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.