Editor’s Pick
OCTOBER 19, 2010 5:31PM

The year in sanity: Fr. James Martin, S.J.

Rate: 8 Flag

Salon readers will probably remember Fr. James Martin, S.J. from the Colbert Report, where he serves as "official chaplain," and occasionally takes the couch to present the Catholic Church's user-friendliest side.  When Glenn Beck warned Catholics that social justice was the first step toward fascism, and urged them to consider switching religions, Martin got off a zinger at Beck's expense.  "If Pope Benedict has to step down," asked Colbert, in character, "do you think Glenn could be the next Pope?"

"I think if he were," Martin said, "I'd listen to his advice and leave the Church." 

Make no mistake: by priestly standards, this is a royal dis.

But Martin's partnership with Colbert is the least of his cultural contributions.  For Catholics, his writing, which appears both in the Jesuit magazine America and in his Huffington Post column, has been anodyne in this most maddening of years.  Two weeks after Cardinal Sodano dismissed sex-abuse allegations against priests as "petty gossip," Martin recommended high-ranking Church officials perform penance.  He has taken Church leaders to task for creating “a fear-based Church” where dissent equals disloyalty.  In response to the rash of gay suicides, he published "A Prayer for When I Feel Hated," seven stanzas of free-verse poetry that Reinhold Niebuhr would have been proud to plagiarize.  It begins with the assertion "I am wonderfully made, in Your own image" -- welcome words for anyone alienated by Thomistic formulae like "intrinsically disordered."  Among Martin’s readers -- and he has many -- it’s gone quietly, deservedly viral. 

The heart of Martin's appeal, though, is in the tone of his writing.  Although he shares many of the concerns of today's disaffected Catholics, he never writes from a place of anger.  His criticism of the Church hierarchy is measured and nuanced, and informed by true Christian charity.  In short, he's a priest first and a pundit second.  When he calls for churchmen to do penance, he means just that: members of the Curia should purify themselves through a sacrament.  It's not his canonically correct way of telling the official Church she sucks eggs.

The rarity of this can't be overstated.  Lately, in the Church, polarization has trampled common sense into dust.  Commentators are either cheerleaders, for whom the Church has no amends to make, or hell-raisers, for whom no amends could ever suffice.  A typical opinion piece in National Catholic Reporter, the dissenting Catholic's paper of record, will tempt the thoughtful reader to race down to his local chancery, machete in hand. 

Now, to many readers -- particularly non- and ex-Catholics -- frothing rage may sound like the logical response to  [insert your beef with the Church here].  Logical it may be, but helpful it generally ain’t.  For a Catholic, there's no outlet for it.  You can't vote the bums out, for one thing.  For another, if you believe in the communion of saints, you tend to be a social animal in your spiritual life.  Leaving the Church to go it alone feels strange, and unsatisfying.  You end up casting about for some hope that the Church might one day fix her problems.  (At the very least, she could fall out of love with the Republican Party.)  With his unruffled admonitions, Martin demonstrates confidence that she will, and that confidence has gone a long way toward helping this Catholic keep sane.

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Thanks for the pick, editor!
This is a fantastic piece. I will go look for his work immediately. I had the great honor to get to hear Fr. Daniel Berrigan give a talk when I was a student. Both he and his brothers remain heroes to me. Thanks for reminding us that the Catholic Church (especially under the blessed John XXIII, was about liberation theology and aiding the poor).
Max, this piece was well crafted. I really hope Father Martin can bring the Church to a good place. But without rage and only with profound sadness, as a woman, even with Martin's attractive cheerful admonitions and access to modern media, I see the imminent fall of another "Holy" Roman Empire.

Martin, even appearing on Colbert's show, can't keep the Cardinals from equating the ordination of women as priests with the sins of the priestly pedophile. It's deceptive hollow public relations to find anything positive in that. I'm sorry I had to disagree with your positive take on a very bad topic.
Although I'm unaffiliated, I'm was educated by and remain a fan of the Jesuits. I like this guy.
Worthy of the Editor's Pick. R. It's so, so nice to see someone find something to say about the Catholic Church that is neither accusatory or defensive, but rather nuanced. I'm going to go looking for some of this fellow's writings.

As one of those "intrinsically disordered" Catholics (and a feminist) I voted with my feet and had not stepped inside a Catholic Church for many years.

About five years ago I went to a few Masses with a friend. I was heartened to see and hear how wonderful some parishes are (this particular parish was downtown, in a major Canadian city). I realized (remembered?) that there is more to the Church, or at least the people in it, than just "thou shalt nots" and hidebound prejudices.

Father Martin is part of that "more."

Thanks for sharing.
We all need our little wedges of earth to stand on while reaching for our heavenly place. I am no longer a Catholic, but understand what you have said here. Keep on your little wedge and hold fast to those who would reach a hand out to keep you from falling off. Not all Catholics have your hope, your clarity, for their religion but be still and just hear the words such as this priest which speak the real truths. R