Building a Bridge Between the Church and the LGBT Community: An Interview with Fr. James Martin

This month, Fr. James Martin released Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. Cardinal Kevin Farrell, Prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, called it “a welcome and much-needed book that will help bishops, priests, pastoral associates, and all church leaders, more compassionately minister to the LGBT community.” Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego said it “provides us the language, perspective, and sense of urgency to undertake the arduous but monumentally Christlike task of replacing a culture of alienation with a culture of merciful inclusion.”

Christopher White has a good interview with Fr. Martin at Crux, and Jesuitical has another good one—which together provide a helpful overview of the central themes in the book. Below, you can find Millennial editor Robert Christian’s interview with Fr. James Martin on some key issues from the book and other issues the book raises:

So many millennials have grown up with friends or family members who are openly gay and the treatment of these friends and family members is very important to them, as of course, it deeply matters to gay, lesbian, and transgender young people. What do you think the type of bridge building that you describe in the book would mean for millennials (in general) and their relationship with the Church?

What you described is one of the most surprising things for me, as I gain more experience with LGBT ministry.  First of all, the more people who are open about their sexuality and identity, the more Catholics will be impacted—families and friends of LGBT people.  So it’s a much broader issue than I had imagined.

But the other surprise has been precisely what you describe: for most millennials the question of LGBT acceptance is virtually a non-issue.  Most millennials I know say, “Of course I accept them!  Of course I love them!  Of course they belong in the Church!”  And they are often appalled at the language they hear coming from church officials.  Some of them have told me that one reason they’ve left the Church is over this topic—even if they’re straight.  So the bridge that I describe—bringing together LGBT Catholics and the institutional church—is for some of them the last causeway to the Church.  Otherwise, they don’t want to be a part of a church that they feel is either homophobic or in any way unwelcoming.

How should the bishops respond to the far-right groups that hunt down gay employees at Catholic institutions in order to pressure these institutions to fire them?

First of all, I’m clear in the book that I don’t think church organizations should be firing LGBT employees.  For the simple reason that the requirement to adhere to Church teaching seems to be applied only to them.  We don’t fire divorced and remarried Catholics who have not gotten annulments, or women who have children out of wedlock, or people who use birth control, which are all against Church teaching.  The question of adherence to Church teachings is enforced in a highly selective way, which is, to my mind, a sign of what the Catechism calls “unjust discrimination.”

And regarding the far-right groups that, as you rightly say, “hunt down” LGBT employees?  I think the bishops should ignore them.  These groups, often very minuscule in terms of membership, are usually less concerned about an overall application of Church teaching—after all, when did they hunt someone down for not serving the poor, for not being forgiving, for not being a loving person?—than with simply ferreting out and persecuting LGBT people.   I find their tactics reprehensible.

I think you make a very persuasive case for using terms like gay and lesbian rather than more formal terms “homosexual persons,” but should there be limits to how much the Church—from its pastors to its formal documents—affirms the use of other terms like pansexual or polysexual? At any point does a certain expressive individualism, in terms of boundaryless self-identification, collide with the Church’s understanding of the nature of the human person in a way that merits drawing distinctions among the various terms used in the LGBT community?

That’s a good question.  Our most fundamental identity is as beloved children of God, baptized Christians, and members of the Catholic Church.  All of that precedes sexual identity and orientation.  As for the use of particular terms, I know this is a hotly contested question.  The acronym LGBTQ seems to change almost weekly.  In fact, just last night I asked a gay man and a lesbian woman about this phenomenon and they both said, “We can’t keep up with all the changes.” So we are seeing a revolution in the way that people understand and identify themselves.  But nothing of the human experience should be foreign to the Church, and so the Church needs to meditate deeply on this aspect of human experience.  At the same time, our fundamental identities as children of God, baptized Christians, and members of the Catholic Church need to be held onto.

But I’ll be honest: I don’t think I understand enough about the fluidity of sexuality, or the ins and outs of psychology, or the current terminology, to be able to pronounce on that question with any confidence. My basic attitude though is that when confronted with something you don’t understand in a person’s life, you are called to listen to their experiences, see it in the light of the Gospels and Church teaching, and then come to some understanding of how to accompany this person.  But first comes listening.

Same sex marriage is now a fundamental issue for the LGBT community. Does the Church’s position on it create a wall that makes certain bridge building impossible or extremely difficult to achieve?

Not as I see it.  You’re correct in saying that this is a barrier to bridge building.  The institutional church and much of the LGBT community are miles apart on this.  The same is true for the Church’s prohibition on same-sex relations (that is, the Church’s teaching on sexual activity between people of the same sex).  For the Church, it is simply impermissible, for the LGBT community, simply a given.

So yes, it’s something of a barrier.  But I prefer to focus on the areas of commonality: the desire to conform one’s life to Christ, the desire to participate in the sacramental life of the Church, the desire for Christian community.  And the first steps I’m asking for, “respect, compassion and sensitivity,” virtues outlined in the Catechism, call mainly for an open heart.  That’s something I think everyone can carry along, as they walk along the bridge.

The call for the Church to do more about violence directed at people in the LGBT community, in places like Chechnya and Uganda, for instance, and the bullying, depression, and suicide rates here in US seems like a critical starting point. In practical terms, what can the Church—its people and the hierarchy—do on these issues?     

First of all, speak up.  The Gospels impel us to stand with those who are being persecuted in any way.  I don’t know how much clearer Jesus could be: he sided with those who were on the margins.  Catholic social teaching urges us to understand the meaning of “solidarity.”  And the Catechism asks us to resist any forms of “unjust discrimination” directed against LGBT people.  So in places where LGBT people are being actively persecuted, the Church should stand with them, publicly.  Other issues can clearly be seen in the light of Church teaching.  What is suicide among gay teens other than a “life issue”?

So we need to make LGBT people feel visible and valuable. We need to let them know that they are beloved children of God who are as much a part of the church as the pope, their local bishop, and me.  We need to listen to them and enter the mystery of their lives.  We need to accompany them.  We need to stick up for them when needed.  We need to be compassionate to them.  And we need to let them evangelize us.  In a word, we need to love them.

Seeing the Truth of Laudato Si in Antarctica

Millennial writer Christopher White has a new article at Crux. He writes:

But the Antarctica to be discovered today is one quite different than the one that was found by the early explorers. Today it is under siege-not from nations seeking to plunder it, but from the ravages of climate change. The West Antarctic Peninsula is considered to be one of the most rapidly warming areas on earth, with the European Space Agency estimating an unprecedented rise of more than 4 degrees in the past fifty years.

The forces of climate change that imperil the continent have global ramifications that must be reckoned with, too. Ninety percent of ice on planet earth is found in Antarctica and earlier this year it was reported that a massive crack has occurred in the Antarctic ice sheet, likely to break off in a matter of weeks or months.

That ice will eventually float into the ocean and melt, resulting in what could be a devastating rise in the sea level. As a New Yorker who lived through the havoc of Hurricane Sandy, I know this was just an appetizer for what the world will endure if we fail to take the effects of climate change seriously….

Incidentally, I set sail for Antarctica just weeks after the world continued to process the unlikely victory of Donald Trump. On our boat, the aftershocks of the election season filled many of my conversations with fellow passengers from around the globe-and with the backdrop of Antarctic grandeur-I couldn’t help but to ponder the question Francis posed: “What kind of world do we want to leave those who come after us?”

For far too long, those of us in the Western world-both collectively and individually-have lived lives defined by greed and boundless consumption with a selfish shortsightedness toward the generations that will follow our own. The Paris Climate Agreement of December 2015 offered a first step to reversing this pattern but that too is now under siege. A radical change in our policies and our personal ways of living is needed.

Cardinal Turkson on Economic Injustice, the Refugee Crisis, Creation Care

Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, recently spoke at Georgetown University.

You can watch the full video here:

And here are a few highlights:

Wonder Woman’s Quest for Justice, Love, and Peace

Meghan Clark has a new article at America:

I am a theologian who knows well the experience of being the only woman at the table. “Wonder Woman” beautifully captures the intensity and frustration of this experience, as well as the feeling of greater responsibility for those not allowed in the room….

In the Gospels, one of Jesus’ most radical choices is his use of women as witnesses. From Mary Magdalene to the Samaritan Woman at the Well, Jesus trusts women to tell his story. In fact, if it were not for female witnesses, preserving an account of the crucifixion and resurrection would have been quite difficult as it was the women who did not flee. Unfortunately, women’s space in the Gospel narratives has not been celebrated for much of Christian history. The most blatant distortion is the maligning of Mary Magdalene as a repentant prostitute, a claim with no grounding in Scripture. Her strength and witness in otherwise male cultural and religious spaces were less threatening if she could be reduced to a female stereotype…

In many ways, it felt as if the hopes and frustrations of an entire gender rested upon Wonder Woman’s shoulders this weekend. It is an impossible standard for any individual movie or woman to live up to. Gal Gadot’s portrayal of Diana captures this vulnerability and frustration. She is motivated by a deep desire for justice, love and peace. She wants to kill Ares to rid the world of conflict. Ultimately, she realizes that she cannot achieve that goal. The path laid out for her was not possible, and instead, she finds hope and beauty in humanity despite the darkness that looms beneath. Real strength is ultimately not power over others but power in the service of love and justice. She cannot rid the world of all conflict, but she continues to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.