The Catholic Church and the LGBT Community: An Interview with Father James Martin, SJ

By Dan Clendenin

Rev. James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America magazine, and bestselling author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, and Between Heaven and Mirth. Father Martin has written for many publications, including the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and he is a regular commentator in the national and international media. He has appeared on all the major radio and television networks, as well as in venues ranging from NPR’s Fresh Air, FOX’s The O’Reilly Factor, and PBS’s NewsHour to Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report.

This interview appeared in The Jesuit Post, July 24 and 31, 2017, and is used by permission.

TJP: Your book Building a Bridge; How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity (New York: HarperOne, 2017) has garnered a great deal of attention. What has that reception been like for your personally? Has anything about the reception surprised you?

Martin: The word that comes to mind is intense. The book has garnered some intense reactions. The most common are from LGBT people I’ve met at parish talks — in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts — who cry when they talk to me or want to give me a hug. And the size of the crowds has also taken me aback. I think we had something like 700 people at St. Cecilia’s in Boston a few days after the book came out.

At first this really confused me. Because, frankly, the book is pretty mild. It doesn’t challenge any church teaching (it’s been approved by my provincial and endorsed by two cardinals, after all) and it doesn’t call for anything revolutionary. Its overarching theme is welcome, encounter and dialogue. Certainly those are things that people must have heard before. A diocesan priest friend of mine read the book, and said with a laugh, “Don’t take this the wrong way, Jim, but I read the book and wondered what all the fuss was about!”

It took a while to figure out the reason for the crowds and to understand the incredibly intense emotional reactions. I suspect it may come from hearing a priest saying these things. Seeing someone in a collar say these things, even if they are mild, may be new for people. It serves to remind me that there is still a hunger among LGBT Catholics for welcome from their own church. And when you’re in a collar that’s who you’re representing.

Another surprise has been the emotional reaction of parents and grandparents in particular. When I wrote the book, I imagined the target audience as two groups: LGBT Catholics and church officials. My aim was to build a bit of a bridge between them. But as more and Catholics are public about their sexuality and identity, the issue affects more Catholic families — parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, and so on. I think that group has also felt for a long time the desire to be embraced by the church. So ministry to LGBT people is ministry to a much larger portion of the church than I imagined.

At the same time, the book has driven a few people, mainly online, into near hysteria. There have been some incredibly hateful comments from some websites; and the anger, contempt and ad hominem attacks have surprised me. Mind you, this goes beyond disagreement about the book and crosses into pretty clear homophobia, contempt and hatred. But I guess that’s what this community has had to deal with for many years.

Image for post
Image for post

TJP: Your book has a specific goal: to encourage respectful, compassionate and sensitive dialogue between the LGBT community and the Catholic Church. It often seems that your critics, however, wanted something different from you — and tend to judge the book in light of their own goals. What are their goals? What have you learned from critics of your book? Have they shown you other bridges that need to be built?

Martin: That’s a good point. I told my publisher early on that I could probably anticipate the critiques from both sides. From some in the LGBT community it would be, “Not far enough.” From some in the institutional church, “Too far.”

As you point out, a lot of reviewers review the book that they wish had been written. Some reviewers wanted a book that said that the LGBT Catholics should never deal with the church, or never approach bishops with respect, which is a ridiculous position to take if you’re a Christian. Certainly they’ve been hurt, but reconciliation is always part of the Christian worldview. And some wanted a book that simply excoriated LGBT Catholics, or told them over and over and over how sinful they were, which I was also not going to do.

What are their goals? Among some on the far left, it seems to be a complete rejection of the church. Among some on the far right, it seems to be a complete rejection of LGBT people. What have I learned? That there can be common ground among people of reason and charity, but finding common ground with people with closed minds is harder. As for other bridges, I think that those who continually condemn LGBT people need to meet a few of them.

TJP: Explaining why you didn’t talk at length in your book about Church teaching on sexuality, you noted in a July 14 article that, “Theologically speaking, you could say that these teachings have not been “received” by the L.G.B.T. community, to whom they were directed. So I intentionally did not focus on those topics, since not only are those teachings well known, but they are also areas on which the two sides are too far apart. I preferred to focus on areas of possible commonality.”

What do you mean by “received” here? To what do you attribute this failure of reception? Is your approach of respect, compassion and sensitivity intended to ease that reception? What would do so?

Martin: To take a theological perspective, a teaching must be “received” by the faithful. It’s a complex topic (and I am no professional theologian) but, in general, for a teaching to be complete it must be appreciated, accepted and understood by the faithful. The tradition is that the faithful possess their own inner sense of the authority of a teaching. That’s the sensus fidei or sensus fidelium. You can find out more about it in the Vatican document Sensus Fidei. Here’s a quote that’s helpful:

The sensus fidei fidelis is a sort of spiritual instinct that enables the believer to judge spontaneously whether a particular teaching or practice is or is not in conformity with the Gospel and with apostolic faith.

This has always been part of church teaching. In any event, it seems like the majority of the LGBT Catholic community does not agree with the church’s teaching on same-sex relations: that is, they are impermissible. From what many LGBT people tell me, that particular teaching doesn’t fit with their own experiences as human beings who love and are loved. So that teaching, it seems, has not been “received” by the LGBT community, which is the community most affected by it.

Here’s an example: a longtime friend of mine named Mark was in a religious order for a few years (not the Jesuits). After he left, he came out as a gay man, and entered into a relationship with another man. For the last 20 or so years, they’ve been together and Mark has also cared for him through a serious, long-term illness. So one question for the church is: Is that a form of love?

Thus, the “respect, compassion and sensitivity” that I’m calling for means that a bishop or church official would be open to meeting Mark, and his partner, and hearing what they have to say about their experience of love, and their receptivity to that teaching. That’s part of the bridge. What could a bishop learn from Mark? And what could Mark learn from a bishop?

TJP: In your book Building a Bridge and in many subsequent comments, you note that LGBT Catholics are often singled out in ways that other groups are not, noting, for instance, that people who do not always and everywhere love the poor are not publicly singled out. What are you trying to show with such examples?

Martin: What I’m trying to show is straightforward: that they are often the only group whose sexual morality, or morality in general, is placed under a microscope. For example, we don’t have bishops issuing documents on why someone who is divorced and remarried without an annulment cannot receive a Catholic burial. We don’t have priests thundering from the pulpit about couples living together before marriage. We don’t have Catholic schools firing people who have children out of wedlock. These days it’s mainly LGBT people who are targeted. Why just them? That’s the question. To me, it’s a sign of what the Catechism calls “unjust discrimination,” something we are supposed to avoid.

More basically, if adherence to church teaching is going to be a litmus test for employment in Catholic institutions, then parishes and dioceses need to be consistent. We need to ask people to adhere to all church teachings, not just those that focus on LGBT issues. Those would include Gospel values: caring for the poor, loving one another, forgiving one another. The “weightier matters of the law,” as Jesus would say. When I say this, the response is often that same-sex marriage is a “public scandal.” But I’d suggest that someone working in one of our institutions who is cruel or vindictive is also a scandal. And it is quite public.

TJP: Within the United States, many identify the promotion of tolerance and respect for LGBT persons with the political (and often secular) Left. How can the US Church make the loving acceptance of LGBT persons a non- or even trans-partisan issue?

Martin: Good question. It’s surprising to me that tolerance is sometimes seen as an issue of the “left.” Because not only do I know a few intolerant people on the left, but Christians on the “right” are also (obviously) committed to the Gospels. Moreover, part of Christian love is respect. What I’m calling for is a meditation on the ways that Jesus approached people who felt that they were on the margins: first, by welcoming them. So the key is, as always, inviting people to meditate on the ways that Jesus approached things. And that is indeed trans-partisan. Jesus transcends those categories.

TJP: Tell us about the Scriptural meditations in your book. What led you to include them?

Martin: For many years I’ve done — like many Jesuits, priests and religious, and lay pastoral workers — a kind of “informal ministry” with LGBT people. And I’ve found that some passages from Scripture have consistently been helpful for LGBT people who are struggling with their faith. Psalm 139 (“I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made”) is one of them. It’s such a powerful tool for people, and helps unlock things for them in prayer.

Likewise, I wanted to include selected passages from the New Testament that I feel can help people gain insight into the ways that Jesus treated people who felt marginalized in his time — like the story of the Roman centurion’s servant, and Jesus’s encounter with Zacchaeus. In the book, I invite readers to use some of the practices of Ignatian contemplation with these passages. What might God want to tell us in our prayer?

And here’s something strange I’ve noticed: almost every reviewer has ignored the entire second half of the book — the Scripture meditations and invitation to prayer. It’s baffled me. When else does someone review only half of a book? And I’m not sure why that is. On the secular left, perhaps they cannot enter into a conversation about spirituality, or they think it’s useless. On the far right, perhaps they cannot admit that these passages might have something new to say to us about LGBT people. When I’m feeling in a darker mood, I wonder if it’s because a few on the far right feel that LGBT people can’t have a spiritual life.

In any event, if you read most reviews, it’s as if I only wrote one half of the book. Very strange. And for me, the second half is by far the more important part. Because the first part is an invitation to dialogue, but the second part is an invitation to prayer.

TJP: How do the sacraments figure in this bridge-building?

Martin: Immeasurably. And, as I see it, the most essential sacrament in this discussion is baptism, for both groups: LGBT Catholics and church officials.

Often LGBT Catholics are told that they don’t belong in the church. And I remind them of their baptism. I love the line from the Catechism: “Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life.” It is the “gateway to life in the Spirit,” in another beautiful phrase. Its importance cannot be overestimated. Baptism incorporates us into the Church. So our tradition couldn’t be clearer. It’s important to root LGBT Catholics in the fact that Jesus Christ himself called them into the church.

At the same time, it’s sometimes good to remind those who work in official capacities in the church — clergy and lay alike — that LGBT Catholics are not only full Catholics by virtue of their baptism, but they have essential gifts to bring to the church, as all baptized Catholics do. Jesus called them into the church for their salvation, but also to enrich the church by their presence.

TJP: As we have seen with the disputes over Amoris Laetitia, it is easy in controversies over sexuality to pit love against truth, with the group preaching tolerance holding to “love” and the group preaching orthodoxy holding to “truth.” How do you see yourself holding the two together?

Martin: Well, I don’t hold them together; they are held together in Jesus, who is truth and who is love. So there is no real pitting anything against anything else. Our orthodoxy, as well as our orthopraxis, is love, and that is the truth of who we are.

That’s why I continually return to the Gospels. You cannot go wrong following what Jesus did. And yes, I know that the Gospels have to be interpreted, and that people may disagree on those interpretations and applications, but for me some things are clear. For example, Jesus was open to encountering people on the margins, he was open to listening to them, and he always led with welcome.

But overall, all these things are held together in Jesus Christ. And as a Jesuit, everything I do, including the work with this book, is grounded in him. Everything.

See here for our Journey with Jesus weekly webzine for the global church. All free, all the time.

Written by

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store