Stepping out onto the bridge: Father James Martin responds to conversation surrounding his L.G.B.T. book
When I finished the manuscript of Building a Bridge, much of which focuses on bringing together L.G.B.T. Catholics and the institutional church, I told my editor that I could probably anticipate the reactions, both positive and negative. The positive reactions would likely be as follows: Some L.G.B.T. people, having long felt marginalized in their church, would be happy the topic was raised. Some church officials would welcome a book they could give to parishioners and use for L.G.B.T. groups. Happily, those responses have represented, so far, the lion’s share of the reactions.
Even easier to anticipate were the negative reactions: Some L.G.B.T. Catholics would say that I had not gone far enough. And some bishops, priests and lay Catholics would say I had gone too far. For the most part, those have characterized the approaches taken by those who have disagreed with the book.
Even negative reactions are part of the conversation that I hoped the book would generate about L.G.B.T. Catholics.
But even negative reactions are part of the conversation that I hoped the book would generate about L.G.B.T. Catholics. With that in mind, let me respond to three of the longer reviews, in the interest of continuing the conversation. For reasons of space, I will not respond to every point made, so let me reflect on the areas the reviewers seem to have felt most strongly about.
As I said, the negative reviews have taken the tack of either “too far” or “not far enough.” The Rev. Dwight Longenecker’s piece in Crux was even titled “A Bridge Too Far.” His first point, which sets the stage for the rest of his article, is that he finds the use of words like “gay” and “L.G.B.T.” to be unacceptable, in fact “degrading.”
For almost every L.G.B.T. person I know, however, using such nomenclature is an essential element of simple respect. Some traditionalist Catholics assiduously avoid and even criticize the use of these now-common terms. Why? Because such terms supposedly define people by their sexuality. Father Longenecker writes, “Catholics believe every person is greater than their sexual inclinations, and that it is degrading to identify a person only by their sexual urges.”
Fair enough: I believe that, too. So do many L.G.B.T. people, who are far more than simply their sexual orientations or identities. But let’s be clear: We do have to settle on some terminology for people who have felt excluded based on their sexual orientation or identity. So why not use what the group itself uses? To suggest otherwise is to arrogate to oneself the right to name someone. Groups, I believe, have a right to name themselves.
There is an overlooked irony here: The most common alternative used by Catholics like Father Longenecker is the term “same-sex attraction.” But this antiquated term does precisely the same thing that “L.G.B.T.” and “gay” are critiqued for doing—“identify a person only by their sexual urges.” (In fact, for good measure, “same-sex attraction” includes the word “sex.”) By that yardstick, it is hardly an improvement. I have always wondered if the resistance to “gay” and “L.G.B.T.” may stem from the fact that these terms are the ones preferred by L.G.B.T. people, and so using them is a form of “caving.”
If Pope Francis can say “gay,” so can the rest of us.
Nonetheless, if one persists in using a term that a person or a group finds outdated or offensive (imagine using “Negro” repeatedly with an African-American man or woman), it is going to be hard to dialogue. More to the point, if Pope Francis can say “gay,” so can the rest of us.
From the other end of the spectrum was a review in The Washington Post by Sally Kohn, titled “Is it Really Possible for the Catholic Church to Accept the LGBT Community?” As with Father Longenecker’s piece, the title telegraphs the author’s conclusion. In this reviewer’s eyes, the answer to the question is clearly no.
Ms. Kohn, who describes herself in the article as a “secular Jewish lesbian,” suggests, in her strongest critique, that asking L.G.B.T. Catholics to treat bishops and priests with respect, after years of harmful words and deeds, is “preposterous.”
I would never deny the great pain that many if not most L.G.B.T. Catholics have felt from the institutional church. But a fundamental part of Christianity is “loving your enemies,” and that surely includes respect. This is not to say that some bishops are the enemies of L.G.B.T. people; rather it is to recognize that is how the clergy sometimes seem to L.G.B.T. Catholics, who have often been made to feel like dirt in their own church. Just one example: Last month I received a note through my public Facebook page from a woman who knew a man who was dying in a hospice in the United States. After identifying the locale she asked if I knew a “compassionate priest nearby.” She was searching for one because the priest assigned to the hospice would not anoint the dying man—because the man was gay.
To be sure, the onus is on the institutional church to reach out, to take risks and to take the first steps along the bridge of reconciliation. Why? Because it is members of the hierarchy who have marginalized the L.G.B.T. community, not the other way around.
Still, love is everyone’s duty, because Jesus Christ calls for it. For any meaningful dialogue to begin, the virtues of “respect, compassion and sensitivity,” as outlined in the Catechism, are required from both sides. Not only because it is good strategy, but because both sides ground themselves in Jesus Christ.
The question of dialogue between L.G.B.T. Catholics and the institutional church cannot be seen strictly in “political” terms.
Moreover, the question of dialogue between L.G.B.T. Catholics and the institutional church cannot be seen strictly in “political” terms, as Ms. Kohn seems to do in her piece. Granted, our “intrachurch” discussion has ramifications beyond the Catholic world, but the discussion cannot be separated from questions of faith in God, companionship with Jesus Christ and trust in the Holy Spirit. A critique that does not work within this framework is going to come up short.
Overall, Father Longenecker’s response downplays the frequently wretched experiences of L.G.B.T. Catholics and their rightful place in the church, while Ms. Kohn’s downplays their religious convictions and the mystical nature of the church— which is more than a “locus for justice,” as she describes it. In short, one side downplays the suffering of L.G.B.T. Catholics, the other their faith.
By far the most thoughtful (but not uncritical) response, however, was from David Cloutier, assistant professor of theology at Catholic University of America, who wrote a review in Commonweal titled "The Ignatian Option." (He contrasted the book’s world-affirming tone with the world-denying tone of Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option.) I will skip over the areas where he agreed with the book (though I am grateful for his sympathetic and insightful read) and move to his three problems with my book.
The first problem is my desire to treat L.G.B.T. people as a “group” within the church. Prof. Cloutier suggests that they are a more diverse and complex group than the nomenclature “L.G.B.T.” suggests. That is, the lives of gay men are different from, say, transgender people. That’s an important observation. But my point was not that L.G.B.T. Catholics are all the same (or that that label is comprehensive) but that many have faced similar problems in the church: prejudice and exclusion based on sexual orientation and identity.
He also suggests that the group is markedly different from other groups in the church that do not “inherently raise key issues about church teaching.” In that sense, he says, L.G.B.T. people are different from, for example, Catholic business leaders.
I would respectfully challenge that. Surely when many of us think of L.G.B.T. Catholics we think of the church’s prohibition of homosexual activity, as outlined in the Catechism. But that does not mean that the mere presence of an L.G.B.T. group challenges church teaching.
In fact, this is one of the problems that we have gotten ourselves into. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that you had a group of gay high school students who had been bullied and harassed, and a parish wanted to celebrate a special Mass for them. Would their mere presence be a challenge to church teaching? We have an unfortunate tendency to view L.G.B.T. issues purely through the prism of only one of the Catechism’s teachings on homosexuality—its prohibition on sexual expression—rather than through the experiences of L.G.B.T. people as human beings. We tend to view them as a category of people who present a theological problem rather than as individuals with a graced history. I know that Prof. Cloutier does not wish to negate their pain, but it is important to see them as not inherently presenting a “problem.”
In many ways the Catholic Church is today where the rest of Western society was in the 1990s.
Prof. Cloutier’s second objection is that the book reads as if it were addressed to issues dating from the 1990s, and specifically what he calls “socio-political” situation of that time. That is an interesting comment, because it reminds us of how far our secular society has come since then. But in many ways the Catholic Church is today where the rest of Western society was in the 1990s. While many sociopolitical entities are accepting of L.G.B.T. people, in many places in the church that is not the case. (Think of that example in the hospice I mentioned earlier.)
At least that is how I understand this objection. Prof. Cloutier also suggests that many Protestant churches tried “bridge building” in the past and failed. What, he asks, makes me think that it will succeed now? Well, hope. And the fact that something has changed in the Catholic Church since the 1990s: the number of people who have come out.
The number of Catholics who have come out since the 1990s has been notable, if not staggering. An example may help: A few months ago, I was giving a talk at Yale University’s Catholic center. At the book signing afterward, an elderly woman approached me. I suspected that she might tell me that she had, say, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Instead she leaned over and said, “Father, my grandchild is transgender, and I love her so much and want her to feel part of our church.”
In the 1990s, this elderly Catholic might not have given transgenderism (or L.G.B.T. issues) a second thought. Now it touches her in a personal way. (One could argue that the same is true for some mainstream Protestant denominations, but I think Catholics have lagged, in large part because of the formal opposition, from many church leaders, to L.G.B.T. groups.) As more Catholics are affected, more parishes will be. As more parishes are, more priests will be. As more priests are, more bishops will be. And so on. I believe the explosion of L.G.B.T. Catholics “coming out” and claiming their identities will lead to a growing desire among the entire People of God for welcome, and for what Pope Francis calls “encounter.”
Since the desire for “encounter” is a work motivated by the desire for truth and culminating in the desire for welcome, it must be seen as a work of the Holy Spirit.
Encounter is also not something to dismiss as out of date, tired or stale. Rather, the rapidity of L.G.B.T. acceptance in our society is relatively new. After all, same-sex marriage has been legal nationally for only two years. That acceptance has been driven largely by encounter—between gay children and their parents, lesbian workers and their bosses, and so on. Such encounters in the church, in which an openly gay or lesbian Catholic is honest with their priest or bishop about their identity, would still be quite novel, and even radical, in some circles. The results, I argue, would be fruitful for the church.
And fundamentally, since the desire for “encounter” is a work motivated by the desire for truth and culminating in the desire for welcome, it must be seen as a work of the Holy Spirit.
Prof. Cloutier’s final comment is easier to answer, even if it refers to his strongest objection. Building a Bridge, he says, never mentions sex, specifically the church’s ban on homosexual activity. That was intentional.
Intentional because the Catholic Church’s stance on the matter is clear: Sexual relations between people of the same sex are impermissible. At the same time, the L.G.B.T. community’s stance on the matter is clear: Same-sex relations are part and parcel of their lives. (I am leaving out the relatively small portion of the L.G.B.T. community that thinks otherwise.) Theologically speaking, you could say that this teaching has not been “received” by the L.G.B.T. community, to whom it was directed.
So I intentionally decided not to discuss that question, since it was an area on which the two sides are too far apart. (Also, I am no moral theologian and did not want to enter into a discussion about church teaching on sexual activity.) “Martin is careful never to call magisterial teaching into question,” Prof. Cloutier writes. That is correct.*
Nonetheless, I hope that one of the contributions of the book is to show how much a Jesuit priest can and will say, with the formal approval of his religious superiors and the endorsement of two cardinals and a bishop. More to the point, I hope the book shows how much in our Catholic tradition, particularly the Gospels, points us forward to a culture of radical welcome. The central assertion of the book—that for Jesus is there is no us and them, there is only us—does not need approval.
To sum up, I would like to offer an overall critique of Prof. Cloutier’s thoughtful critique, which is that he seems to have concluded that the possibility of welcome for L.G.B.T. Catholics depends more on agreement than encounter. My overall goal was not to win an argument but to help start a conversation and create a space for church officials who want to reach out to L.G.B.T. people, and for L.G.B.T. Catholics who want to know that they have a place in the church.
Like Pope Francis, I believe those kinds of encounters will lead to listening and friendship. I believe that such encounters will be led by the Holy Spirit. And I believe that all of this will lead to greater inclusion for L.G.B.T. Catholics in their own church.
Correction, June 19: Sally Kohn's last name was initially misspelled in this text.
*Correction, June 20: Due to an uploading error, the starred paragraph was not included with this text at the time of publication.