Father James Martin: "Respect, compassion and sensitivity” for gay Catholics

Father James Martin: “Respect, compassion and sensitivity” for gay Catholics

Father James Martin: “Respect, compassion and sensitivity” for gay Catholics

Gay-rights activists outside the Capitol building in Jefferson City, Missouri, in 2016. (Credit: Jeff Roberson/AP.)

Jesuit Father James Martin says the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting at a gay nightclub which killed 49 people prompted him to write more forcefully and more formally about LGBT Catholics and the Church and how they can be made to feel more welcome.

In his much anticipated new book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity, Father James Martin, SJ, seeks to end the “us” versus “them” mentality that has long divided LGBT Catholics and the institutional Church.

Martin, a popular spiritual writer and editor-at-large of America, has long been engaged in ministry with LGBT Catholics, however, last year’s Orlando nightclub massacre prompted him to want to do and say more.

On the heels of his new appointment as a consultor to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications, Martin’s book has received advanced praise from high-ranking Cardinals and bishops, both in the United States and in Rome.

Cardinal Kevin Farrell, Prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, has said it is a “Welcome and much-needed book that will help bishops, priests, pastoral associates, and all church leaders, more compassionately minister to the LGBT community.”

In advance of the book’s release on June 13, Martin spoke with Crux contributor Christopher White at America’s headquarters in New York.

White: This book is being released right around the one-year anniversary of the Orlando nightclub massacre, which directly targeted the gay community and killed 49 individuals. Why is this a significant backdrop for the book?

The Orlando massacres prompted me to write more forcefully and more formally about LGBT Catholics and the Church. I had for some years been doing informal ministry with LGBT Catholics, who would come to me for spiritual direction, counseling, or just to ask questions after talks or retreats.

When I noticed that only a few bishops in this country mentioned the words gay or LGBT after Orlando, it seemed revelatory to me as an institutional Church we are uncomfortable talking about LGBT Catholics. Around that same time, New Ways Ministry invited me to accept their Bridge Building Award, and that became the opportunity for me to reflect on what would become the basis for this book.

But it was really the massacres that allowed me to become more open about my advocacy for LGBT Catholics, as well as my advocacy for reconciliation within the Church.  

How are the pillars of “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” helpful in building a two-way bridge and ending the “us” versus “them” mentality when it comes to LGBT Catholics and the institutional church?

From the point of view of the institutional Church, “respect, compassion and sensitivity” are essential for a group that feels almost entirely marginalized. In the book, I talk about respect in terms of naming them what they want to be named— gay, LGBT, or LGBTQ.

Respect is also seeing these individuals as people who bring gifts to the Church, compassion is seeing them in their complexity, and sensitivity is being sensitive to their life experiences.

From the other point of view of the LGBT community toward the Church respect means respecting the bishops and not mocking them. Compassion means seeing the bishops in the complexity of their ministry; oftentimes people don’t understand all that bishops have to deal with. And sensitivity means understanding that church teaching has different levels of authority.

In essence, those three virtues — respect, compassion, and sensitivity — apply to every individual, so I also wanted to use something that was already in the Catechism to help us move forward. This isn’t pushing any envelopes; it’s just helping us develop a deeper understanding of what’s already in the Catechism.  

You champion the cause of abandoning the language of same-sex attraction. Why do you think this is important?

Because it’s important to the LGBT community. In the book, I’m not saying what terms should be used, but I am saying that people have a right to name themselves.

I highlight the importance of names and naming both in the Old and New Testaments. God gives Adam the ability to name the creatures, God renames Abram to Abraham. In the New Testament Jesus names Simon Peter, and the person who was formerly a persecutor goes from Saul to Paul.

Names are very important, and I find the seeming inability of people to use something as simple as LGBT, particularly when Pope Francis himself has used the term gay, as disrespectful.

For example, if you say to me I’d rather be called Christopher instead of Chris, and I continue to call you Chris, it’s disrespectful. I frankly think that allowing the LGBT community to name themselves is one of the simplest things we can do to show respect.

How significant were the two synods on the family in opening up dialogue around LGBT issues in the Church?

They were highly significant. One of the reasons that Pope Francis called the Synod, and calls synods in general, is that he believes the Holy Spirit is at work in the laity and the different bishops around the world.

That these issues came up means that the Holy Spirit is agitating among the faithful and among the bishops, and that these questions are important questions.

The Pope asked for the bishops to bring to the Synod the sort of questions that are being circulated in their dioceses, and they did. I think people were afraid of some of the issues, and the Holy Spirit can be frightening sometimes, but fear not!  

What’s surprised you the most in your ministry with the LGBT community?

One of the things that most surprised me is that outreach to LGBT Catholics is not just outreach to them, but also their parents, grandparents, families, and friends. A few weeks ago at a talk on Jesus, a woman came up to me — and she looked like the quintessential, apple-pie-baking contest winner sort of grandmother — and she leaned down to say something to me.  

And I was expecting her to say something like, “I loved your book on Jesus” or something about Thérèse of Lisieux. But instead she said, “My granddaughter is transgender, and I love her so very much. and I want to thank you for your book.”

And I realized then that there’s a whole world of Catholics we’re ministering to by ministering to LGBT Catholics.

Likewise, many young people who feel distanced from the Church feel distanced because of this particular reason and I don’t just mean LGBT Catholics but also their friends.

Many of them say, “I don’t want to be a part of a Church that treats my friends like this.”

So, at the beginning of writing this book, I thought it was a ministry to a rather small group of people.  But I’ve realized through my conversations with people that it’s a ministry to a much wider group than I could have imagined.

At that same talk, a man my age got up and said to the crowd, “My son is gay and we welcomed him with open arms. I meet once a month with my local bishop to talk about homosexuality and my son.”

I’ve been really moved by the number of family members in particular, because I think that even ten years ago it might have been embarrassing for them to even talk about it.

But what they want is a place for their son, daughter, grandson, or granddaughter in the Church. That’s what they’re looking for, and that’s their own desire.

How can the story of Zacchaeus offer those on both sides of the bridge a greater understanding of one another?

The story of Zacchaeus is a paradigm for how we should treat people who feel marginalized. Everyone knows that Zacchaeus — the chief tax collector who would have also been known as the chief sinner in the area — has an encounter with Jesus.

What’s striking to me is that Jesus does not first say, “I want you to repent, to convert, and to make amends for your sins.” First, he says “I must stay at your house today!” As the scripture scholar Ben Myers has pointed out, for Jesus, it’s usually community first and conversion second.

We are dealing with people who feel marginalized, and so that’s an important model for us. Jesus welcomes, he invites, and he includes.  And for Jesus there is no us and them, there’s just us. In his welcome by Jesus, Zacchaeus feels called to conversion.

We’re all called to conversion, not just LGBT people. So it’s a paradigm for the Church and for LGBT people — to welcome them first. This book is about welcoming. People grumbled in the Gospel passage of Zacchaeus, and a few people are grumbling about this book, but the Scriptures tell us that Zacchaeus stood his ground!

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