Father James Martin’s ‘Irresponsible’ Take on Marriage: Catholic Priests Call for Clarity

Those priests, as well as a member of Courage, urge for a fuller explanation of the sacrament and why same-sex unions can’t be equated with authentic marriage.

(L-R) Jesuit Father James Martin and Pete Buttigieg, secretary of the Department of Transportation under President Joe Biden.
(L-R) Jesuit Father James Martin and Pete Buttigieg, secretary of the Department of Transportation under President Joe Biden. (photo: Register File/Official Portrait / Twitter/Public Domain )

WASHINGTON — Some Catholic priests are urging the need for clarity and speaking the truth in love when discussing the Church’s teaching on marriage in contrast with state-sanctioned same-sex unions after a recent Twitter debate on the matter involving a well-known, influential American priest. 

Jesuit Father James Martin tweeted Jan. 21 that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who is in a same-sex civil union, “is married,” in response to a tweet from the Catholic League saying, “it is true that Pete Buttigieg is legally married, but that is a legal fiction.” 

Father Martin followed his initial tweet by writing that he meant that Buttigieg was “legally married” and “is married in the eyes of the state, and his [Episcopal] church, as much as anyone else is.” 

Father Martin’s position generated criticism from numerous Catholic commentators, who said he was failing to communicate that same-sex civil marriages can’t be regarded as being equivalent to authentic marriages even after a jurisdiction has legalized them. He responded with a more detailed post, titled “Like it or not, Pete Buttigieg is married,” published by the “Outreach” website on Jan. 23. “You may not like the idea of same-sex marriage, you may even vigorously oppose it, as the Catholic Church does,” Father Martin wrote. “But it is not any challenge to church teaching to say that as far as the laws in the United States are concerned, Pete and Chasten Buttigieg are legally married, and so are countless other same-sex couples.”

Father Philip Bochanski, executive director of Courage, a Catholic apostolate for people who experience same-sex attraction, told the Register that Father Martin’s initial tweet saying Buttigieg “is married” was “irresponsible” because it is in sharp contrast with clear Church teaching on the matter.

He referenced the words of Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia, quoting the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stating that, “as for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”

Father Bochanski said he found it “irresponsible, especially for a priest or bishop who has taken an oath to uphold Church teachings, [to] say something that the Church says that we mustn’t say, which is that homosexual unions are the same or even remotely analogous to marriage.” 

He pointed out that the 2003 document “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons,” also quoted by Pope Francis, is very clear on these matters. One section states that “in those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty.”


The Truth About Marriage

Regarding Father Martin’s follow-up tweet that Buttigieg is “legally married,” Father Bochanski said that “as we've seen in the whole question of laws and court decisions around abortion, most people, especially young people, assume that what is legal is moral.” 

He said it is a problem for Father Martin to say, “according to the laws of the United States, these two people are married” and just leave it at that — because many might take the statement that it’s legal to mean “it must be good or at least neutral, morally speaking.” 

Dominican Father Thomas Petri, president of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., told the Register, “Even though it is the case that in our country same-sex relationships are legally given the name ‘marriage,’ as Catholics, but also as right-thinking individuals, we understand that marriage can only be between one man and one woman.” 

He said that’s the truth of the institution of the nature of marriage. “You don’t have to be a believer to accept that,” Father Petri added. “All sorts of nonbelievers who are rational and have thought through the issue can understand marriage is between one man and one woman. It’s the institution that provides children to society and provides for the upbringing of those children.” 

In response to Father Martin’s follow-up comments that he meant Buttigieg was “legally married” following criticism on Twitter, Father Petri said that his language still “suggests then that the Church’s understanding of marriage is one understanding among many, and therefore has equal weight with the rest.” 

He said that a priest should speak of marriage in such a way that promotes not only what the Catholic Church believes, but also what is the truth about marriage — “and we know it’s the truth both rationally and by faith.”


Courage Member’s Perspective

Garrett Johnson, a Catholic who lives with same-sex attraction and is a member of Courage, told the Register that comments like Father Martin’s that employ the terminology of marriage in reference to a same-sex union can “take away the certainty of the teachings of the Church” for those like him who are trying to be faithful Catholics. 

“It’s like the foundation underneath you keeps getting yanked out from under you,” he said. 

Johnson added that he has been fortunate to have the guidance of very clear priests in his Courage chapter in the Arlington Diocese so these things do not worry him as much, but it can be very difficult for those who are struggling. He said that once he left his former lifestyle and sought to follow Church teaching, anxiety that stemmed from feeling defined by his attractions was dispelled. 

“The truth brings me comfort,” he said, “and it seems that a lot of people in the Church now don’t believe that the truth brings people comfort. Comfort sometimes has to come with discomfort first.”

He said that public figures in the Church, when discussing this issue, should be giving those with same-sex attraction the counterpoint to today’s permissive culture by saying, “This is what the Church teaches; and, look, there are all these people who are living it who have good lives.” 

Added Johnson, “The truth brings joy, and then we need more people in the Church in positions of power to believe that.” 


Communicating Truth With Love

Father Bochanski noted that when it comes to handling these topics with people that we know, the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls us to treat them with respect, compassion and sensitivity. He said that in the case of being invited to a wedding or being consulted about someone’s decision to enter into a same-sex union, he said the honest answer is to communicate that such a decision is not what God wants for them and not what’s best for their lives. 

“We ought to be able to deliver that message with a great deal of compassion, patience and gentleness,” the priest said, but “it’s something that we ought to speak truthfully, [as] we owe the truth all the more to people who we care a great deal about.” 

Father Petri advised that when having conversations with friends regarding same-sex unions, “we should be able to be honest about our concerns about any relationship that someone we love is entering into and what the challenges are and, frankly, the possibilities of immorality in those relationships.” He said that would also be true for those “getting married outside the church.” 

“There’s nothing pastoral or charitable about lying to people,” Father Petri said, because “it’s recognizing the truth of my situation before God that gives me access to his mercy and his grace.” 

In terms of communicating the truth with love, Johnson discussed his own experience in explaining his beliefs to a co-worker who identifies as a lesbian. 

“I didn’t want her to hate the Catholic Church. I didn’t want her to look at me and say, ‘He hates who he is,’” he said, adding that it took him some time to open up about the issue, but because of the friendship they’d built, she “respects what I believe and how I live.”

He believes the key to communicating with love is to understand what you believe and why. 

“Part of why my co-worker and I are good with each other,” he said, is “because she can tell that I’m not uncomfortable with her; and the reason I’m not uncomfortable with her is because I know why I believe what I believe, and I know that what I’m doing is loving even if she doesn’t agree” with that belief.

According to Johnson,  people need to “understand what the Church teaches it means to love somebody.” In that context, he raised concerns about Father Martin writing that “despite all the anger, Pete Buttigieg is still legally married to his husband Chasten. And they have two young children whom they love.” 

Johnson referenced the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, that “to love is to will the good of the other.” He said two men “having children with no mother is not loving them. We have to better understand what it actually means to love, and then I think it will become easier for people to express that love.” 


Avoiding ‘Dangerous’ Ambiguity

In a 1986 letter “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote to caution the bishops against “any programs which may seek to pressure the Church to change her teaching, even while claiming not to do so.” 

He wrote that “a careful examination of their public statements and the activities they promote reveals a studied ambiguity by which they attempt to mislead the pastors and the faithful. For example, they may present the teaching of the Magisterium, but only as if it were an optional source for the formation of one’s conscience. Its specific authority is not recognized.” 

Father Bochanski highlighted that passage, saying ambiguity in this important matter is dangerous, and “when it’s coming from the clergy, it’s even more dangerous.”

He said ambiguity in these matters “hurts the people that I’m trying to serve because they feel overlooked or unappreciated or even rejected by the Church, especially by the clergy.” He added that it also hurts people by “being ambiguous or challenging the Church’s teaching because this teaching is based not just on sacred Scripture, not just on the apostolic Tradition of the Church, but just on the nature of human bodies and how essentially union works.”

Father Bochanski told the Register that, because of this, it’s not a changeable teaching, and any hint otherwise is raising false hopes. 

The right approach, he said, is to explain the Church’s teaching “more fully to have dialogue with people who are opposed to it, to help them to understand it.”