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.