Sunday, February 4, 2018

Kevin Ahern on the Failure of American Catholic Theologians to Defend Father James Martin: "A Crisis or Perhaps Even a Failure in Our Public Theology"

Earlier today, I wrote about the hate being directed against Father James Martin online, and the astonishing silence of most of the intellectual leaders of the U.S. Catholic church — its journalists and academics — about this hate. I pointed you to an article by Frank Bruni in today's New York Times outlining how Father Martin is being relentlessly attacked, and I linked Bruni's account to the discussion of Father Martin that has been underway for several days now at Religion News Service following Jacob Lupfer's report of a lecture of Father Martin's that he attended recently. As I told you yesterday, the discussion of Lupfer's report at RNS has turned into a hate fest that is now all too predictable at religion news sites and religion blogs when LGBTQ lives are being examined.

In what I posted earlier today, I stated, 

The sad reality is, a number of people — I include myself immodestly among them — have tried for some years now to get Catholics who have the ability to make a difference, the journalistic mavens and academics of the American Catholic church, to see that the hate has been rising after the U.S. bishops allied themselves with white evangelicals in the South. And that real human beings are being hurt in real and tangible ways . . . .  
But hardly anyone has been willing to listen to our testimony. We've been treated as ill-mannered, churlish children who insist on talking about what polite people shouldn't notice. We've been shunned and ridiculed (in the case of discussion threads at Commonweal, I was delberately and persistently misgendered by one contributor while the thread moderator and other regular contributors — those intellectual leaders of the American Catholic church who could make a difference — stood by in total silence). 
Maybe now some of these folks will take note when it's a priest who is the object of the hate and vituperation.

Thanks to Katie Grimes on Twitter (see the tweet at the head of this posting), I've just learned of a Daily Theology essay by Kevin Ahern entitled "A Failure in Public Theology: The Non-Defense of James Martin, SJ." It's excellent. It reads  like a companion piece to what I wrote today (though I certainly don't mean to suggest that Kevin Ahern read my posting and is building on it) — and for that reason, I want to point you to it. Here are some excerpts:

The vitriolic, uncharitable, and downright mean comments are shocking, embarrassing, and unbecoming for anyone who claims a Catholic faith that values communion, love, reconciliation, dialogue, and human dignity. ("This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" – John 13:35.) 
I would be deeply embarrassed for my students to see the way the so-called "Catholic Twitter" has evolved over recent months with its distasteful memes, name-calling, fake Twitter accounts, and twisting of words. Indeed, it is not surprising that many of the comments come from Twitter accounts hiding behind the safety of anonymity. . . . 
The case of Fr. Martin reflects a crisis or perhaps even a failure in our public theology. To be clear, Fr. Martin is not the only one in the sights of these missionaries of hate. Groups and individuals have spent considerable time and money launching campaigns against academics and priests, including M. Shawn Copeland, Katie Grimes, Massimo Faggioli, Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, Fr. Bryan Massingale, and Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, OP. In a scene reminiscent of witch trials, those who dare come to their defense online are also attacked as "snowflakes," a rallying cry of the online activity of the new alt-right. Once again, we see how deeply the political-partisan divides are mirrored in our broken ecclesial discourse. 
In this new online space of "Catholic Twitter," theology is operating at multiple levels–as everyone from the Pope and bishops to average Christians strive to understand their faith in the midst of a challenging world. But what about academic theologians? 
While a few prominent theologians voiced support for Fr. Martin, the absence of strong statements of support from academic theologians, including those who write on sexual ethics and ecclesiology, was notable. I was truly surprised by the relative silence by my colleagues even as speaking events at universities (including Theological College at Catholic University of America) were cancelled. There are many possible reasons for this, including lack of time, fear of being denied tenure, lack of engagement on social media, a feeling like Fr. Martin is not saying anything new, an academic distance from prayer, spirituality and pastoral issues, or a failure to really grasp the power of these hate groups on the Catholic community. It’s easier to look the other way and there is a legitimate concern that engaging online vilification will give the angry voices more power. 
As a result, the online theological discourse around the issues that Fr. Martin raises has been dominated by denunciation and hate, rather than dialogue and mercy. An average Catholic looking online could be forgiven for assuming that all theologians and church leaders must hate Fr. Martin and the book. I can't imagine what this would seem for a young LGBT Catholic. 
But this all speaks to a deeper question. Who is directing the narrative of public theology today? Have academic theologians ceded the public discourse on theology to a handful of academics, non-canonically recognized groups, journalists, and vocal individual with a lot of time on their hands? Twitter and Facebook are major spaces where the much-needed wisdom of academic theologians is getting lost. EWTN has long dominated the Catholic TV market and presents, what most bishops and academic theologians would argue is an incomplete, if not myopic, understanding of Catholicism. The same could be true for many local church papers, which rarely address theology and the Catholic intellectual tradition. 
As an academic theologian, I believe that we are challenged by the recent attacks on Fr. Martin to renew a sense of public theology online. This challenges us to find ways to express theological insights in clear and accessible ways; to help to educate the faithful; to work more with bishops and Catholic media sources to rethink how theology is done in a post-modern and polarized public space; and to reach out with humility to people we disagree with.*

While a few prominent theologians voiced support for Fr. Martin, the absence of strong statements of support from academic theologians, including those who write on sexual ethics and ecclesiology, was notable. I was truly surprised by the relative silence by my colleagues even as speaking events at universities (including Theological College at Catholic University of America) were cancelled:

Count me not surprised by how American Catholic theologians are dealing with the attacks on Father Martin — with total silence, for the most part. This is how they've been behaving for some time now. It's how they behaved as the big freeze set in under Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, and one gay or lesbian faculty member after another got hounded out of positions in Catholic academies — as their colleagues sat by in total silence, looking the other way.

It's how they behaved as queer Catholics were hounded out of the church itself when Ratzinger issued his infamous "Halloween letter" in 1986 defining gay and lesbian human beings as intrinsically disordered, and when he commanded Catholic institutions to expel groups like Dignity from Catholic premises. These hateful attacks on LGBTQ Catholics resulted in an exodus of those Catholics from Catholic communities — as most Catholics, including the intellectual leaders of American Catholicism, sat by in total, complicit silence.

As I say, maybe things will change now that it's a priest like Father Martin who is the object of the vituperative hate. But, again, perhaps not: to change, the intellectual leaders of the U.S. Catholic church would have to start by admitting that they and their complicit silence about matters such as these have been part and parcel of a colossal failure of the church's leaders to give it sound moral, theological, and pastoral guidance — a colossal failure that led six in ten white Catholics, the people with most clout in the American church, to vote for Donald Trump.

*Boldfacing is in Ahern's text. 

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