Earlier this year, Pope Francis appointed Martin, who is editor at large at the Jesuit magazine America, as an adviser to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications. His book was endorsed by two cardinals and three bishops, the mark of more senior-level approval in the hierarchical church. But he also came under regular attacks from sites such as ChurchMilitant.com and LifeSiteNews.com, sites he believes are motivated by fear.
“Most of their critique is irrational and hateful and hysterical,” he said. “There’s nothing in [my book] that’s contrary to church teaching, despite what everyone might think.”
The decision exposes a rift between Catholics in the United States. Many have lauded the approach of Pope Francis, who has focused more on appointing pastoral bishops than enforcing strict theological boundaries, while many conservative U.S. bishops have resisted any expansion to gay rights.
Caught in the middle of this rift is Martin. His book did not address his own sexuality, but these right-wing sites assign him labels such as “homosexualist.”
“My provincial asked me not to talk about my sexuality, and I’m okay with that,” said Martin, referring to his religious superior in the Jesuit religious order.
The seminary acted independently from the university, which hosted Martin last year.
In a statement, the university’s seminary, Theological College, said that it had received negative feedback on social-media sites and that its rector, the Rev. Gerald McBrearity, made the decision to rescind Martin’s invitation to speak in October. “In no way does this decision signal approval or agreement with the comments or accusations that the various social media sites have made over the recent weeks,” the college’s statement said.
Many Catholic universities, such as the University of Notre Dame and Georgetown University, which are run by religious orders, regularly invite controversial speakers. But Catholic University has a special place of significance in the church because it is run directly by the U.S. bishops.
A statement from Catholic University said the seminary’s disinvitation does not reflect advice from the university’s leadership. “We regret the implication that Catholic University supported yesterday’s decision,” the statement says.
“The campaigns by various groups to paint Fr. Martin’s talk as controversial reflect the same pressure being applied by the left for universities to withdraw speaker invitations,” said John Garvey, president of Catholic University. “Universities and their related entities should be places for the free, civil exchange of ideas. Our culture is increasingly hostile to this idea. It is problematic that individuals and groups within our Church demonstrate this same inability to make distinctions and to exercise charity.”
Martin said this is the second cancellation of a talk due to the attacks. Seminary leaders told him they received a storm of messages and people screaming at receptionists over the phone. Martin is still planning to give an address in Washington at Holy Trinity Church on Sept. 30.
The main critique from conservative leaders has been that his book does not emphasize Catholic Church teaching that LGBT people are to remain celibate. Martin has written publicly about his own celibacy in the past, but he said this book was focused on treating LBGT people with respect.
“If you’re giving a talk to married couples, you don’t talk about adultery. It’s only with the LGBT Catholic community that the issue of sex is commonly raised,” he said. “I wanted to find common ground.”
Sites like Church Militant have been considered fringe — at least until after the election of President Trump, which Martin believes has fueled the energy behind these groups. The site’s founder, Michael Voris, has written about his past history of gay relationships, saying, “I was in a state of mortal sin, and had I died, I would have been damned.”
Martin wrote his book in response to the 2016 mass shooting at a nightclub popular among the gay community in Orlando that killed 49 people.
The author of many books, Martin has gained popularity in recent years, becoming one of the most popular priests on social media. In his book, he wrote that he was concerned by the silence from many important church leaders.
“The fact that only a few Catholic bishops acknowledged the LGBT community or even used the word gay at such a time showed that the LGBT community is still invisible in many quarters of the church,” Martin wrote in the book. “Even in tragedy its members are invisible.”
Another book about LGBT issues, titled “Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay: How I Reclaimed My Sexual Reality and Found Peace,” from another writer, came out about the same time as Martin’s book. The book also had endorsements from a different set of cardinals, perhaps illustrating a difference in opinion among Catholic leadership on how to approach LGBT matters.
This story has been updated to clarify Martin’s religious superior and to include a new statement from Catholic University.