Fr James Martin SJ is an engaging priest. With helpful books on God’s  sense of humor and practical spirituality he has helped make Catholicism approachable for many people.

However, he does seem to have some remarkable blind spots.

In  an article published over at CNN he asks, Why are Catholics so Afraid of Change?

Fr Martin is good at expressing Catholic concepts to a wide audience in what seem to be simple and direct terms. So he explains,

The Synod on the Family, the gathering of bishops from around the world that just concluded, changed no Catholic doctrine. None.

But you wouldn’t know that from the fierce reactions the synod evoked. Even the possibility that the church might deal more openly with, for example, divorced and remarried Catholics or the LGBT community, sent some Catholics into a near frenzy.

It seemed out of proportion to the synod’s discussions as well as the final document, a rather workaday overview of issues related to the family. The final report did not, for example, say that divorced and remarried could return to Communion. Instead it talked about possible avenues of reconciliation that already existed. Nor did it approve same-sex marriage. Instead it spoke of respecting LGBT Catholics.

Overall, the document stressed two concepts: “accompaniment” and “discernment.” The church must accompany families in the complexity of their lives and use discernment, a form of prayerful decision-making, to help people arrive at good decisions based on church teaching.

Unfortunately, Fr Martin’s friendly and open style of writing masks the real situation about the synod. There were certainly a good number of Catholics from Cardinals down to folks in the pew who had proper concerns about the procedures of the synod. Some were worried that Pope Francis was stacking the synod with progressives like Archbishop Cupich and the Belgian Daneels. Because the synod operated behind closed doors, the suspicions were heightened. However, I don’t remember any Catholics who people take seriously who were “sent into a near frenzy” by the possibility that the church might “deal more openly with divorced and remarried Catholics and the LGBT community.”

Fr Martin has set up a straw man, and this is a typical tactic of the progressive propagandist. They portray those who oppose them as wild eyed, frenzied lunatics while they, of course, are the mild mannered, smiling and reasonable voice of common sense. Really?

Fr Martin seems very enthusiastic about “accompaniment” and “discernment” and I am certainly in favor of a wise and welcoming pastoral approach. However, I’m suspicious of this language of “accompaniment” and “discernment” because they are usually code words for gradualism. What is gradualism?

Gradualism is the concept in  ethics and moral theology that suggests that certain individuals may be living at various points along a line extending from being in a state of serious sin, to being at least minimally in the “state of grace” and able to receive the Eucharist.  The lives and relationships of people with morally unacceptable lifestyles may have some elements of good, even of great good, such as sacrificial love and consistent respect. It recognizes that virtues are not all-or-nothing propositions, and that elements of good may be found even in the context of morally unacceptable situations.

Is gradualism acceptable? We can certainly admit that in many moral situations the good and the bad are mixed together. However, this does not mean that the bad and the good cannot be distinguished very clearly, and this is where Catholicism comes into its own because (especially in sexual matters) we have always had some clear definitions.

Here’s an example: Let’s say Janet is in a difficult marriage. She falls in love with Harry and they start spending time together. They text one another and send loving messages back and forth. This is probably not smart, but it is not adultery. It only becomes adultery when they have sexual intercourse. Are there elements in their friendship which might be good, life giving, healing and helpful? Maybe. Are there elements in their friendship that are unwise and headed in the wrong direction? Probably.

At what level do they need to be “accompanied” and what level of “discernment” do they need? They need enough discernment for someone to tell them they are headed in a bad direction and if they have sex that they have committed a mortal sin. At that point they need to be accompanied to go to confession during which the priest will accompany them to make a good confession.

Here’s another example: Continue Reading