The Scariest Catholic in America

The New York Times

CreditBen Wiseman

The Rev. James Martin is a Roman Catholic rock star. His books, including one on Jesus Christ and another on the saints, have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The director Martin Scorsese has twice hired him to consult on movies with religious themes. Television producers love him: Back when Stephen Colbert had his Comedy Central show, Father Martin popped up frequently as its “official chaplain.”

So the reaction when he agreed to speak this month to a group of parishes in central New Jersey was unalloyed elation, right?

Wrong. Within days of the announcement, parish officials were in a state better described as dread.

Check out the websites and Twitter accounts of far-right Catholic groups and you’ll see why. To them Father Martin is “sick,” “wicked,” “a filthy liar,” “the smoke of Satan” and a “heretic” on a fast track to “eternal damnation.” They obsessively stalk him and passionately exhort churchgoers to protest his public appearances or prevent them from happening altogether.

And they succeed. After the New Jersey parish in which his remarks were supposed to be delivered was inundated with angry phone calls, the event was moved off church grounds. Father Martin will give his spectacularly uncontroversial talk — “Jesus Christ: Fully Human, Fully Divine” — at a secular conference center in a nearby town.

Why all this drama? What’s Father Martin’s unconscionable sin? In his most recent book, “Building a Bridge,” which was published in June, he calls on Catholics to show L.G.B.T. people more respect and compassion than many of them have demonstrated in the past.

That’s all. That’s it. He doesn’t say that the church should bless gay marriage or gay adoption. He doesn’t explicitly reject church teaching, which prescribes chastity for gay men and lesbians, though he questions the language — “intrinsically disordered” — with which it describes homosexuality.

The Rev. James Martin.CreditDavid Gonzalez/The New York Times

But that hasn’t stopped his detractors from casting him as a terrifying enemy of the faith — Regan in “The Exorcist” and Damien in “The Omen” rolled together and grown up into a balding and bespectacled Jesuit — and silencing him whenever they can. A talk about Jesus that he was supposed to give in London last fall was canceled. So was a similar talk at the Theological College of the Catholic University of America.

And the vitriol to which he has been subjected is breathtaking, 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.

“Inexcusably ugly” was how the Roman Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, described the attacks on Father Martin in an essay for the Catholic journal First Things in September. Archbishop Chaput is no progressive, but still he was moved to write that “the bitterness directed at the person of Father Martin is not just unwarranted and unjust; it’s a destructive counter-witness to the Gospel.” He cited a recent article in a French publication with the headline “Catholic Cyber-Militias and the New Censorship,” observing, “We live at a time when civility is universally longed for and just as universally (and too often gleefully) violated.”

After Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego published a similar defense of Father Martin in the Jesuit magazine America, one of Father Martin’s devoted inquisitors tweeted: “If you think the anti-sodomite bigotry in the church is bad, you should see hell.”

I spoke with Bishop McElroy recently, and he said that while there are calm-voiced critics of Father Martin with earnest concerns about what they see as the church’s drift from traditional sexual morality, there are also out-and-out bigots whose methods are “incompatible with what we hope to be as a church.”

“We have to face the fact that there is a group of people across all religious views that are particularly antagonistic to L.G.B.T. people,” he told me. “That comes from deep within the human soul, and it’s really corrosive and repugnant.”

I have known Father Martin for many years and have long been struck by the painstakingly careful balance that he maintains. Is he telling his fellow Catholics to judge L.G.B.T. people less harshly, whether they’re chaste or not? Absolutely. When he and I talked a few days ago, he repeated a recommendation in “Building a Bridge” that Catholic institutions stop firing gay people, which has happened repeatedly.

“Straight couples do not have their sexual lives put under a microscope like that, nor are they targeted,” he told me. “A couple living together before they’re married aren’t fired from a Catholic school.” But that arrangement runs as afoul of church teaching as a sexually active gay or lesbian couple’s does.

From listening to Father Martin, it’s certainly possible to conclude that, or at least wonder if, he has qualms with church teaching about homosexuality. But he’s so restrained and respectful that the president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States officially approved “Building a Bridge,” which has also been endorsed by an array of prominent cardinalsand bishops.

And he trails behind many members of his faith in his publicly stated views. According to a poll by the Pew Research Center last June, 67 percent of Americans who identify as Catholic support the legalization of same-sex marriage, in contrast to 62 percent of Americans across the board.

But the far right isn’t quietly ceding the fight. That’s clear not only in the response to Father Martin but also in a federal education bill, drafted by Republicans, that would protect colleges that ban openly gay relationships or bar gays from certain religious organizations on campus.

And in the church as in the government, the scorched-earth tactics of ultraconservatives often gives them a sway disproportionate to their actual numbers. “These online hate groups are now more powerful than local churches,” Father Martin said, referring specifically to Church Militant and to the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, which started a petition demanding that the New Jersey parishes cancel his appearance. It gathered 12,000 signatures.

Lyle Garcia, 72, one of the parishioners involved in the decision to invite Father Martin, admitted to me that he was “very concerned” that in changing the location of the event, they’d rewarded and emboldened the haters. But at least, he said, the talk would proceed.

As will Father Martin. An expanded edition of “Building a Bridge” will be published in March, and it includes material about L.G.B.T. Catholics who told him, as he promoted the book, that it had given them desperately needed comfort.

“I’m at total peace,” he told me. “I really am. An ocean of hate online is really wiped out by just a few tears from an L.G.B.T. person.” Only one thing to say to that: Amen.


Report Finds U.S. Catholics Have Much to Learn About Islam

Michael O’Loughlin | Sep 12 2016
Well, at least there’s room for improvement.

That could be the takeaway from a new Georgetown University report released on Monday that found fewer than two in 10 U.S. Catholics hold a favorable view of Muslims, with many possessing little understanding when it comes to the beliefs of the world’s second largest religion.

When asked, “What is your overall impression of Muslims?” 30 percent of those Catholics polled said they held unfavorable views, 14 percent said favorable and 45 percent said they held neither favorable nor unfavorable views.

The report was released by Georgetown’s The Bridge Initiative, a program at the Washington, D.C., Jesuit university aimed at improving public understanding of Islam while tracking the public discourse on Islam and Muslim life.
“We hope Catholic educators, catechists and clergy can use this report as a starting point to ask, ‘What do Catholics know; what do Catholics not know; and what do we need to be communicating?’” Jordan Denari Duffner, the author of the report, told America.

The survey also asked about religion and violence. Forty-five percent of Catholics said that Islam encourages violence more than other religions while 24 percent said it encourages violence as much as other religions.

Catholics are about split when it comes to the response by Muslims to violence committed in the name of Islam. About four in 10 U.S. Catholics agree that “Muslims have sufficiently condemned acts of terrorism committed in the name of Islam” while another four in 10 disagree.

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Catholics in the United States aren’t sure about what they share in terms of religious belief with the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. About a third of all U.S. Catholics (32 percent) believe that Catholics and Muslims worship the same God, while 42 percent say they do not. About a quarter of Catholics are unsure.

The Catholic Church has taught since at least the Second Vatican Council’s “Nostra Aetate” that the three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—all worship the same God. But as the report shows, this teaching is still not fully understood, or accepted, by all believers.

Last month, for example, a controversial American prelate made headlines when he said, “I don’t believe it’s true that we’re all worshiping the same God.” Cardinal Raymond Burke shared that assessment at a press conference promoting his new book. He added that he believed Muslims seek domination while Christians promote love.

“While our experience with individual Muslims may be one of people who are gentle and kind and so forth, we have to understand that in the end what they believe most deeply, that to which they ascribe in their hearts, demands that they govern the world,” Cardinal Burke said.

The report notes that Pope St. John Paul II reiterated Catholic teaching about the three monotheistic faiths worshiping the same God in a 1985 speech to Muslim youth in Morocco. He said then, “We believe in the same God, the one God, the living God, the God who created the world.”

Denari Duffy noted that Pope Francis often portrays Islam in a positive light, which has affected how the Catholic press in the United States represents Islam.

“The way our religious leaders talk about Islam is often the way people learn about Islam,” she said.

The report is being released, coincidentally, on the 10th anniversary of a speech given by Pope Benedict XVI in which he quoted a 14th-century emperor criticizing Islam, setting off a maelstrom of protest across the Islamic world. The retired pope has said he did not intend to insult Islam, but in a recent interview conceded that he did not “evaluate correctly” the political implications of the speech.

On the question of salvation for Muslims, which the church teaches is possible, more than half of all U.S. Catholics (55 percent) agree that Muslims can go to heaven, while 11 percent disagree. A third said they don’t know. Again, Vatican II, which theologians say is part of the church’s magisterial teaching, says that non-Christians can indeed go to heaven.

The report took a look at how the perceptions about Islam by American Catholics are influenced by Catholic publications. It found that publications that talk about Islam in the context of what Pope Francis said about the faith give a more positive explanation of Islam, while articles in Catholic publications that don’t mention the pope as often portray Islam negatively.

“Pope Francis’ words, gestures, and activities are often the frame through which Catholics consume information about Islam,” the report found.

However, the report suggests that many Catholic publications still tend to present Islam through references to terrorism, lately because of the Islamic State.

“The headlines of Catholic online articles dealing with Islam have a slightly negative overall sentiment, and the primary emotion conveyed is anger,” the report says.

And those headlines influence how frequent consumers of Catholic media view Islam. Readers of America have the most favorable view of Muslims (50 percent) among consumers of Catholic print media, while readers of Our Sunday Visitor have the lowest share (4.7 percent) describing Muslims as favorable. (Though the report notes that the vast majority of U.S. Catholics don’t consume much Catholic media at all.)

U.S. Catholics do appear to have at least some basic understanding of Islamic theology.

Most Catholics understood that key components of Islam include daily prayer (93 percent) and fasting (77 percent) and knew that Muslims do not believe in the Trinity. But 86 percent of Catholics thought incorrectly that Muslims worship Mohammed, a revered prophet.

When it comes to Jesus, 74 percent of Catholics said Muslims do not hold Jesus in high regard and 88 percent said they do not honor Mary. In fact, Muslims believe Jesus is a revered prophet (but not Son of the Father, as Catholics believe) and that Mary is his virgin mother.

Nearly half of U.S. Catholics, 44 percent, say that they either didn’t know of any similarities between the two faiths or that they believed there were none at all.

Some Catholics could note similarities, such as the two in 10 Catholics who said a belief in God was the most common facet of the two faiths, and the one in 10 who cited monotheism, or the belief in one God.

When it comes to cultural issues, most American Catholics think Muslims are victims of religious discrimination. Half (52 percent) say they agree that Muslims in the United States face similar discrimination that Catholics once faced.

But on the issue of religious liberty, just 26 percent of Catholics say American Muslims face threats. (Meanwhile, 34 percent of Catholics say their faith faces similar threats.)

American bishops have made religious liberty a key issue in recent years, usually around issues related to contraception and same-sex marriage. Critics contend that the bishops’ efforts have not taken into account threats facing non-Christians.

The report found that Catholics who know Muslims personally report having the highest views of Islam generally.

“From our survey, we found that knowing a Muslim personally — or participating in dialogue, social activism, or community service with Muslims—can often impact Catholics’ views in major ways,” the report said.

Reaping the benefits of personal relationships between U.S. Catholics and Muslims may be easier said than done. After all, Muslims comprise just one percent of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center, and the report found that just three in 10 U.S. Catholics say they know a Muslim personally.

The report is based on a survey of 1,027 people polled between April 9 and April 15, 2015.

Michael O’Loughlin is the national correspondent for America. Follow him on Twitter at @mikeoloughlin.

Teaching World Religions at an Independent School


Fall 2015
Religious conflict will be less a matter of struggles between belief and unbelief than of clashes between believers who make room for doubt and those who do not. — Mark C. Taylor1
When I ask students why they signed up for my World Religions elective class, they offer a variety of reasons. Some want to learn more about their own faith traditions; others want to learn more about other faith traditions (Islam is often cited here because students realize that what they are “learning” about Islam through the media is badly skewed); still others consider themselves agnostics or atheists but enjoy thinking about the large questions a good religions class will raise. And many students realize that learning more about the world’s religions is becoming indispensable to understanding the dynamics and conflicts of the 21st century world.
You can’t teach about religions over a long period of time without a significant evolution in what you think, what you believe, and what you teach. It can be a tricky business. Teachers of World Religions courses must never be seen as undermining students’ belief in the faith traditions in which they were raised. At the same time, exposing students to the highest, best aspects of these various faith traditions can lead them to question some of the beliefs and practices they see in organized religions today, including their own. What follows is some of what I’ve learned in 20 years of trying to teach this course with integrity toward both the subject matter and my students.2
The first thing to be said about teaching World Religions is: Don’t spend much time on religious history. Though this course may be situated in a History or Social Studies Department curriculum, don’t focus on what organized religions have actually done in history. To do so would mean a lot of talk about divinely ordained violence, manipulative superstitions, lethal misogyny, and centuries of scandals from caliphal assassinations to pedophilic priests. This will only dismay the conscience of sensitive students or even turn them off religion altogether. And don’t spend much time teaching the institutional character or structure of world religions for much the same reason. From the over-the-top materialism of religious sites and prominent evangelists to cozy relationships religious hierarchies have had with repressive regimes around the world to institutional self-interests that divert believers from their own spiritual journeys, sensitive students can become alienated from organized religions when they perceive too great a gap between word and deed, between authenticity and hypocrisy.
Finally, be sure to teach more than the various liturgies, rituals, and observances religious believers practice. Yes, it’s important for students to know why the Hindu family in their neighborhood constructed an altar in their home or what Catholicism teaches about the Eucharist. This is especially important when teaching Judaism and Islam, which do a particularly good job of transmitting their faith to the next generations through numerous family observances and celebrations throughout the year. But although all of these practices can contain interior elements if done maturely, they remain at some level external, visible dimensions of religious faith. Helping students better understand world religions means looking for something deeper.
The way I do that is to examine with students how each religion answers four basic questions: creation (Where do we come from?), theodicy (If God is good, why is there evil in the world?), ethics (How ought we to live?), and destiny (What happens after we die?). The “textbooks” I use to do this are the sacred scriptures as well as some noncanonical texts from the various faiths, presented both from an anthology of world scripture excerpts and separate handouts I select on my own.3
Needless to say, this curriculum doesn’t fit well with traditional assessments. I do give a vocabulary quiz near the start of each unit because we need a common lexicon for each religion we study, but with most of my regular homework assignments coming from scriptural texts, it’s best to relinquish familiar summarizing or question-answering in favor of something more meditative. In my case, I ask students to read the text, think about it for 20 minutes, and then write one or two thoughtful, discussable, open-ended non-“right-or-wrong” questions. It takes a while to get beyond factual “yes-or-no” queries, but soon enough they are writing interesting questions that often can be used in class the next day in place of what I was going to do. Because they submit these assignments into an online “drop box,” I can look them over before class and perhaps pick some for class discussion.
The major assessments for this course are six detailed concept map-type charts (replacing traditional tests) that depict how each religion answers the four questions and 12 reflective journals on various assigned and student-selected topics. These should include the more challenging concepts each religion has to offer — Hinduism’s ahimsa (non-injury), Buddhism’s anatta (no self/soul), and Christianity’s Sermon on the Mount are three good examples. The hard part for students writing journals is to offer original reflections on larger questions, not write down the “correct answer” (what the concepts mean) when there is no one “right answer.”
The culminating activity for each religion comes on the days students’ charts and journals are due. We all sit in a circle on the floor, and the students carry on a conversation about what they learned, what they wrote about in their journals, what they liked and didn’t like about the religion we studied, and so on. After one or two such classes, I am able to remain silent; they conduct a conversation on their own for the full class period. At the end of these classes, students almost always remark on how much they learned, and I get to tell them how wonderful and gratifying it is to see a group of 17-year-olds hold a mature, meaningful conversation about such large, transcendent ideas completely on their own. I love the idea that I do my best teaching by not saying a word.
Part of the challenge of getting students toward a deeper understanding of the world’s major religions is helping them see that both Eastern and Western ways of thinking underlie their respective religions and are profoundly different. One way I enjoy doing this, as an introduction to Daoism, is to hold up for the class an empty coffee cup and ask students to name the most important part of the cup. Typically, they debate the sides, the base, the handle … as Westerners, we see the tangible and material as what is real. A Daoist answer would be “the empty space inside.” What cannot be seen is actually more real than the illusory world that can be seen. It’s a fascinating new layer of diversity for students to encounter — diversity in thought, in understanding what is real.
Indeed, diversity and multiculturalism should underlie virtually every class period throughout the semester. To broaden the number and range of “voices” students hear besides my own, I frequently use short 3- to 10-minute videos drawn from YouTube and elsewhere. These might show highlights of a Muslim wedding in London, a Taiwanese bhikkuni (Buddhist nun) describing her Mother Theresa-like mission, or an Orthodox rabbi on Long Island explaining his take on the meaning of a Seder meal.
But the outside voices students always respond to most enthusiastically are the guest speakers who visit my classroom and serve as tour guides at their houses of worship. These are parents of former students or people I’ve met through them. Representing each religion we study, they can share themselves effectively with students and are open-hearted to faiths other than their own. Some have been doing this with me for 20 years, others for just five or six, but you find the best ones over time, and they become, at least for me, a community of friends and co-teachers. For their part, my students love the novelty of seeing new faces teaching the class, but these co-teachers are also clearly and unostentatiously spiritually grounded human beings. They show the best of what religion can look like in our local community, and students, be they religious or not, pick up on that.
Maybe the most important part of teaching a World Religions course is for the teacher to be clear on who he or she is and what he or she is doing — understanding the ethics of teaching a course on religions, if you will. Each major world religion contains some core genius, some font of meaning and wisdom that satisfies deep human needs. This explains, in part, why these religions have lasted so long. In a class genuinely studying world religions, the teacher’s job is to present that timeless essential core for each religion with equal respect, energy, and conviction.
The teacher is not an evangelist to students in a World Religions class. The teacher’s job is not to persuade students to one religious viewpoint or another or even to persuade students to a religious worldview as opposed to a nonreligious one. The substance and goals of this course should be different from youth education programs in church, temple, synagogue, or mosque.
To borrow a phrase from Christian scripture, teachers of World Religions class are “in but not of” the religions they teach. You are “in” the religions you teach because you speak from within the language and faith perspective of each religion. Terms like God, goddess, creation, soul, reincarnation, and so on are natural parts of your lexicon. You are not presenting yourself as the “objective” social scientist, an “outsider” observing a social phenomenon called “religion” — that’s for a sociology class.
At the same time, you are “not of” the religions you teach. You aren’t teaching any one religion as if it were the only one out there, the only claim on truth. Throughout the course you are identifying similarities and contrasts among the religions. You don’t say, “Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead” or “The Prophet was taken on a Night Journey to Jerusalem and heaven” as if these were statements of fact. These are statements of belief, so you more appropriately say: “Christian scripture says Jesus raised Lazarus” or “Muslims believe Muhammad was taken on a Night Journey.” You are neither denying the actuality of these events nor making them into universally accepted beliefs — you are simply saying what is true: “Christian texts say …” and “Muslims believe …”
Being “in but not of” these religions also means neither denying nor avoiding the problems to be found in their scriptures. Students will notice that avoidance and not respect it. The fact is that sacred texts from most major faith traditions contain passages that offend modern moral sensibilities. God really told “His” followers to utterly destroy their enemies, slaughtering every man, woman, child, and animal? God really created one gender to be by nature inferior and subordinate to the other? God is really okay with slavery? The Universal, Eternal One who made all things seen and unseen really likes one nation, one people, or one particular dogma or creed the best?
Teaching in an academic (as opposed to a faith-based) setting may not be moral suasion, but it is a moral enterprise. In this case, and given all the divisiveness, ignorance, intolerance, and even violence perpetrated by religiously motivated people today, a World Religions course faces some obligation to teach an ethical God and ethical religion. Religion is good for good people and bad for bad people. I should think we want our students to grasp the difference.
Being a citizen who is religious in today’s world should mean putting a primary value not on certainty but on spiritual humility. As writer Anne Lamott says, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.”4 This is the problem with bad religion today, be it fundamentalist or otherwise — people make God small enough to suit their own purposes and then ascribe universal validity to the little god they’ve made. It’s an unconscious idolatry, and they’ve shrunk their scriptures in the same way. The world we train our students for needs good religion, and it needs believers in every religion with enough consciousness to include a new principle in their core creed, namely: “There are many diverse paths to God besides my own because the Infinite One is far too vast and mysterious for human comprehension.”
It’s a spiritual message that is neither liberal nor conservative; nor does it affirm or critique any one religion. The point is larger and deeper than any of that, and when it’s time to make it, I like to do so without really saying very much. I show students successive pictures of Earth taken from space — from the Apollo moon mission pictures where our planet is a large blue jewel against the black backdrop of space to photographs taken by Voyager 1 from 11 billion miles away, where Earth is a tiny white dot barely discernible amid a solar system that itself is but a miniscule part of the universe.
There are beautiful, similar expressions in other religious texts, but the Judeo-Christian scripture offers a summation well-known in the Western world of what good religion means: “He has told you what is good, and what the Lord demands of you; but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Tanakh, Micah 6:8). If students come away from their World Religions course taking this to heart, that’s a pretty good pedagogical outcome.
Erskine White, M.Div., Ed.D. (, teaches American History, Comparative Religions, Ethics, Western Civilization, and Understanding the Middle East at the University School of Nashville.

1 Mark C. Taylor, “The Devoted Student,” New York Times, December 21, 2006.
2 I teach this course at a secular independent school, but with careful planning, negotiation, and institutional support, the central goals and methods of the World Religions class described here can be made compatible with other independent schools that are identified with various religions or denominations.
3 The basic texts I use are excerpts from the Rg Veda, Upanishads, Sri Ramakrishna and the Bhagavad Gita (Hinduism); the Dhammapada, Zen koans, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Buddhism); the Analects of Confucius, Mencius, Xunxi, and the Dao de Jing (Chinese Religions/Philosophies); the Tanakh and Mishnah (Judaism); the New Testament and Gnostic gospels (Christianity); and the Qur’an and Hadith Qudsi (Islam). Other sacred texts are also used, including some from “other” religions such as Wicca and Native American traditions as well as an occasional article on topics of interest, e.g., Buddhism and modern science.
4 Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999).

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