Editor’s Note: We welcome this reflection from guest blogger, speaker and writer Hudson Byblow. Hudson in this article addresses both Jean Vanier and Fr. James Martin. However, he does not attempt to associate these two persons, but rather attempts to draw a contrast to highlight the need for more teaching and direction in the area of virtue, particularly the virtue of chastity.
The other day when news broke about Jean Vanier, many people were shocked and saddened – and rightly so. An excellent reflection about this has been written here by Fr. Longnecker. This piece explores another angle: through the lens of virtue. As such, it demands a few words about the mindset currently put forth by Fr. James Martin. Please allow me to explain:
The Fullness of Virtue
There are many virtues. We all fail at some from time to time, and we are all called to grow in all of them all of the time. The falling, unfortunately, is part of being human. Nothing new. But what about committing oneself to fail?
Elevate the Conversation
This recent Jean Vanier situation is an example of how excellence in some virtues (like charity, for example) does not give a person license to be closed to the fullness of virtue (which includes the virtue of chastity). And what no one seems to be talking about is that all of these cases of sexual misconduct against Vanier are first and foremost failures to successfully live chastely (and perhaps failures to successfully live other virtues as well).
However, a double standard is now able to be identified: It seems that people are quick to judge when a person fails to live to chastely in some ways, but not in other ways.
I don’t think that this is an intentional double standard as much as it is due to the fact that people simply don’t understand the meaning of chastity to begin with. I don’t think that this is an intentional double standard as much as it is due to the fact that people simply don’t understand the meaning of chastity to begin with (through the language of the church, that is, for there are certainly people who think they know what it means but interpret it very differently). Obviously, it would be hard for people to grasp what a sin against chastity would actually be, if they didn’t know what chastity truly meant. (Please see this article for help with that). It follows though that chastity not only needs to be talked about, but it needs to be talked about within the context of the language of the Church.
Interestingly, the invitation to truly understand this lost virtue has brought many who identify as Catholics to cringe. It makes me wonder if this might be a good way to determine who is invested in helping people come to an understanding of chastity and who is not. Furthermore, the invitation to grow in this way is obviously not given by all people, whether at the onset of a conversation, or far along down the road of journeying together.
An unfortunate result of that is that chastity (properly understood) stays off of people’s radar, and they therefore are less likely to see things beyond mere behavioural management. The problem with that is that it can leave people to “white-knuckle it” through life – which can lead to resentment (which can be what underlies what might be called resentful celibacy). The other problem is that many (if not most) people cannot manage their behaviour perfectly for their whole lives. Cardinal McCarrick was an example of this. If he would have been striving to live a chaste celibacy instead of merely striving to live celibately, he may have been able to make different choices because practicing chastity transforms what a person desires to do with their appetites, creates “wholeness of being” (harmony and integration of our body, soul and spirit) and opens the door to being able to truly love. This is not to do with changing the attractions/inclinations a person experiences or even the identity they might choose to embrace.) Overall, many people think they “live up” to the church’s teaching, errantly thinking that they are living “chastely,” when they really may be only abstaining. (Ed. Note: An analogous image might be the difference between a “yo-yo fad dieter” and someone who seeks to embrace wholistic healthier lifestyle particularly as it relates to their relationship with food affecting a positive change in their habits and health overall. While not a perfect analogy there are distinct similarities.)
Failing versus Closedness
While these cases against Jean Vanier point to him failing to live chastely, they do not reflect a commitment to be closed to the fullness of virtue. Fr. James Martin, on the other hand, seems to be failing and closed. The former is evidenced by the fact that his approach excludes the invitation to even try to understand chastity, let alone pursue it which could make one wonder if he has not actually tasted that joy of pursuing it intentionally himself. The latter is
evidenced by his desire to normalize relationships that are, in and of themselves, a reflection of the rejection of chastity – and this is something he doubles-down on repeatedly. To some this will sound judgmental, however we must exercise prudent discernment about what people do and what they are committed to, in order to assess who is teaching us the truth and who is potentially leading us astray. (‘Prudence’ is one of the cardinal virtues which we must use out of love for our Creator, our Lord and our Redeemer.)
But People Already Know?
Recently, it was reported by dissenting “Catholic” group New Ways Ministries (please read cautionary article here) that Fr. Martin said that he doesn’t include chastity in his approach because he believes people already know what it means. In my encounters with fellow Catholics as a speaker over the last several years, however, the approximate amount of people who have a solid understanding chastity faithful to the perennial teaching of the church (which requires an understanding of sin and “successful integration”) is nearly zero percent. If, however, he means that nearly everyone “understands” chastity as he does, then I can see why he believes it to be true – that’s what I see as well; the vast, vast majority of people believe that chastity basically means something like “no sex”. (This also often coupled with something along the lines of “gay people can’t have sex” which is a statement that is loaded with loaded with nuances that reflect an incomplete understanding of the human person. We are all drawn by our nature and called by God to to love. (Redemptor Hominis,10) We are able to fulfill this holy vocation, especially when we draw upon the transformative power of God’s grace. To be truly loving, however, our actions must always be within the context of holy and chaste relationships regardless of the attractions or inclinations experienced. Sometimes, depending of one’s vocation or present state in life that can mean abstaining from sex for a particular time or possibly for one’s entire life, but in the context of chaste love this in not a deprivation but a conscientiously mindful choice to love and respect others and draw closer in intimate relationship with God.)
As for why Fr. Martin doesn’t invite people to see the whole LGBTQ conversation through the lens of virtue, I do not know, and I won’t speculate why. However, I am thoroughly convinced that he thinks he is doing the right thing – which, while honourable in and of itself, in this context is troubling. His methodology and approach do not minister to those like me who have walked away from LGBTQ (and this was not through a change in attractions, but via a transformation in mindset, in part as a result of pursuing chastity).
We May Have Reasonable Hope?
With Vanier, we can have hope that perhaps he was dealing with some compulsion or wound that may have lessened his culpability. We know that he acted with a lack of virtue, and I’m certainly not implying his actions were excusable. But we do not know if he had committed himself to being closed to growing in the fullness of virtue. With Fr. Martin, however, we do (again, see this article).
Correcting A Double-Standard
If people are going to respond negatively to Jean Vanier, who did some bad things but never publicly taught that people should embrace mindsets that are closed to the fullness of virtue, then should we not respond at least as negatively to Fr. James Martin who may not have done anything, but who draws (many) people to become entrenched in a trajectory that has at its very core, the rejection of the fullness of virtue?
Both have done good, and neither should be remembered for their shortcomings. However, neither should be given a free pass as though their actions/mindsets are untouchable. But if we focus first and foremost on behaviour as opposed focusing first and foremost on virtue, we will never be able to see the real issue at stake. On the one hand we see Vanier, who has significantly failed to live chastely, wounding others in the process, but we may never know if he was striving to live a virtuous life. This unfortunately will cast a shadow on all the other ‘good’ that he has done. On the other hand, what are we to conclude about someone who has the opportunity to encourage and affirm the pursuit of virtue, namely Fr. Martin, with 600,000+ Facebook followers, but fails to do so? One must wonder how many will be lost and wounded by this failure.
The overall point is that Vanier’s failure to live up to the fullness of virtue is shocking and terrible in itself and hearts go out to those who have suffered because of it. However, it reveals to us the deeper truth of the importance of this ‘lost virtue’ of chastity, and must lead us to question those, like Fr. Martin, who appear committed to leading people away from the fullness of virtue.
And despite the tragedy of what Vanier has done, it has brought an opportunity to reveal this double-standard, which is a good thing.
Now, what will we do about that?