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.


Millennial’s Interview with Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego

At last month’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies conference on erroneous autonomy, Bishop Robert McElroy warned of “the growing imperialism of market mechanisms,” the technocratic paradigm, and populist nationalism. Bishop McElroy took a few minutes away from the conference to answer some questions from Millennial writer Daniel Petri on his speech and his analysis of contemporary American politics:


Climate Change Kills: An Interview with Nicholas Kristof

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently traveled to Madagascar to cover southern Africa’s drought and food crisis. In a powerful video and article, Kristof explains the link between climate change and starvation, while highlighting the important work being done by organizations like Catholic Relief Services. Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed him on his article and this issue:

Climate change has cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives and other environmental issues like pollution kill millions of people each year, but many seem to only think about polar bears or people hugging trees when they think about these issues. Your powerful video and article link starvation and climate change, showing the impact on real, vulnerable people. Do you think this type of storytelling can wake people up and shift some of these narratives and perceptions?

I hope so—that’s why I go to places like Madagascar, and bring video journalists. But it really is difficult to get people to engage in these issues far away, and I think images and real people’s stories are the best strategy to build that engagement.

What would you say to those who are skeptical that a direct link can made between climate change and dire humanitarian situations like the one you covered this week?

It’s true that it’s difficult to link any one event to climate change. Mostly we know that climate change causes more severe weather, including droughts, and makes extreme weather more likely, but it can be difficult to know that any one episode is the result of carbon emissions. In this case, we have meteorologists in a professional journal that I linked to who conclude that this drought is likely linked to climate change. But in general I’d emphasize that climate change increases risks of disasters, and we should try to reduce such risks.

Conservative parties in Europe and elsewhere accept the scientific consensus on climate change and favor action to combat it, while the Republican Party is a global outlier in terms of the strength of denialism among its elected officials. Part of the explanation may be that many conservative parties in Europe have been influenced by Catholic social teaching and the notions of responsibility toward creation that are integral to Christian Democracy, while American conservatism lacks that influence and tradition, having stronger philosophical roots in Social Darwinism, for instance. Given the interests of those who oppose action on climate change, along with these strong libertarian and extreme individualist currents in American conservatism, is there any reason to believe that Republicans might become more responsible like conservative parties in many other countries?

Attitudes can change, as we’ve seen with same-sex marriage, and I think the same will happen with climate change. As the evidence accumulates, as beach homes watch out to sea and catastrophes are reported abroad, I think political pressure will mount on the denialists.

As a pro-life progressive (who identifies as whole life), I consider food security and environmental issues to be profoundly important pro-life issues, as they involve injustices that kill millions of people of all ages each year. But many other people in the pro-life movement prefer to focus exclusively on unborn children. Do you think that the impact of climate change and malnutrition on children in utero, something you discuss in the article, can serve as a bridge to the pro-life movement, perhaps finding new ways to reach people who identify as pro-life and helping to build broader coalitions to tackle issues like poverty, food insecurity, and environmental degradation?

That’s an excellent idea, although it’s one that secular liberals are wary of, for fear of advancing a traditional pro-life agenda. But the evidence is overwhelming, from the Dutch Hunger and other episodes, that prenatal conditions have lifelong effects. My own view is that we should avoid climate disasters largely because of the effects on the living, but the impact on the unborn is real and will affect future generations.

You talked a little bit about the work you saw Catholic Relief Services doing. Could you describe the impact of some of their programs? Should Catholics be proud of the work this organization is doing in Madagascar?

CRS does excellent work in Madagascar, alleviating famine and also trying to help people adjust to a new climate—such as training farmers to try fishing. I’ve also seen CRS in other parts of the world and have always been impressed with its work. It has been a pioneer, for example, in promoting microsavings programs for women. So Catholics should definitely be proud of the work of CRS and of its sister organization, Caritas.


For the People Not the Powerful: An Interview with Senate Candidate Foster Campbell

Foster Campbell is the Democratic candidate in the final US Senate race in 2016, a contest to represent Louisiana. Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed him on his approach to politics and public policy:

You’ve said, “Matthew 25 is my guide post. I’m on the side of the least of these.” Responding to a question about how he might describe his political philosophy, FDR once said, “I am a Christian and a Democrat, that’s all.” Is that similar to how you might describe your approach? What role does your faith play in your approach to politics and commitment to siding with the poor and vulnerable?

I have always had a message and goals that transcend party. This isn’t a race about Republicans and Democrats. I also don’t wear my religion on my sleeve. There’s no wrong way to do the right thing. I just wake up in the morning, informed by faith, and armed with the facts and make decisions that I think will help regular people. Government has a role to play in making people’s lives better. You can’t starve prosperity out of our nation. I don’t know any other way to be than the way I am.

You tweeted that you agreed with Pope Francis—that climate change is real and Louisiana is feeling the effects. Why is this such an important issue for Louisiana and how will you make protecting the environment a priority?

We lose a football field of land every hour. I’m the only person in this race who will admit we have global warming and that humans play a role, at least in part, in causing it. We have a Master Coastal Restoration Plan aimed at restoring and protecting our coast, but it’s $50 billion short. I believe our coast is a national treasure. We are America’s gas station. There are common sense, science-driven policies that can keep our businesses running and repair our coast at the same time. If we continue to fail on this front, Louisiana will soon disappear. We are the first state in the nation who has had to relocate our people due to land loss – a direct result of climate change. I’m fighting for our Louisiana way of life. Without our coast, we can’t be who we are. I’m fighting for commercial and recreational fisherman, for people who work offshore drilling oil, for generations of our people who know our identity is intimately linked to our coast.

There is some talk about Republicans privatizing core entitlements programs, which you oppose. Why is privatizing Medicare and Social Security a mistake? Why should young people be concerned about such plans?

Republicans were against the GI Bill of Rights. Against Social Security. Against Medicare. Now that most of them benefit from the programs they think they’re great. Privatizing Medicare and Social Security allows the players in the stock market to gamble with the retirement security of the entire nation. I will never support selling Medicare or Social Security to Wall Street because it will lower benefits and could destroy our economy overnight if our seniors, or an entire generation of people, lose their benefits in a crash like 2008. Privatization usually does save money – by making us pay for it. I won’t balance our federal budget on the backs of hardworking people who paid into the system their whole lives. It’s immoral.  Read More


Journalism, Media, and Catholicism: An Interview with Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig

In case you missed it, Pope Francis’ prayer intention for the month of October was for journalists. In choosing this intention, the pope was challenging Catholics to be more reflective about how our participation in the common good is dependent on those who practice journalism as a profession. To explore this more, I reached out to Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, who is the assistant editor at PostEverything and Outlook for the Washington Post and will be a contributing writer for America, writing on religion, politics, and public life, starting in 2017.

14936880_1697331527250458_1806655523_nIn our interview, she discusses both how Catholicism informs her work and how she believes it should inform other Catholics in their efforts to bring about what Pope Francis calls “a culture of encounter”.

How do you see principles of Catholic social teaching informing your work?

We all have an obligation in our own work to pursue the common good. For journalists, I think about it in terms of advancing stories that are true, first and foremost, and that are relevant to the public interest. In my editing work, I try to seek out stories that I feel address issues that are being under-addressed.

The two sections I post in—Post Outlook and Everything—are very diverse sections. They are both devoted to having broad conversations. So, for example, since I know both the communities in the Catholic world and the specific political writers who write from a Catholic perspective, I try to seek out people from those groups to contribute pieces for us when relevant. For example, we have a Catholic medical student, Chris Landry, working on a story about how Zika warnings have caused abortion demand to far outpace what the likely incidence of microcephaly will really be. We’ve also invited  Charlie Camosy to write on the potential of a pro-life left.

In working on all of these stories, I feel like I am offering people an opportunity to see perspectives that they may not see very often.

What would you say about the importance of people reading about big picture events that may not directly relate to their own everyday experience? How do these larger questions still relate to our common good?

One of the things I really like about journalism looked at in terms of Catholic Social Teaching is that there is a subsidiarity principle at play. Local papers do a lot to keep ordinary people informed about what is going on in their particular town, and then larger papers like the Post or the Times take on the role of informing people of what is happening nationally or even globally.

These larger papers invite people to partake in the common good by keeping them informed about issues that are going on in other countries and that are affecting the globe, like climate change or Zika. For example, there’s a great piece coming in soon about corruption and climate change in Honduras. We also, of course, try to keep our readers informed about national conflict.

When we inform people about these things, we invite them to participate in the common good and common life of other countries and to even take action if they feel that it is needed. Read More


The Beginning of the End for the Death Penalty? An Interview with Karen Clifton

418502_365660183466630_1937407226_nAs voters in California and Nebraska get ready to determine the fate of the death penalty in their states next week, Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed Karen Clifton, the Executive Director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, which “proclaims the Church’s pro-life teaching and prepares Catholics for informed involvement in the public debate to end the death penalty and promote restorative justice”:

Proposition 62 in California, which would repeal the death penalty, looks to be a closely contested race. What would a victory in this race mean for the anti-death penalty cause?

The repeal in California would be big news for the repeal movement in the United States . Repeal in California would immediately remove a third of the death row population in this country. It would also send a strong message— due to the size of California and the diversity of its population—that the nation does not want or need the death penalty anymore. Many people say, so goes California, so goes the rest of the country.

Support for the death penalty has reached a 45-year low. What do you think accounts for this decline? Do you think this trend will be durable and that support will continue to decline?

We have the means to defend people from people who kill within our prison system.  A strong reason for the decline is the 156 exonerees.  One in nine of those  executed  have been proven to be innocent on death row. The system is beyond broken. The death penalty has a wide rippling effect.  The stories of friends and family members of the perpetrators and the victims, the prison personnel  and attorneys have changed hearts and minds. Victim’s family members are promised closure and peace with the death penalty and find the results only bring about another grieving family.  Victim’s families have made strong statements about how killing another person does not honor their loved one.  Using violence to teach violence is wrong and has not worked in our society. People are tired of violence and are in need of healing and a justice that is restorative to those affected by crime.

Despite declining support, the US remains an outlier among stable democracies in terms of our use of the death penalty. Why do you think that’s the case?

Most countries do not have access to guns and do not have the murder rates we do. Americans have been slow to learn from other nations who have focused on restoring people and addressing the issues of why people commit crimes in the first place.

Supporters of the death penalty argue that abolishing it means being soft on crime and that vulnerable populations actually suffer most from increased violent crime. How would you respond to those critics?

States that do not have the death penalty have a lower crime rate than those that do.  It has been proven that the crime rate goes up after an execution.  Not having the death penalty is not soft on crime.  Life without parole has been considered a much harsher punishment.  124 of those executed have elected to be killed rather than live on death row. Focusing on the rehabilitation of oneself is not an easy task.

If you were to meet with Hillary Clinton to discuss the death penalty, what would you say to her?

As a country, we need to strive to become better.  We are the only western country with this practice. It is expensive and diverts money from programs that could be used to assist the victims and those affected by the crime.  It fosters vengeance and does not promote healing, neither for the victim or their families nor the perpetrator or their families. We have a prison system that is able to protect society from those who kill.  The death penalty is disproportionately used on people of color, intellectually and mentally disabled, and those living in poverty.


Trump is the ‘Most Flawed Candidate Ever’: An Interview with John Kenneth White


John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America, who has written extensively on the American party system, elections, and the US presidency. His most recent book is What Happened to the Republican Party?: And What It Means for American Presidential Politics. Millennial writer Daniel Petri and editor Robert Christian asked him to share his thoughts on the 2016 presidential election:

What were you thoughts on the first debate?

I never saw anything like the first debate in my entire life!  It has been the custom that candidates are civil toward one another, even if they have had serious policy disagreements.  What we had here was a major party, the Republicans, nominating a candidate for the presidency who is the most unqualified, inept, and character-flawed candidate ever!  The debate was reality television meets presidential debate, and it wasn’t pretty.

How would you place Donald Trump’s candidacy in a historical context?

The most flawed candidate ever.  The closest analogy may be when the Republicans nominated another businessman, Wendell Willkie, who had been a former Democrat (like Trump) in 1940.  The difference is that Willkie was serious; Trump is not.

Do you think Catholics are going to swing heavily toward Hillary, as some polls suggest? If so (or not), why?

There is no Catholic vote.   Catholics do not bring their religious identity anymore into the voting booth.  There is an Hispanic vote (thanks to demography) that will swing heavily toward the Democrats.

Will this election continue the demographic trends we’ve been seeing in past elections or create a new dynamic?

Yes, the demographic trends established in 2008 and 2012 will continue, albeit in some modified form in 2016. The shifts in our political demography are inevitable and unchangeable. The only thing that can change is the parties’ response (especially the Republicans) toward them.  And by every measure, the GOP is in worse shape on this important factor than they were in 2012 (see the so-called autopsy report–officially named the Growth and Opportunity Project).

Do you have a prediction for election day?

Clinton.