Writing the Good Fight

To read or not to read? That is the question facing faithful Catholics as we emerge from yet another year of massive Church crisis and revelations of corruption now being reported by “establishment” Catholic media and “independent” Catholic media alike. Some Catholic pundits urge us to avoid entirely those Catholic media sources that were the first to break the countless stories of cover-ups and evil in the Church. Recently, Bishop Robert Barron floated a trial balloon notion of having the episcopacy require a “mandatum” for Catholic writers who claim to be presenting the truths of Catholic teaching online.

The question now facing me and many other concerned Catholics is a similar one: to write or not to write?

Is this the hill we should be dying on as professional writers who love our Church and wish to see its institutional human face more closely resemble the spotless Bride of Christ we are called to be?

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After a lot of thought—as a Catholic who has written for both “establishment” and “independent” Catholic publications—my answer is an unequivocal yes.

It’s the only hill to die on, frankly. This is the only pathway toward transforming a suffering Church into a redemptive-suffering Church. It’s the only way toward true healing and hope.

Even so, as a writer wrestling with such matters, I’ve embraced the new year of 2020 with a deeper desire for clearer vision and greater self-awareness regarding the impact of my writing and its place in the Wild West landscape that is Catholic media in all its forms. I know I’ve been unswerving in my proclamation of the faith, including its most uncomfortable and countercultural truths. But to be perfectly candid, I have been doggedly pursued by one fundamental critique that has ended up diluting what I hoped to achieve in proclaiming that truth.

I’ve been criticized as not being pastorally “sensitive” enough, not being charitable enough, and occasionally even being downright “mean” and “sarcastic” in tone when I write.

Previously, I’ve mounted a defense that I believe to be a sound one against such claims, basing it on two rather obvious facts. First, my writing for Catholic publications has largely been in the arena of public discourse—not pastoral ministry—and there is an enormous difference between the two. Professional writers know this, but not every “professional” pastoral minister does, and many such critics find fault in writing that does not bend over both backwards and forwards to convey unmissable charity toward those whose ideas—and errors—you challenge in print.

Second, some critics have simply grabbed onto the low-hanging fruit of being incapable of making important distinctions, claiming that apples are actually oranges. For example, I once wrote a piece titled “Why Men Should Be Ordained Deaconesses,” the substance of which was an ironic presentation of the illogic of women being ordained deacons, illustrated by reducing that argument to absurdity (a time-honored literary device). I was chastised for having displayed “sarcasm,” not toward any person but toward an idea, and was instructed that my doing so was not pastoral in tone.

Similarly, I once wrote a piece titled “Why Am I Such a Jerk to ‘Gay’ People?” in which I responded to critics who were publicly vilifying me for my approach in presenting Church teaching on homosexuality. I was told it was beyond the pale to do so, in that it was confrontational and not pastoral enough. Another example is a piece I titled “The Insanely Stupid LBGT Rhetoric of Fr. James Martin,” in which my use of the term “insane” was prompted by Fr. James Martin’s own reference to the “insane” protests against his “LGBT ministry.” I was again treated as though I had attacked Fr. Martin on a personal level, rather than attacking his rhetoric.

While I’m willing to stand by my past work as being in keeping with the standards of public discourse, and while always steering clear of reducing my commentary to mere personal attack or critique, I’ve recently concluded—with the above in mind—that more may be required of me as a writer, with last year’s ever-deepening saga of corruption in the Church as a backdrop.

I believe that Catholic writers, myself included, can do—and ought to do—better. I make this claim for two reasons, one very practical and one very personal.

The practical reason is simple and unassailable: why let one’s ideological opponents control the narrative through their response to your work, claiming it is “uncharitable” or “mean” in tone? Why can’t I simply go the extra mile—a distance not actually required by public discourse but a step that nonetheless strengthens and improves the chances of gaining ground against error and corruption? I think I can do better in this regard, and doing so will deprive critics of that easy and deflective defense against having their errors exposed: “He’s mean.” “He’s not pastoral.” “He’s not charitable.” Or even: “We can’t argue with his facts, but let’s distract from those facts by complaining about his tone.”

The second and more personal reason to write with more intentional charity is because I do not, in fact, wish to wound or harm anyone on the planet in any personal sense, even when I expose his erroneous views or their explicit or implicit dissent from Catholic teaching. I have zero interest in getting digs in, despite the welling-up of righteous indignation that often accompanies my realization that, in too many cases, the false teacher in question is teaching falsely with full knowledge and deliberate intent.

But the motive of a false teacher is his or her problem—ultimately, it’s not mine. I’m still called to love the person even if that person causes grave harm to souls. I embrace a fuller “imitation of Christ” when I strive for authentic and overt charity even in the midst of admonishing the sinner and feeling the pangs of righteous anger toward those leading others astray.

Toward that end, I offer now a sincere and unconditional apology to someone who I believe may have found my public words to be personally wounding: Fr. James Martin, SJ.

Fr. Martin, I know you are aware of my work, as for years I’ve called out the pattern of ambiguity, confusion, and error that I believe you deliberately embrace relative to the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. I’ll never waver in challenging that pattern, now or in future. But I ask your forgiveness for those times I’ve written about your work in ways that you found personally wounding and for any lack of charity or respect I’ve shown you in past. Perhaps you and I could one day “reason together” about such things, as brothers in Christ. I’d gladly do so cordially and charitably in private. I pledge that in future I’ll assiduously avoid similar pitfalls.

Not only will I make similar apology to anyone else who approaches me and who thinks I’ve treated him similarly, but I also make a new pledge to readers of this publication and to Catholics everywhere, all of whom are hurting and struggling to cling to a faith shaken by scandal and corruption at all levels, from the episcopacy to the clergy in general as well as to lay leaders promoting error in dioceses and parishes everywhere.

I pledge that I will seek to “write the good fight,” not only with due attention toward tone and charity but also always pointing readers toward positive change, healing, and hope. We’ve arrived at a point in our history in which the Church’s faults and its human evils have been made manifest, largely through the work of “independent” Catholic media and writers who, like me, care deeply for our faith and our Mother Church. I believe more is now required; we must move beyond the mere exposure of these evils and help the faithful find solutions to them—redemptive remedies that help guide people from near-despair to renewed hope.

And there is good reason to hope: Christ is our victor, even in the midst of battles that seem lost or lopsided. I’d like to call on all Catholic writers to discern prayerfully whether this, too, might be your personal moment to rise to this new occasion and fresh need for voices of hope and healing. Every Catholic can do this—from professional writers to readers who are “combox warriors” for the faith—all across Catholic media.

Let us all work together to “write the good fight” with both truth and charity, and in a way that lets us finish the race knowing we’ve led others to the same glorious finish that is our deepest aspiration.

  • Jim Russell

    Jim Russell lives in St. Louis, Missouri. He writes on a variety of topics related to the Catholic faith, including natural law, liturgy, theology of the body, and sexuality. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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