NEW YORK – Citing a social media backlash, the seminary at the Catholic University of America has canceled a talk by a popular Jesuit priest whose latest book advocates for more compassion for gays within the church. In a rare public rebuke, the university's president said Saturday that he opposed the seminary's decision.
The Rev. James Martin, editor at large at the Jesuit magazine America and author of several books on Catholicism, said he had planned a seminary talk on Jesus, not his recent book on LGBT people, "Building a Bridge," which has been backed by two U.S. cardinals and three bishops.
Far-right Catholic sites such ChurchMilitant.com and some conservative Catholic writers have denounced the book, and that had led to online campaigns to pressure Catholic institutions against hosting Martin.
The seminary in the nation's capital, called the Theological College, said it had experienced "increasing negative feedback from various social media sites" about Martin's talk and, as a result, decided to cancel the event.
Martin said he was notified late Thursday of the decision.
The Catholic University president, John Garvey, said in a statement that the university administration did not support the cancellation, and noted that that Martin has spoken before at the school, which was founded by the U.S. bishops and is under their supervision.
"The campaigns by various groups to paint Fr. Martin's talk as controversial reflect the same pressure being applied by the left for universities to withdraw speaker invitations," Garvey said. "Universities and their related entities should be places for the free, civil exchange of ideas. Our culture is increasingly hostile to this idea. It is problematic that individuals and groups within our church demonstrate this same inability to make distinctions and to exercise charity."
Austin Ruse, who leads the Center for Family & Human Rights based in New York, has called Martin's complaints about the conservative pushback on his book "pansified." The Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, who runs the popular conservative blog "Father Z," said Martin promoted "a homosexualist agenda." And Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of the Vatican's liturgy office, recently criticized Martin's approach in an Op-Ed article in The Wall Street Journal.
Last April, Pope Francis appointed Martin as an adviser to the Vatican's communications department.
Martin said his book does not challenge church teaching. "It simply builds on the catechism and the Gospels," he said in a telephone interview. "Jesus is very close to me in prayer and I'm convinced that reaching out to people on the margins is still what he wants me to do."
Martin said Catholic institutions had scrapped two other of his talks, but many more had been scheduled, including a Skype talk Saturday with a parish in North Carolina. He said the leader of his Jesuit province has asked him not to discuss his own sexuality.
"Not every book about LGBT Catholics has to be about sex," Martin said. "Ironically, these right-wing groups are obsessed about sex, not me."