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Nicholas P. CafardiJune 27, 2017

It is a courageous Catholic author, like James Martin, S.J., who asks his audience to bridge the chasm between the official church’s response to its L.G.B.T. members and the rejection and hurt that response has caused among these faithful. There is hardly a more neuralgic area in our ecclesiastical life. Stories abound of L.G.B.T. church workers, ministers of music and teachers being told that their services are no longer needed, that their very nature makes them unfit for work in the institutional church.

Building a Bridgeby James Martin, S.J.

HarperCollins. 160p, $19.99

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered.” This language creates an unfortunate ecclesiastical dissonance, but the same catechism also says that homosexuals must be treated with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Taking this as his keystone, Martin spends the first part of his book puzzling out how the institutional church could do that—build a bridge by treating the L.G.B.T. community with respect, compassion and sensitivity.

Respect, first of all, means calling people what they want to be called—hence Martin’s consistent use of the terms L.G.B.T., or gay or lesbian in his book.

Respect, first of all, means calling people what they want to be called—hence Martin’s consistent use of the terms L.G.B.T., or gay or lesbian in his book. The terms “homosexual persons” or “persons affected with same-sex attraction” don’t make it past the first arch on his bridge. But respect also requires honor, honor especially for the talents that the L.G.B.T. community brings to the church in the often unrecognized work that L.G.B.T. persons do in our schools, social service agencies, churches, rectories and chanceries.

Compassion, at its root, means to suffer with. Compassion, Martin writes, begins by listening to the stories that L.G.B.T. Catholics have to tell of rejection and humiliation by society and by the church; and compassion ends by standing up, publicly, against this discrimination. Just as the Lord, in so many of the stories we have of his life, protected the marginalized, the church must do the same. Compassion also asks that we treasure the L.G.B.T. community for who they are as individuals and for their continuing gifts to the church.

Compassion, at its root, means to suffer with.

To use a concept that Pope Francis emphasizes, sensitivity starts with accompaniment. The church must stop seeing the L.G.B.T. community as “other.” The argument that this is impossible for the church because before we can accompany our L.G.B.T. members we must reject their “sin,” is a non-starter. As Martin points out, the Lord did not call the centurion whose servant was sick a “pagan.” He cured the servant. He didn’t call the extortionist Zacchaeus up in the tree a “sinner,” but instead invited himself to Zacchaeus’s house for dinner, where a true conversion occurred. Sensitivity asks the institutional church to accompany L.G.B.T. persons where they are, as they are, as Christ would have done.

But you can cross bridges from either side. In the second part of his book, Martin changes lanes and describes how the L.G.B.T. community might build its side of the bridge: by treating the institutional church with the same level of respect, compassion and sensitivity.

The Western media has used the church’s opposition to the L.G.B.T. movement to pillory it, mocking bishops for their high life style, their high liturgical get-ups, accusing the church of hypocrisy, of condemning the L.G.B.T. lifestyle while harboring L.G.B.T. persons closeted in its institutional ranks. Martin asks if the L.G.B.T. community can see that participating in these tactics only worsens its relationship with the church. And while some hierarchs have a habit of sticking their feet in their mouths when they talk about L.G.B.T. issues, respect, rather than ridiculing, asks that the L.G.B.T. community try to understand what motivates these bishops, why the magisterium takes such positions and what can be done within the church about them.

Compassion asks the L.G.B.T. community to see the institutional church for what it is: finite men grappling with infinitely difficult problems[.]

Compassion asks the L.G.B.T. community to see the institutional church for what it is: finite men grappling with infinitely difficult problems, from how quickly the culture has changed around them to the dwindling number of Catholics who are willing to serve as its ministers or who actually practice the faith. This needs the gift of time. “Many Catholic leaders do stand with the L.G.B.T. community,” Martin points out. Compassion asks for patience for the rest.

As an example of sensitivity, Martin notes that some in the L.G.B.T. community criticized Pope Francis’s words in “The Joy of Love” condemning discrimination against L.G.B.T. persons because they did not go far enough. Be sensitive, Martin says, to the fact that the Holy Father is dealing with a worldwide audience, and that what might seem meek in America might sound absolutely revolutionary in Africa or Asia. Sensitivity also asks that we consider the source. Not everyone who works in the Vatican speaks for the church, and stray words from outspoken curial functionaries on L.G.B.T. issues are not the same as papal teaching.

After posting these road signs for building the bridge that will unite the institutional church with its L.G.B.T. members, Martin ends his book with meditations on 10 passages from the Gospels and the Psalms. It is a truism to say that Scripture is a phenomenal source of strength in difficult situations, but Martin’s scriptural meditations, which are as long as the bridge-building parts of his book, are exactly that. They are powerful and to the point, and they give his bridge its deep spiritual and theological underpinnings.

This is a bold book. It talks clearly and openly about an issue that daunts and taunts our church, and, in its well-reasoned way, it takes the hysterics out of the discussion. Some might complain that all Martin is writing about is a change of tone in the institutional church-L.G.B.T. relationship, when what is really needed is a change in church teaching. Perhaps. But changes in tone can lead to changes in teaching, and changes in teaching do not come easily in our church. Meantime, we owe it to each other to build this bridge with the mutual respect, compassion and sensitivity that Martin describes. And then we have to walk to its middle, not to encounter the “other,” but to meet ourselves on this bridge which is the church.

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