Fr. Martin, Irish Bishops, and Restoring Trust

The Pastoral Congress, the four-day program of speeches and panel discussions within the World Meeting of Families (WMOF) ended yesterday. Pope Francis arrives today in Ireland and, after various visits and a Mass at the shrine in Knock, he will celebrate the concluding liturgy back in Dublin tomorrow, about which more after the fact.

But for now, some general observations about the past days:

I did not hear Fr. James Martin’s speech at the World Meeting of Families. (I was speaking that same afternoon at the alternative conference held across the street.) For many people – 1200 attended – it seems to have been the high point of the WMOF. (The alternative conference drew a respectable 450, and those mostly stayed for all the sessions over the two days.) But both from talking with people who heard Fr. Martin (one noted that no questions were allowed) and from written reports, I’m left with a question for him and his acolytes that I wish someone would have been allowed to ask.

He repeatedly talked about discrimination against and exclusion of “LGBT” persons by the Church. This is clearly mistaken and a lapse in logic. No credible Catholic, as far as I know, has ever advocated discrimination against persons. Many of us, and virtually the whole Judeo-Christian tradition, regard sex acts between people of the same gender as wrong. Same-sex attracted persons are, for us, all things being equal, persons like anyone else.

We regard sex, of any kind, outside marriage, by anyone, as wrong. Again, as far as I’m aware, no one has said that this reflects Catholic “bias” or “exclusion” of adulterers and fornicators – categories of persons that our Lord Himself spoke about rather sharply. The difference is that – at least for the moment – fornicators and adulterers are not asking the Church to celebrate their lives and loves.

Fr. Martin, again from what people told me of the session, was quite brilliant in weaving stories about people feeling pain and rejection because of their sexual desires. But that, too, is a different thing, of course. It’s clever to speak of “feeling excluded” in democratic societies, because one of the modern nation-state’s claims to legitimacy is that it both includes and values all people, is more universal than the Universal Church itself.

That claim is quite doubtful, as numbers of traditional Christians who have been told to keep quiet or lost jobs – in business, the military, even government – might attest. But again, pace Fr. Martin, traditional Christianity is not hate or bias or exclusion of persons. To say that really is a diversionary tactic to avoid facing the main question: Judging whether acts are right or wrong is precisely what it means for us to be beings that are so constituted as to need to make moral choices.

The sentimentality that has entered the Church as a whole, however, combined with the modern obsession with feelings rather than truth simply overwhelms such simple and obvious distinctions.

Fr. Martin holds court in Dublin

The media here in Ireland, of course, have followed the WMOF in the kind of terms that media in all the developed countries adopt towards things Catholic – which is to say with the same sentimentality and emphasis on feelings, especially sexual feelings. There was much talk of LGBT matters in the press, as if they were the main themes of the past days. As I keep trying to make people realize, they weren’t, and except for Fr. Martin the sessions were on mostly harmless topics.

But harmless subjects are not journalistically interesting ones. Reporters seem to have deliberately sought out LGBT spokespersons and groups – one that was featured took the Martin approach, encouraging LGBTs to come forward and tell their “stories” and express their hurt feelings with a view to influencing this October’s Synod on Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment in Rome.

Get ready to go through all this again – but next time for almost four weeks not four days, and with an immediate after-effect on Pope Francis’ subsequent writing on young people.

None of this has been much of a surprise. For me, the real surprise here has been the weakness of the Church in Ireland. The Irish bishops announced Friday that they would be divesting from fossil fuel companies in order to fight climate change, in keeping with Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment Laudato Si. The decision was actually made in June at the bishops’ annual meeting in Maynooth. It was hard not to see the timing of what I’m afraid we have to call a bit of “virtue-signaling” as their effort to say something – anything – both newsworthy and likely to get positive coverage while the world is paying attention to the WMOF.

Many recall that they said little to nothing when the Irish voted about gay marriage (2015) and abortion (this May). I spoke with someone who has been quite successful in business and active in Irish politics who explained exactly how deep the problem runs. He remarked that young Irish men and women, including his own children, seem to respond quite well to figures like Jordan Peterson. Yet if some of the simple advice Peterson offers were to be given with the slightest hint of Christian origin, “young people detect it and reject it, as just that Catholic stuff.”

It’s painful to think what a mess the bishops in Ireland have made for themselves when even young people seeking greater order and meaning in life have come to think that Catholic answers are virtually a priori discredited.

Trust is a delicate thing. Politicians in democratic society easily lose it because we know they are often pursuing self-interested motives. The Church – not only in Ireland, but in America and Rome itself these days – has as one of its main tasks a restoration of trust, and not only because of the abuse crisis.

At the end of the alternative family conference, which was much more outspoken than anything at the WMOF this week, as almost the last words from the podium, I read a passage from the ever-prescient Pope Benedict, who has an answer for our troubles:

The future of the Church can and will issue from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith. It will not issue from those who accommodate themselves merely to the passing moment or from those who merely criticize others and assume that they themselves are infallible measuring rods; nor will it issue from those who take the easier road, who sidestep the passion of faith. . . . The future of the Church, once again as always, will be shaped by saints, by men, that is, whose minds probe deeper than the slogans of the day, who see more than others see, because their lives embrace a wider reality.


Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.