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Deacon Kyle Eller: ‘Patterns of ambiguity’ should be caution flags for us

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia recently wrote a typically thoughtful column about the controversial Jesuit Father James Martin.

Father Martin has long been one of the most famous priests in the country due to his extensive media profile. In recent years he has become particularly known for his work reaching out to Catholics who identify as LGBT. That has drawn the most controversy.

Deacon Kyle Eller
Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

With Father Martin coming to a Catholic university in his archdiocese to speak on the topic, Archbishop Chaput decided it was necessary to make some clarifications and critiques for the benefit of his faithful.

I thought the column was a model of thoughtful, civil engagement. He rightly condemned the “bitter personal attacks” to which Father Martin is at times subjected. He noted Father Martin’s dedicated efforts to “accompany and support people with same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria.” He lauded and called all to join Father Martin in stressing the dignity of people in such situations.

We need that witness.

But Archbishop Chaput also offered a series of specific concerns that involve a “pattern of ambiguity” he sees in Father Martin’s teachings which tend “to undermine his stated claims.”

That “pattern of ambiguity” idea is what really caught my attention, putting into words something I have frequently observed.

The comments on the archbishop’s Facebook page were an unwitting illustration. One supporter of Father Martin posted Father Martin’s response, in which he states, as he has before (and as Archbishop Chaput had noted), that he does not challenge church teaching on homosexuality.

But then alongside this were comments from other Father Martin supporters who were very clear that they believe church teaching on this issue is wrong and even evil.

Isn’t that a curious contradiction? If Father Martin is unambiguously upholding church teaching on this issue, how odd for people to support him by denouncing that same teaching on an archbishop’s Facebook page.

The “pattern of ambiguity,” and not how it may or may not apply in some particular case, is what I want to get at, because I think if we learn to recognize it, it can be helpful in protecting our faith and maintaining clarity.

People who openly reject the church’s moral or doctrinal teachings are relatively easy to spot. However, for “wolves in sheep’s clothing” seeking to undermine Catholic belief from within, deliberate ambiguity is really the devastating weapon of choice.

It may come in an impenetrable block of theological jargon and unparsable sentences. It may come in the opposite, a series of vague theological platitudes and catch-phrases. Important terms may go undefined. Conclusions may be left unstated. There may be “dog whistles” — themes or phrases used by those who reject church teaching that only the attentive will catch. There may be vague insinuations about church authorities who supposedly don’t “get it.”

It will by design be difficult to ascertain the exact meaning, but two things will be true: 1) there will be no explicit rejection of church teaching but 2) there will be at least parts that strongly suggest it.

I find it helpful in discerning this to watch the subsequent conversation. When clarifying questions or thoughtful criticisms arise, are they engaged substantively, or are they ignored or dismissed, perhaps with those raising them subjected to attacks on their character? Does support come from those who openly reject Catholic belief?

And if so, there is a further clue — the “dog that didn’t bark,” to borrow from Sherlock Holmes. Most people who sincerely mean to think with the church would be upset to be misunderstood as rejecting church teaching. The natural response is to wish to clear up that misunderstanding. With those engaged in deliberate ambiguity, however, it is very different. Such “misunderstandings” are usually met with a conspicuous silence.

This is not a new problem. In dogmatic theology, similar to the way there are different degrees of theological certitude ranging from dogmas to merely tolerated opinions, there have traditionally been different kinds of error (the worst of which is heresy) and different theological “censures” applied to them by church authority.

Among these theological censures are things like propositions so badly expressed that they are likely to be misunderstood (prop. male sonans) or propositions made with an intentional ambiguity (prop. captiosa) or propositions that excite scandal (prop. scandalosa).

These, of course, are determined by legitimate church authority, not our private opinions, and usually apply to serious theological works. I mention them because they suggest how we ought to speak of the truths of our faith — in a way that is as clear and forthright as the teaching is. Doing otherwise suggests a problem.

I have written many times about our duty in justice to understand what people say and do in the most charitable way we can. That applies here. I don’t suggest we should go “heresy hunting” or even “ambiguity hunting” through homilies and pastoral conversations and so on. We also must respect the limits of our knowledge and judgment and the nuances that often really are present in the teachings of the church. I’m not inviting rash judgment.

I think when a “pattern of ambiguity” is happening, we know because of the long, consistent pattern.

And if we do believe we see it, what then? Rather than issuing harsh condemnations that aren’t ours to make, I suggest instead we perk up our ears and be wary, then turn our attention elsewhere. Dig into Scripture and the Catechism and other places where we can find the authentic teaching of the church given in its fullness and richness, and then “think on these things.”

Clarity is the obvious and excellent remedy for ambiguity.

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected]