Father James Martin’s Exercise in Fallacy

It’s not enough to simply be outraged by these accusations; we need to know how to intellectually combat them.

Sir John Everett Millais, “John Henry Newman,” 1881
Sir John Everett Millais, “John Henry Newman,” 1881 (photo: Public Domain)

Just two days before Cardinal Newman’s beatification in 2010, NPR ran a piece speculating as to whether Cardinal Newman was a homosexual—even suggesting the possibility that he may have engaged in sexual relations with another priest. In that article, Father James Martin was quoted as saying, “It's not unreasonable to think he (Newman) might have been homosexual… His letters and his comments on the death of one of his close friends are quite provocative.”

Fast forward to 2019.

Just one day before Cardinal Newman’s canonization, Father James Martin tweeted a link to that original NPR article along with his accompanying comment: “This doesn't imply that the man who will become a saint tomorrow ever broke his promise of celibacy. And we may never know for sure. But his relationship with Ambrose St. John is worthy of attention. It isn’t a slur to suggest that Newman may have been gay.”

I’ve been hesitant to bring any attention to this tweet, but I think it needs to be addressed. Why? Because if it is now considered fair game to question St. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s chastity, other saints are sure to be similarly slandered and libeled. In fact, my guess is that casting doubt on the chastity of the saints is about to become a cottage industry.

But it’s not enough to simply be outraged by these accusations; we need to know how to intellectually combat them. Part of the way to do this is to identify common rhetorical tricks and logical fallacies such as those Father Martin’s tweet employs.

So let’s quickly analyze his tweet point-by-point.

This doesn't imply that the man who will become a saint tomorrow ever broke his promise of celibacy.” This is a rhetorical technique known as paralipsis—the method of accusing someone by seemingly defending them. For example, if you wanted to accuse Mike of fornicating, you wouldn’t come right out and say it. Instead, you would use paralipsis and say, “I’ll never believe that Mike is a serial fornicator,” or, “I would never imply that Mike cheats on his wife.” See how it works? It’s been a popular technique in politics since at least the time of Cicero.

(Of course, this doesn’t imply that any Jesuit would ever use this type of rhetoric.)

“And we may never know for sure.” This is a logical fallacy known as the “appeal to ignorance.” We aren’t absolutely certain he didn’t do it, and therefore, he might have done it. Are we absolutely certain that Mike is not having an affair? Of course, by that same standard, virtually any person in history could be accused of nearly anything. Endless examples abound. Are we absolutely certain, for instance, that Winston Churchill did not operate an illegal dog track for wartime Russian spies in Britain? Are we absolutely certain that Coco Chanel was not merely Pablo Picasso in disguise? Are we absolutely certain that John Lennon did not steal song lyrics from Amelia Earhart?

“But his relationship with Ambrose St. John is worthy of attention.” This amounts to the rhetorical technique of innuendo, the process of insinuating someone’s guilt without making an explicit accusation. In fact, here, the use of the word “relationship” is innuendo. But what is particularly noteworthy, as some people have already pointed out, is that Father Martin’s words don’t seem to allow for much possibility that people of the same sex can be friends.

Back in the 1980s, there was a popular movie arguing that men and women cannot be just friends because sexual urges eventually disrupt their platonic relationship. Father Martin’s words seem to insinuate that we take that idea a step further—that men cannot be just friends with each other either, for the same reason. Or at minimum, the friendship between two men—irrespective of their practice of the Catholic Faith—should raise eyebrows and be “worthy of attention.”

“It isn’t a slur to suggest that Newman may have been gay.” Here, Father Martin uses equivocation, that is, using the same word in different senses for the purpose of advancing a narrative. Does he use “gay” to mean being tempted toward homosexual acts, or does he mean actually engaging in homosexual acts? By definition, no unwanted temptation—in itself—amounts to sin. But if he means “gay” in the second sense, it would most certainly be a slur to suggest that Newman was gay. Without powerful evidence against the accused, suggesting that someone committed a sin—especially when that someone is a prelate, especially when that someone stands 24 hours away from canonization—is an objective violation of the Eighth Commandment.

One last point. In modern times, it is often assumed that temptation inevitably leads to sin—as though there is little or nothing we can do to overcome temptation. It is now even required by an aggressive ideology that people declare temptations, at least same-sex attraction, to be their basic identity. It’s the new anthropology.

That’s nonsense in many ways, but the worst part is in its denial of the efficacy of grace. Grace is a supernatural gift given by God to help us attain eternal life, and the soul in the state of sanctifying grace has an indwelling of the Holy Trinity. God’s grace strengthens us—regardless of the particular temptation—to resist sin, and the closer one comes to God, the less attractive sin often becomes.

As Father John Arintero put it, “Grace makes the rough smooth, the heavy light, the bitter sweet, the difficult easy.” And our rebuttal to the modern world, along with exposing rhetorical tricks and fallacies, must include the transforming power of grace, and the effect that grace has on those who truly love God.