It is right and just that Princeton Professor Robert P. George is often cited as a model of Catholic public engagement. He sets the standard for intellectual integrity, a high bar that many public commentators, including Catholic ones, often fail to meet. Imagine how much less rancor there would be in our public life if we followed his example of assuming that those with whom we disagree are making their arguments in good faith.
But I confess, there is at least one prominent case where I cannot do it. In an article he wrote for The Public Discourse last October and posted on his Facebook yesterday, Prof. George argues that Fr. James Martin is being sincere when he says that he does not reject the teachings of the Church on same-sex relations, because Fr. Martin is not knowingly rejecting those teachings.
Prof. George bases his argument on a fine column by Gregory Brown about Fr. Martin’s understanding of the Sensum Fidelium. Both authors lay out why Fr. Martin’s use of the concept is incorrect.
But where Prof. George loses me is in how he uses Brown’s article to make the case that Fr. Martin is not knowingly dissenting from Church teaching. As much as I would like to follow Prof. George in always giving the other person the benefit of the doubt, there comes a time when you have to call a spade a spade.
It is because I spent several years as a true-believer in the Church’s culture of dissent in the early 1990s that the answer to what Prof. George believes to be a puzzle does not strike me as something new, some “eureka!” moment.
The fact is, what Prof. George discerns in Fr. Martin’s approach is what they all say, or almost all. In my time on the dissenting Catholic Left, dissenters almost never said “Yes, we dissent from Church teaching and we think the teaching should change.”
No, nearly every issue of the National Catholic Reporter that I read, every Call to Action conference that I attended, every talk given by Sr. Joan at St Bridget in Manchester, CT or my wife’s RCIA classes there presented dissenting views as the authentic Catholic position.
That was part of what drove me away from dissent. It was the lack of intellectual integrity, the lack of truth in advertising.
They should have been up front and said “Look, the Church teaches X, but we think the Church should teach Y and that someday it will teach Y, so we are going to teach Y.” Instead, they never told you that the Church teaches X, they simply presented Y as what the Church really teaches.
And if you asked them about X—be it the impermissibility of contraception or of women priests—they would respond with what Prof. George surmises to be Fr. Martin’s view: “Well, that position was never received by the faithful, so it’s not part of the sensus fidelium and therefore not part of Catholic teaching.”
I heard that phrase, ‘sensus fidelium,’ frequently from my pastor in the early 90s. It is why in 1993 the nun who was part of the pastoral team would teach adult religious education straight out of—I kid you not—Hans Kung, as if he were the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
In fact the whole project of Jesuit dissent going back to the 1960s hinges on these claims. That is how they have squared their dissent from Church teaching with their famous fourth vow of loyalty to the papacy. For 50 years they’ve essentially claimed loyalty to a future papacy that just hasn’t come into being yet.
This did not begin with some 2014 Vatican document. This is what the culture of dissent in the Church has been saying for a half-century. These are the claims ungirding 50 years of issues of Commonweal, America Magazine and National Catholic Reporter, of the late Fr. Richard McBrien’s columns, and of many similar voices. They almost never acknowledge that they are dissenters (except implicitly, when they defend the right to dissent).
One final note: All of the above is what sets the Eve Tushnet crowd apart from the Fr. Martin crowd.
I am in complete agreement with Austin Ruse’s criticisms of the Spiritual Friends movement. But—at least among their best writers—there is an intellectual integrity there that is lacking with Fr. Martin. They are up front about what the Church teaches and what they would want it to teach instead.
That is the truth in advertising that was lacking at my old parish in the 90s and throughout the culture of dissent. And it is still lacking in the teachings of Fr. James Martin.