Father James Martin answers 5 common questions about ‘Building a Bridge’
Building a Bridge, a book about L.G.B.T. Catholics and their church, has generated a good deal of conversation, commentary and critique—in print, online and in parish settings. In the interest of continuing the conversation, I would like to respond to the most common questions and critiques.
1. Why didn’t you mention church teaching on same-sex relations and same-sex marriage?
The short answer is that I did mention those teachings in my book. But I think the real question is: Why didn’t I mention them more?
That was intentional. The church’s stance on these matters is clear: Sexual relations between people of the same sex are impermissible, as is same-sex marriage. But these are teachings that every single L.G.B.T. Catholic knows and have been told about over and over. In fact, sometimes these prohibitions are the only thing that Catholics know about L.G.B.T. issues.
At the same time, the L.G.B.T. community’s stance on those teachings is clear: Same-sex relations are part and parcel of their lives. (I am leaving out the small portion of the L.G.B.T. community that thinks otherwise.) Theologically speaking, you could say that these teachings have not been “received” by the L.G.B.T. community, to whom they were directed. So I intentionally did not focus on those topics, since not only are those teachings well known, but they are also areas on which the two sides are too far apart. I preferred to focus on areas of possible commonality.
2. Why are you so intent on using words like “gay” and “L.G.B.T.”?
Another common critique concerns the invitation to move away from terms like “same-sex attraction” in favor of terms the L.G.B.T. community uses. The critique is that terms like “gay” and “L.G.B.T.” identify people solely by their orientations. And Catholics are, as one reviewer said, “greater than their inclinations.”
I believe that, too. So do many L.G.B.T. people, who are more than their orientations or identities. But we do have to settle on terminology for people who have felt excluded based on their sexual orientation or identity. Why not use the words that the group uses to describe itself? To do otherwise is to arrogate to oneself the right to name someone else. But groups have a right to name themselves.
L.G.B.T. people are more than their orientations or identities.
There is an irony here: The most common alternative is “same-sex attraction.” But this antiquated term does the same thing that “L.G.B.T.” and “gay” are critiqued for doing—identifying 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 always wonder if the resistance to “gay” and “L.G.B.T.” is because these are the terms preferred by L.G.B.T. people, so using them is a form of “caving.” Nonetheless, if one persists in using a term that a group finds outdated or offensive it is going to be hard to dialogue at all. Besides, if Pope Francis can say “gay” so can the rest of us.
3. When you talk about “conversion” in your book what do you mean?
In many Gospel stories, we see Jesus welcoming people, who then feel moved to conversion. One example is the story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho, who would also have been considered the chief sinner. As Jesus passes through Jericho, Zacchaeus climbs a tree to get a better look. And Jesus, rather than condemning him, offers to come to his house, a sign of welcome. In return, Zacchaeus promises to repay anyone he has defrauded. For Jesus here, it is community first, conversion second.
If Pope Francis can say “gay” so can the rest of us.
That is a great story for L.G.B.T. Catholics who feel like they are on the margins, like Zacchaeus did. It is also a great story for church officials because it reminds us to welcome first. But what kind of conversion are L.G.B.T. Catholics called to? The kind that we are all called to. I do not mean to single them out as sinful, either, because we are all sinners. Rather, it is to point out that they often feel as marginalized as Zacchaeus did. And that an encounter with Jesus can move us to a conversion of minds and hearts. (And, by the way, I am not talking about “conversion therapy” either.) Overall, we should lead with welcome, as Jesus did.
4. How can you ask the L.G.B.T. Catholics to treat the church with “respect, compassion and sensitivity”?
I should have been clearer about this in the book. The onus for bridge building is on the institutional church—clergy and church officials, including lay people. Because it is the institutional church that has marginalized the L.G.B.T. community, not the other way around. But we are all called to be respectful of one another, including L.G.B.T. Catholics in the relationship with the hierarchy. Why? Because we are all Christians.
Yes, it can be a tough pill for L.G.B.T. people who have been ignored, insulted and excluded in the church. But this is coming from Jesus, not from me. Even if you still think that some church leaders are your enemies, you are asked to love them and pray for them. Surely that love includes respect. It is hard but it is Christian.
5. What do you expect to happen next?
The former Jesuit superior general Pedro Arrupe was once asked, “Where is the Society of Jesus going?” His responded, “I have no idea!” The Holy Spirit is in charge. I cannot predict where this call for bridge building will go. But I have some ideas where it could go: listening sessions with L.G.B.T. Catholics; bishops no longer firing L.G.B.T. people; pastors including their stories and struggles in homilies. Mainly, it would mean all levels of church leadership helping them to feel welcome.
One reviewer wrote that I am “excessively optimistic.” Well, guilty as charged. I am excessively optimistic because I believe in the Holy Spirit. Let the conversation continue.