Social Media Scares Seminary Into Cancelling Priest’s Talk About Jesus

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It must take courage to become a Catholic priest these days. The culture is increasingly secularized, and faith is ridiculed or under suspicion everywhere, from universities to the government.

Seminaries that train future priests must prepare them for the negativity they will face.

With that said, what were the good Fathers of the Theological College thinking? The TC, known as The National Seminary of the Catholic University of America, just let itself be bullied by bloggers, emails, Facebook posts, and whatever other social media outlets there are.

The Reverend James Martin, a controversial Jesuit priest – controversial, not so much for what he says, but for what he won’t say – was supposed to speak at the seminary. His talk was titled “Encountering Jesus: Meeting the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith.”

That didn’t sound so controversial. But the seminary recently canceled Martin’s appearance because several people don’t like Martin and some of his writings.

Martin also speaks often about the rights of LGBT people, especially since the publication of his much-publicized latest book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity.

While Martin is emphatic that he never speaks against the teachings of the Church, he also emphatically avoids some of those teachings. That has many Catholics (dare I say orthodox Catholics?) wondering about Martin’s agenda.

According to the seminary, the school has been inundated with negative reaction to Martin’s scheduled appearance.

In announcing the cancellation of Martin’s talk, the seminary issued a statement:

“Theological College has experienced increasing negative feedback from various social media sites … as a result … the decision was made to withdraw the invitation extended to Father Martin …

“[The decision was made] in the interest of avoiding distraction and controversy …

“In no way does this decision signal approval or agreement with the comments of accusations that the various social media sites have made over the recent weeks.”

The seminary’s response is either disingenuous (the school changed its mind about inviting Martin and blamed “social media”) or spineless.

Recent complaints about censorship usually concern the “left” – the so-called “progressive” side – preventing speakers from appearing on campuses, or inciting violence when they do.

Certainly, the Theological College is not a collection of snowflakes who need safe spaces. But the school comes across that way in making such a lame excuse for preventing Martin from speaking.

The Catholic University of America appears to be a solid Catholic school, at least in my research when my daughter was interested in attending there. I was pleased to read the following statement from CUA on the day after the Theological College’s announcement:

“The decision (made independently of the University) does not reflect the University’s policy on inviting speakers to campus … 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 The Catholic University of America. “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.”

This is not an endorsement of Martin, nor his latest book (which I have not read, but seems fodder for a future column). The general premise of his book appears harmless: Treat people with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. The criticism seems to come from Martin avoiding the Church’s full teaching on LGBT matters (a criticism leveled by gay and straight folk).

But the Theological College did not invite Martin to talk about his book. He was to speak about “Encountering Jesus.”

But then seminary officials encountered negativity, and they couldn’t handle it. Hopefully, the school’s graduates will have more of a spine.


Kevin Thomas is a writer and former teacher living with his wife and children in Standish, Maine.