The Great Liberal Experiment Is Dying
August 22, 2017
Liturgy and Life
August 22, 2017

By Matthew Schmitz, First Things, 8 . 22 . 17

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I fell asleep at your book talk.”

Were Fr. James Martin, SJ to appear opposite me in the confessional, I would be tempted to make this frivolous admission—and if his agenda prevails in the Church, I will have no choice but to make it. Traditionally, Catholics have distinguished between violations of manners and of the moral law. Fr. Martin, in ways trivial and grave, does not. And so, in his account of the faith, the sin that Christians once called sodomy is no more serious than my nodding off as he spoke gentle words at the Church of St. Francis Xavier on a warm June afternoon.

Fr. Martin was discussing his new book, Building a Bridge, which is a kind of etiquette manual for the modern Church. His previous books include The Abbey: A Voyage of Discovery, a novel advertised as being “in the tradition of the spiritual classics The Shack and The Screwtape Letters”; and perhaps most impressively, a collection of his “essential writings,” published by Orbis Press in its “Modern Spiritual Masters Series”—an honor Fr. Martin shares with John Henry Newman, Therese of Lisieux, Edith Stein, and Mother Teresa.

In Building a Bridge, our modern spiritual master looks back fondly on a genteel past. “Not too long ago,” he writes, “opposing factions would interact with one another politely.” Despite tensions, a “quiet courtesy and tacit respect prevailed.” He hopes to reintroduce such refinement to Catholic circles, especially where debate rages over homosexuality.

The Catechism tells Catholics to treat homosexual people with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” Fr. Martin extracts this claim and turns it against certain other claims in the same text. For example, the Catechism’s contention that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” is insensitive and so needs to be scrapped. We must be nice, this he knows, for the Catechism tells him so.

Before I nodded off, I heard Fr. Martin criticize Catholic institutions that fire employees who enter into gay marriages. In his view, gay marriages are less disruptive and damnable than simple rudeness. “If I came in here and spat on the floor every day, if I punched someone in the face, they’d say we don’t do that here.” Rather than fire people for entering same-sex marriages, “we should fire people for being mean.”

As with any brief for politeness, there is a class element to Fr. Martin’s campaign to substitute manners for morals. Any poor and ignorant fool can abide by a prescription as blunt and sharply defined as a prohibition against gay marriage. But only someone who has enjoyed the advantages of leisure and cultivation will be able to avoid meanness and lowness altogether. In his effort to remove the Church from the culture war, Fr. Martin risks placing it on the wrong side of the class war.

Of course, this is not his intent. Fr. Martin notably seeks peace. He speaks reassuring phrases in soothing tones. He prefers the familiarity of a sweater vest and dad jeans to the strangeness of the soutane. In ways superficial and profound, he seeks to render Christianity inoffensive. At a certain level, I understand this desire. The Church should be not only a sign of contradiction, but a source of consolation. Sometimes we need a Church built on sharp, gothic lines, and at other moments we seek the calm harmony of the classical.

But Fr. Martin’s proposed renovation goes beyond mere ornament, to require the restructuring of the whole Christian edifice. Fr. Martin never says this outright, but the logic of what he does say demands it. For the equation of homosexuality and heterosexuality is now considered the bare minimum of politeness (whereas one hundred years ago, it would have been thought intolerably rude). If Christianity is to have the manners Fr. Martin values—if is to exhibit perfect “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” in the eyes of world—it must not only change its phrasing but reverse its teaching.

Fr. Martin is no idle vandal of the Church, even if his critics often take him for one. On the contrary, he is a son of the Church, attempting to respond to a real difficulty it faces. I disagree with his conclusions. I believe, however, that Catholics have something to learn from his argument that the Church treats homosexuality unfairly.

The Church of today has made peace with heterosexual desire. By contrast, the Church fathers were skeptical of the human ability to navigate eros without shipwreck. Marriage was seen as a channel through which these dangerous currents could run safely. The duty of fidelity, a regimen of fast days, and a rejection of contraception all worked to tame desire.

Today, the Church has largely ceased to speak of sex as dangerous and requiring restraint, even where it is licit. We hear of the dangers of pre-marital sex, of extramarital sex, sometimes even of homosexual sex—but very rarely of sex simply. I spoke recently with a few of the most prominent defenders of the Christian prohibition on homosexual acts. They explained their view that a man and wife may perform with a clean conscience any and every sodomitical act, so long as it is a prelude to consummation. A hadith from their master sums up the idea: “You can drive wherever you like, so long as you park in the garage.” Without descending into the anatomical and philosophical details, it is fair to say that this outlook represents a more glib and optimistic view of sexual desire than one will find in the fathers.

Fr. Martin correctly sees how complacent the Church is before the polymorphous manifestations of heterosexual desire, and he detects a double standard. How, if sex is so safe and tame between married couples, can it imperil the souls of gays? Of course, many fine distinctions, many true and important ones, can be drawn between the two cases, but those distinctions lack persuasive force. As long as the Church is so broadly approving of heterosexual desire, it will not be able to speak credibly against homosexual acts.

I agree that an intolerable tension now exists in the Church’s attitude toward sex, but I disagree with Fr. Martin about how that tension should be resolved. More than Allah or Christ, sex is the great god worshipped across the globe. What one of our greatest Catholic commentators calls the “horny industrial complex” very nearly seems to rule the world: selling products, justifying the destruction of families, impelling the transformation of law. Fr. Martin wants the Church to make a more perfect peace with this god. I want it to offer more consistent resistance.

Regrettably, but unavoidably, resisting untruth will require Catholics to be rude. This is why, much as I sympathize with certain points he makes, I reject Fr. Martin’s call for civility. Either the Catholic Church is right in what it teaches about human sexuality, or it is wrong. A great many people are convinced that the latter is the case—and thus that any expression of the Church’s teaching on homosexual acts will be insensitive and disrespectful. There is no phrasing so artful, no speaker so refined, that Catholic teaching can be pronounced without offense.

This seems to be Fr. Martin’s view. As far as I can tell, he has never found words in which to defend Catholic teaching on homosexuality. This fact is striking. If Fr. Martin, with his winning smile and pleasing voice, his rigorous Jesuit formation and ivied education at Wharton, his friendships with celebrities and appointment at the Vatican, cannot find a polite way to express Christian teaching, then no one can. No Catholic priest is more at home in fashionable society. No modern spiritual master is better equipped by talent and experience to make the faith polite. Judging by Fr. Martin’s silence, it simply cannot be done. On homosexuality, and not just on homosexuality, Christian teaching offends.

We should not celebrate this fact. Good manners are less important than truth, but they are a fitting complement to it. In a rightly ordered society, what is true will also be respectable, and delicacy will ornament righteousness rather than cloaking lies and oppression. Fr. Martin’s instinct that what is rude cannot be true would be well placed in Eden. But instead of residing in paradise, we groan in bondage of corruption. So long as that is the case, we will have to be cruel to be kind.

By speaking against the faux pas and not the grave sin, by conflating etiquette and ethics, Fr. Martin approves the ways of a world that enslaves us. It is a mistake one does not find in the writings of Judith Martin, who after thousands of columns has more than earned the name Miss Manners. In his even more extreme insistence on social correctness, James deserves a place beside Judith. Fr. Martin could justly be called Fr. Manners.

Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things