San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy gives Communion during Mass at recent synod. Photo by Chris Stone
The Rev. James Martin’s new book is subject of controversy in the Roman Catholic Church. Photo by Kerry Weber via Wikimedia Commons

In a strongly worded defense of a priest’s book about the church’s relationship with the gay community, McElroy writes in America Magazine that a “cancer of vilification” and “judgmentalism” are harming the church.

Posted Monday in the Jesuit magazine’s website, the local cleric’s 1,100-word essay is a response to criticism of “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity.”

That’s a new book by Jesuit author James Martin calling for improved relations between the church and the LGBT community.

McElroy acknowledges that the topic is a “volatile element” in church discussions, but he condemns a “social media campaign to vilify Father Martin, to distort his work, to label him heterodox, to assassinate his personal character and to annihilate both the ideas and the dialogue that he has initiated.”

Crux Magazine said social media posts by far-right church websites spurred Catholic University’s Theological College in Washington, D.C.; the Order of the Holy Sepulchre; and the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development to disinvite Martin from speaking recently.

In recent weeks, websites such as Church Militant, LifeSiteNews and a blog run by the Rev. John Zuhlsdorf have referred to Martin repeatedly as a “homosexualist” and “sodomy-promoting,” according to National Catholic Reporter.

These critics condemn what they see as a break from traditional Catholic teachings.

It is this criticism that sparked the San Diego bishop’s response.

“This campaign of distortion must be challenged and exposed for what it is — not primarily for Father Martin’s sake but because this cancer of vilification is seeping into the institutional life of the church,” McElroy wrote.

The groups that canceled Martin’s talks “have acceded to and reinforced a tactic and objectives that are deeply injurious to Catholic culture in the United States,” the bishop wrote.

McElory blames three things for criticism of improved relations between the Catholic Church and the LGBT community: “homophobia, a distortion of fundamental Catholic moral theology and a veiled attack on Pope Francis and his campaign against judgmentalism in the church.”

The bishop writes that bigotry has led some to believe that reconciliation between the church and the LGBT community is not a worthy goal and that gay sexual activity in itself should exclude people from taking part in the church, ignoring the sinfulness of all.

If the church doesn’t heed the wake-up call to reconciliation, it risks not only a continued division with the LGBT community, but also a “gulf between the Church and God,” McElroy writes.

“The Catholic community needs to look inward and purge itself of bigotry against the LGBT community,” he writes.

Second, people resistant to improved relations between the church and the LGBT community also suffer from a “distortion of Catholic moral theology,” McElroy said.

The bishop writes that church theology teaches people how to pattern their lives after the life of Jesus with virtues including faith, love, hope, mercy and compassion.

“But chastity is not the central virtue in the Christian moral life,” the bishop writes. “Our central call is to love the Lord our God with all our heart and to love our neighbor as ourselves.”

“Many times, our discussions in the life of the church suggest that chastity has a singularly powerful role in determining our moral character or our relationship with God,” McElroy writes. “It does not.”

Last, McElroy sees the criticism as a denunciation of Pope Francis’ papal theology that includes rejecting the temptation to judge others.

“Those attacking Father Martin simply cannot forgive the Holy Father for uttering that historic phrase on the plane: Who am I to judge?” the bishop writes.

The San Diego bishop ends by writing that poor relations with the LGBT community are not primarily based on orientation but on “judgmentalism” on both sides.

In April, Martin was appointed by the pope to be an adviser to the Vatican communications office.

Martin was dubbed the “Colbert Report’s Chaplain” during his appearances on Stephen Colbert’s former show “The Colbert Report.”

Martin has written multiple books including “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life,” “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life,” “Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus,” and “Becoming Who You Are: Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton and Other Saints.”

Martin has more than 544,000 followers on Facebook.

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