The Father Martin Paradigm

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By Alan L. Anderson, The Catholic Thing, Oct. 18, 2017

Alan L. Anderson

A fascinating admission surfaced recently in the whole firestorm surrounding James Martin S.J. – an admission that shouldn’t go unnoticed. Writing in defense of Father Martin in the liberal Catholic journal Commonweal, John Gehring begins, “If you’re looking for a Catholic priest who inspires people – and makes them laugh and think – James Martin, S.J., is your guy. At the Ignatian Solidarity Network’s annual conference, he’s greeted like a rock star by swarms of young Catholics who devour his books and remember him as Stephen Colbert’s ‘chaplain’ on the Colbert Report.”

Ah, well, there you are then, you know you’ve really made it when you’ve become the official chaplain of The Colbert Report. How pleasing your words must be to the world.

But Gehring goes further, explaining in detail the key to Father Martin’s popularity: “This generation of Catholics [millennials] remains inspired by the church’s rich social justice tradition, has no patience for the culture wars, and is disgusted that their religious leaders are often perceived to be fighting against the human rights of gay people.” Put quite simply, Mr. Gehring is telling us if we really want to become attractive to the world, we’ll soft-sell the whole “Chastity” business and tailor our message toward an emphasis on the “church’s rich social justice tradition.”

No doubt he’s right. And no doubt covering up the necessity for Chastity (as a virtue that must be cultivated in order to truly love and serve God and others) with euphemisms such as “differently ordered” or “irregular situations” will play well with a generation that has grown up with the values of a “hook-up” culture.

The emphasis on the Church’s “rich social justice tradition” (read: an increase in government programs) will also play well with millennials who, because of their incomes, won’t have to pay for it, while at the same time they derive the emotional satisfaction you often get when you’re pointing out the perceived sins of others.

Jesus at one point was also very popular with the crowds. He’d multiplied the loaves and fishes and filled their stomachs. And, then, the very next day he presented a “hard teaching” – the teaching on the Eucharist – and people left in droves.(Jn. 6) They wanted a “Bread King,” a king who would fulfill their own personal desires, not a king who would call them to something far greater and far more demanding, a true and loving relationship with God.

Our Lord knew the world would always be this way; He warned us the world would always hate us because it hated Him first. (Jn 15:18) He even summed up the first Seven Beatitudes with the Eighth Beatitude telling us that should we truly live and proclaim the first seven, we will be happy when we are hated and reviled for His sake. (Matt. 5: 3-10)

In speaking of “the world,” Jesus didn’t mean that we would always and everywhere face rejection for preaching the Gospel. No, by “the world” he meant the powerful, the elites (and those who wish to accompany them), the ruling powers, the influential, the dominant Zeitgeist; those forces that continually seek to pull us away from Jesus since His Kingdom is not of this world.

He meant the elite “halls” – the halls of government, the halls of the elite universities, the halls of the major multinationals and, yes, the halls of the news and entertainment industry, which include The Colbert Report. Thus, if we are truly loved by “the world,” we may want to reassess the Gospel we are preaching. We may want to consider the possibility our “rock star” status may mean we’re shading towards that against which St. Paul warns in his Second Letter to Timothy, becoming teachers who only seek to scratch “the itching ears” of their listeners. (4:3)

Father Martin is fond of referring to Jesus’ encounter with the chief tax collector of Jericho, Zacchaeus, (Luke 19: 1-10) as the exemplar for how the Church should approach evangelization. He cites Zacchaeus as the chief sinner in his area, notes that Jesus invites himself to the home of Zacchaeus, and then points to Zacchaeus’ conversion and concludes with the aphorism that with Jesus, “it’s usually community first and conversion second.”

Of course, Zacchaeus hadn’t earlier shimmied up a tree and shouted “Hater” or “Bigot” at Jesus. Nor did he defiantly hoist above the crowd a gold flag to proclaim “Tax-Collector Pride.”

As Father Martin observes, Zacchaeus was “marginalized” within the Jewish society of his day. But it is important to remember his “marginalized” status stemmed from his own decision – to satisfy his disordered avarice. In so acting, he sought a position with the reigning power in the world of his day, the Roman Empire, and, consequently, ended by oppressing and exploiting his own people.

He doesn’t begin his relationship with Jesus by demanding Jesus view his overweening avarice and resulting exploitation and oppression of the people of Jericho as stemming from simply a ‘differently ordered’ condition – rather than the objectively disordered condition that it was.

Instead, Zacchaeus, he who undoubtedly at some point had taken a great, disordered pride in the wealth born of his avarice, humbled himself before both Jesus and the assembled crowd by making a spectacle of himself scrambling up a tree.

Note, also, that after establishing “community first,” Jesus obtains Zacchaeus’ conversion over the course of just a few hours – the length of just one meal – and at significant personal cost to Zacchaeus.

Father Martin has apparently “established community,” but when do we get to the next step? The next step is conversion, that whole Chastity thing, otherwise the whole “Father Martin Paradigm” degenerates into just making peace with the world.

Pray for him.


Alan L. Anderson has worked at the parish and diocesan level in the Catholic Diocese of Peoria for over twenty years. A convert and father of four, he writes on culture and the Faith from Roanoke, IL.