Message to the Community: Father James Martin’s Talk on January 29

News Story: January 25, 2019

Dear students, faculty and staff,

On Tuesday night, January 29, Father James Martin, S.J., recipient of an honorary degree from Sacred Heart University in 2010, will return to our campus to speak at an open forum at the Chapel of the Holy Spirit. Martin is a well-known but controversial figure due to his writing, talks and outspoken opinions regarding the importance of listening to and welcoming gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics into our churches, our communities and our hearts. He also speaks passionately about protecting the unborn, as well as refugees, migrants and the environment.

There has been an outpouring of letters, emails and calls regarding Martin’s views. Some have been respectful, but mostly they have been, I feel, laden with bigotry and self-righteousness. Neither are attributes I find referenced in their gospel quotes. This feedback includes praise for his stands, but also complaints and criticisms, including notes extolling the University to cancel his appearance on our campus. In fact, a petition has been circulating online to pressure the University. It was originated by TFP Student Action, a project of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.

Founded in 1973, TFP chooses protest and bullying over open debate and discourse. TFP Student Action writes letters, sends emails, uses social media and even busses its young students to colleges and universities across the country to speak out against speakers, programs and events it considers offensive. TFP participants apparently think that by raising their voices, twisting and hypocritically extolling biblical passages to justify bigotry, hate and exclusion, they are doing God’s work.

On our campus, we study differences and advocate for free speech, discussion and open minds. Sacred Heart University is known for its strong and respected programs steeped in the Catholic intellectual tradition. We welcome dialogue that is respectful of our mission and tradition and that is respectful of every person’s dignity.

To that end, we have invited numerous speakers, many controversial, to our campus to share their thoughts and opinions as a forum for debate and discussion. Although his views have received much negative attention, Martin is a Jesuit priest in good standing, editor at large of America magazine and an internationally known bestselling author. He has written for many publications, including The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and is a regular commentator in the national and international media. In 2017, Pope Francis appointed him a Consultor for the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication.

Concerned over inciteful and negative rhetoric and threats to First Amendment rights, we are offering a series on campus called “Heart Challenges Hate.” Sponsored by the Office of Mission & Catholic Identity, the College of Arts & Sciences, and part of the Human Journey Colloquia Series, we will host speakers on subjects including The Psychology of Hate, The Rhetoric of Hate in the Media, The First Amendment and Hate, and Religion: Part of the Problem or a Remedy for Hate?

How appropriate, then – as we examine how religion can engender or heal us from hate – to welcome Father Martin to speak on our campus. In a presentation delivered at the Vatican’s World Meeting of Families, held in Dublin, Ireland, Martin spoke to the importance of treating LGBT people with the virtues that the Catechism recommends: “respect, compassion and sensitivity,” pointing out that the Catechism says, “Every sign of unjust discrimination must be avoided” when it comes to LGBT people. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Martin said, wrote in 1986 that “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent speech and action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church’s pastors whenever it occurs.”

Here is Martin’s message, which he shares through speaking engagements and in his most recent book, Building a Bridge: “This is part of what it means to be a Christian: standing up for the marginalized, the persecuted, the beaten down. Be prophetic. Be courageous. Be like Jesus,” he adds, “because if we’re not trying to be like Jesus, what’s the point? And remember that in his public ministry Jesus continually reached out to people who felt like they were on the margins. He was bringing people who felt on the outside into the community. Because for Jesus there is no ‘us’ and ‘them.’ There is only us.”

Today, more than ever, that philosophy and spirit of inclusion, forgiveness and acceptance deserves to be heard, shared and discussed in our classrooms, at the dinner table and at daily worship. It is within this context that – despite the petition and the scores of mail requesting that I disinvite Fr. Martin – I unapologetically welcome him to this engaged campus community. It is also within this context that I ask you to participate with your presence lest the bigotry and silent voices think truth and respect can be intimidated. There is no room in this university for physical or verbal bullying.

Thank you.

John J. Petillo, Ph.D.