Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Jesuit priest wants to build bridges with LGBTs, Catholics


Father James Martin, S.J.
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For Father James Martin, S.J., the June 2016 nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida that killed 49 people was a defining moment. Although many church leaders expressed both sorrow and horror, only a handful of the more than 250 Catholic bishops did. Martin wrote, "Even in tragedy its members are invisible."

When, a few months later, New Ways Ministry, a Maryland-based gay-positive group that ministers to, and advocates for, LGBT Catholics, gave Martin its Bridge Building Award, he decided that in his acceptance speech he would sketch out an idea for a "two-way bridge" that might help bring together more understanding and conversation between the institutional church and the LGBT community.

He would urge the church to treat the LGBT community with "respect, compassion, and sensitivity" (a phrase from the catechism of the Catholic Church), and ask the LGBT community to reciprocate in these three virtues in its own relationship with the institutional church, "even when their own church at times feels like an enemy, as this is part of being a Christian, as hard as it is," he said.

Martin doesn't deny the church shouldn't be critiqued or challenged, but said that it should be done with "respect, compassion, and sensitivity, as good bridges take people in both directions."

Martin's new book, "Building A Bridge," is that talk slightly expanded into a longer essay, as well as a second section on biblical passages that have proved helpful for LGBT Catholics and brief reflections on those passages.

Martin, 56, recently gave two Skype lectures on his book at Most Holy Redeemer and St. Ignatius Catholic Churches in San Francisco, and was recently interviewed by the Bay Area Reporter.

While Martin's book has received critical praise in certain Catholic quarters, in other places he has been savagely attacked.

"Most of the vicious stuff has been from the far right. I think there are five reasons for this: 1) fear of the LGBT person as the 'other,' 2) hatred of LGBT people, 3) visceral disgust at same-sex relations, 4) theological opposition to welcoming LGBT people because that means church teaching might be changed, which is terrifying to them, and 5) most importantly is discomfort with their own sexuality, especially because a few of the critics from the far right are self-professed former gays," Martin said.

"Also," he added. "I'm a priest in good standing saying all these things, which drives some people to near hysteria, although 99 percent of people who respond to me are very grateful the topic is being raised."

Martin said his Jesuit superiors approved the book.

"Subsequent to the book's publication, Cardinal Blase Cupich (of Chicago) came out in support of one of the main proposals of my book, which is the church using words like 'gay' and 'LGBT,' because that is what they are asking to be called and people have a right to name themselves," Martin said, rather than phrases like same-sex attraction or homosexual persons used by bishops.

One of Martin's contentions is that few bishops know LGBTs. When asked if their priests coming out to them could facilitate this dialogue, Martin replied, "Yes, I do."

"However, there are several factors that often prevent them from doing that," he said. "First, bishops and religious order superiors ask them not to because often they are afraid that they will become a target or be misunderstood. Second, they themselves may not want to, as they are shy, afraid, or embarrassed. Third, some are conflicted about their own sexuality. I would estimate about 30 to 40 percent of priests are celibate, gay priests, a ballpark figure, and if they did come out, their parishioners would see how normal it is to be LGBT. It would also be an encouragement for lay LGBT Catholics themselves as they would have someone who understands what they have gone through, even if their life situations are different."

He said that he prefers not to make public his own sexuality.

Martin was also asked about whether LGBT people should "out" bishops and priests who have attacked them or been hurtful.

"I don't support outing, because you often don't know for sure if the person in question is gay, but even if you had definite proof, I would still say no, as to me it seems violent. I don't think anyone should be outed against their will," he said.

Martin said that many bishops oppose same-sex marriage because they see it as a threat.

"I think the irony here is that the real threat to marriage – and I'm not casting any aspersions here – is divorce," he said. "And if anything, you would expect the bishops to be more vocal about civil divorce and they are not. I think there may also be some lingering homophobia."


Criticized from the left

Martin's book has also been criticized from the left, especially for not dealing with the church changing its sexual ethics.

"The basic reason I did not address this issue is that the hierarchy and LGBT community are too far apart, with both sides clear on where they stand on sexual relations. I didn't want to get into a long, complicated discussion as I would rather focus on areas of commonality," Martin said. "If you want people to start to listen to each other, you don't start at the place where they are farthest apart. What the church needs to do is listen to LGBT people rather than talking at them, telling them what to do, and condemning them."

Martin agrees that his book is mild except for two proposals. One is updating the language about "intrinsically disordered" and calling LGBT people by the names they call themselves. Secondly, he calls for an end to the firing of LGBT men and women, "usually related to those employees who have entered into same-sex marriages, which is against church teaching, when one or the other partner has a public role in the church."

"If adherence to church teaching is going to be a litmus test for employment, then dioceses and parishes need to be consistent. Do we fire a straight man or woman who gets divorced and then remarries without an annulment?" Martin said. "Do we fire women who bear children out of wedlock, men who father children out of wedlock, or couples living together without being married? These actions are all against church teaching too, yet we don't fire people for such things. The problem is that this authority is applied in a highly selective way."

When it comes to bridge building, Martin said that bishops could go a long way by simply asking their LGBT parishioners what their lives are like.

"That's how basic it is at this point," he said. "One of my closest friends is a gay man who left a religious order and has been with his partner for 20 years. Mark has cared for his partner, who has a serious illness. The question to the church and bishops is: What can they learn about love from Mark and his partner?"

Martin said that an encounter with a transgender woman gave him an idea for church leaders. The woman said she had been married to her wife, a cisgender woman, for 20 years.

"I looked at them and asked, how is that possible because same-sex marriage has been legal for only a few years? She said, 'I married her when she was still a man.' What's so moving was the question that popped up in my mind, is: What can the church learn from them about fidelity? Here is a situation that, in church parlance, would be considered 'irregular' and yet they were faithful to each other," he said. "Also, transgender issues are new even for the secular left, so I'm not surprised it's taking the church a long time to reflect on this subject and grapple with it."

The key, Martin said, "is to listen to people's experiences, and in the absence of that, what we need is compassion, especially here when the stories are so heartbreaking."


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