had been saving all their vitriol against Catholic Obama supporters—and particularly against Jesuits—for this very occasion.

One commenter on Amy Welborn's blog accused the priest of denying the Resurrection. An Insight Scoop reader questioned his vocation, while another asked "Is he on crack?"

Having corresponded with Martin since he guested on this blog last year, I wrote to him to offer background on Obama's record—which is not just pro-abortion, but pro-infanticide—and to ask if he had anything to say about the response to his comments.

He wrote back:
Where, I wonder, does charity fit into all of this?

For me, I respect all of my Catholic brothers and sisters and assume that they are trying to live out their faith lives as best they can. And I know that they are following their consciences in making the best decisions that they can as Christians. So why are we tearing one another apart in the pro-life movement? I am unabashedly pro-life: that is, I believe in the sanctity of life from conception to natural death. Yet I have a quite (and perhaps quietly) different way of working towards that goal.

That difference seems to have earned me enmity among some in the pro-life movement. Critiques about the prudence of a certain strategy call into question my reverence for life, my vocation as a priest, my commitment to my vows as a Jesuit, my fidelity to the church, my Christian beliefs, and led one email correspondent to call me a "murderer," another a "liar," another a "baby-killer," and another "deceitful."

For me, the most helpful way forward come from St. Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises. "[L]et it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it." In other words to give people the benefit of the doubt. Or as Pope Benedict XVI said, "Encounters with others need to be marked by tolerance..." Even, it should be underlined, when those "others" are on the same side, in the church, Catholics all, united in the faith.

Calling for charity is not, as some have charged, "selling out" or "watering down" or "avoiding the issue." It is the foundation of the Christian message and one of the Christian virtues that we set aside at our peril--literally.

In other words, while we're being Catholic we shouldn't forget about being Christian.
While I agree with his warnings against forgetting charity, Father Martin neglects to say is what I believe is really the issue here: He is being used as a scapegoat for the failure of Catholic pro-lifers to convince 53 percent of U.S. Catholics to vote against Obama. In particular, as Archbishop Burke has admitted with regard to the the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' voting guide, there were massive missteps of catechesis in the last presidential election, all the way down from the highest levels of the American Church. Despite the efforts of many pro-lifers to make Obama's abortion extremism known—and, to their credit, they did get through to a slim majority of Mass-attending Catholics—the message did not reach the wider masses, let alone priests such as Father Martin.

Since his CNN interview, Father Martin has admitted to blogger Edward Mechmann that perhaps he is "just naive" in his belief that no one thinks it is "a good thing" for a woman to have an abortion. But then he adds,
In general, though, when Obama says that he wants to "reduce abortions" I think it's good for the church to take him at his word. At least this is a place of common ground--the desire to reduce abortions. It's a start for both sides to come together to work towards the reduction of abortions.
Naivete aside, Father Martin has a point here that is worth considering—if pro-lifers (and I include myself) can overcome their visceral reaction against the vagaries of the Obamaspeak he defends.

Based on his unyielding support of Planned Parenthood, I don't believe Obama wants to reduce abortions by pro-life means such as promoting marriage and aiding pregnant women. I believe that, when he says "reduce abortions," he means "promote contraception, sterilization, and 'comprehensive [e.g. pornographic] sex education.'" Certainly, that is what Planned Parenthood and their allies hear when he says that.

Behind his rose-colored glasses, however, Father Martin's point is that pro-lifers should take Obama at his word and hold him to his promise, putting pressure on him to reduce abortions in ways that don't contradict the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person. That is in fact a point with which some major pro-life organizations agree—otherwise they would not have taken opportunities to meet with White House staff to discuss the issue. The Church likewise, from the Pope with his congratulatory telegram, to Cardinal George with his meeting with the President, has demonstrated her desire to work with Obama through whatever doors he opens to dialogue. He is, after all, the only President we have, and it is, to my mind, utterly foolish to think that the next 44 months will be any better if we stay in our own pro-life echo chamber and adopt a barricade mentality.

Father Martin writes to me that the e-mails he received to his CNN appearance were "overwhelmingly, almost embarrassingly positive." Again, what does that say about the impact the pro-life movement has on the average Catholic? Remember, the priest did not speak in favor of abortion. Rather, he mistakenly characterized Obama as not being pro-abortion. His argument was from the position not of an abortion supporter, but rather of a pro-lifer unwilling to see wrongdoing or base motives on the parts of the President and Notre Dame.

There are millions of Catholics like him, who consider themselves pro-life (as does the majority of the American populace in recent polls), but are charmed by President Obama and believe him when he claims to seek to reduce abortion. They are the ones we should be targeting—not with vitriol and abuse, but with love and truth. It's time to get out of the comboxes, get into the pews and out at the water coolers, and leave the echo chamber behind.

UPDATE: Mike Potemra adds his thoughts.

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