In this weekend’s Sunday New York Times, the columnist Frank Bruni reflects on the recent “ocean of hate” against Fr. James Martin, SJ and his book, Building a Bridge, which calls Catholics to develop deeper compassion for LGBT people and their struggles with faith, relationships, and identity.
The goal of the insightful and spiritual book is not to contradict official church teachings, but rather to call for a dialogue and respect for both church leaders and LGBT Catholics. The balanced and prayerful text received support and endorsements, not only from Fr. Martin’s Jesuit superiors, but also from several bishops and cardinals including Cardinals Kevin Farrell, Blase Cupich and Joseph Tobin.
Perhaps more than any other incident in recent years, the response to Fr. Martin’s book and the deeply personal attacks on this Jesuit Catholic priest is, as Bruni points out:
breathtaking, [and] a reminder not just of how much homophobia is still out there but also of how presumptuous, overwrought, cruel and destructive discourse in this digital age can be.
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.
Few and far between are critiques that deal with actual substance of the book. Instead, they are often ad hominem attacks on Fr. Martin’s character by people who don’t know him, who likely have not read anything he has written, and who seem blinded by jealousy or partisan or identity bubbles. The discourses of these “missionaries of hate” have been denounced by several in the church including Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap., who described the online attacks as “inexcusably ugly” and Bishop Robert McElroy who called them symptoms of a “cancer of vilification” within the church.
Welcome to the scariest place in the church in 2018: Catholic Twitter.
Public Theology and “Catholic Twitter”
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.
In the coming weeks, I’ll try to develop some ways academic theologians can engage public theology in “Catholic Twitter” and I invite others to join me in this discussion.