Fr. James Martin: For Further Consideration

Fr. James Martin speaks about building bridges, but he does not seem to be interested in building bridges to people like me

(photo: Photo by Sgt. Jason Bushong, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

To all who gave Fr. James Martin a standing ovation at the 2018 LA Religious Education Congress, I’m grateful for your openness to grow in your understanding of the heartfelt and relevant topic of homosexuality (and topics closely connected to it). Obviously, not everything could have been addressed in such a short time, but there are a few things that we, as educators, ought to be aware of. And if we intend to better serve our students, then I imagine an invitation to increase our awareness ought to be received with open arms.

Fr. Martin speaks about building bridges. However, he does not seem to be interested in building bridges to people like me who have same-sex attractions as a part of their story but who have found joy in pursuing a heart of chastity within the Catholic Church. We are not looking to change the teachings of the Church, for we have found freedom within them. We do not suppress our sexuality, but have found joy in pursuing virtue (as opposed to bitterly white-knuckling our way through a life of abstinence via behavior suppression). Rather, our focus is on offering the beautiful gift of our sexuality to the Lord, while striving to grow in spiritual motherhood and spiritual fatherhood. This is not a life of misery and resentment, but rather a life of joyful surrender. And in that surrender, we have moved past the idea that “being gay” is who we are – while still being fully honest with ourselves about the attractions/inclinations we may experience.

Indeed, God knit us in our mother’s womb. However, God did not knit out the reality of the human experience and how it shapes us and our appetites. Our sexual/romantic appetite is one of many appetites, and thus is also subject to our human experience. Some LGBTQ+ activists have known this for years. In fact, one particularly well-known LGBTQ+ activist told me at a 2009 teacher’s conference that “environment plays a factor in the development of our attractions.” What this means, however, is that either he is wrong, or Fr. Martin is wrong because he (Fr. Martin) promotes the idea that people are “created that way” by God.

As for the idea that appetites are influenced by experience (and exposure), this was something I initially heard about through informal conversations with Monica Breaux at a 2008 Catholic conference. She incorporated this idea in her Wholly Men program. I am grateful to have encountered Dr. Breaux because she drew me to the freedom of recognizing that because exposure and experience were factors, I no longer had to see myself as a victim of circumstance going forward because I could influence those factors to some degree. However, I am also grateful to have encountered that particular LGBTQ+ activist shortly afterward, for he inspired me to reflect more deeply upon my past. After years of doing so, I was able to easily recognize several highly significant instances within my own story that were key to the development of my overall self-concept and how I came to perceive my identity.

To us teachers, the idea that environment plays a factor in the formation of one’s appetite should not be a shock at all. Every day we work hard to shape the environment for our students. Why? Because it matters; it’s not of zero consequence. As a teacher for over 10 years, it seems very obvious to me that certain experiences to which children are exposed (especially relational experiences) can leave their hearts with a longing for belonging, alongside a need for healing (especially in the case where trust has been violated). Think of every time a child feels bullied or left out. Think of every time a child perceives that they don’t “measure up” in terms of their perception of masculinity/femininity. Think of every time a child feels that no one could love them. Think of every time a child feels that they have been abandoned due parental infighting. All of those exposures and experiences (and more) shape how persons move forward in their life and in their relationships.

There is likely not a teacher in the world who can say that a child’s actions on the day-to-day are not influenced to some degree by their deep and natural desire to belong (and to have intimate friendship). That is what is underlying the desire to want to be around certain persons of the same sex. And that is a good desire, but children are being formed by a culture (environment) that says all attractions/inclinations might be sexual/romantic attractions/inclinations, when in reality that is not the case. Rather, they can become sexualized/romanticized on account of the environment they are exposed to. This environment, however, may entrench within the minds of those within it, the idea that they ought to sexually/romantically “explore.” This type of exploration can draw a child to experience positive attention (and or validation), intimacy and belonging. This is significant because these are all facets of the human experience that our children seem to be craving more than ever (especially in the age of social media and smartphones which can serve to bring about further isolation – from peers and parents). However, because these desires of the heart may be met in this way, these types of encounters may be very influential in how a child’s sense of identity is formed.

While every ounce of educational psychology seems to describe how children are influenced by their environment, Fr. Martin promotes the idea that God creates people with a particular sexual/romantic appetite. However, does he give us an opportunity to examine that foundational premise? Does he give us the opportunity to examine questions like these?

  1. Is a child created with an appetite for a particular school subject like math or language arts? Or are they created with a natural appetite for learning overall?
  2. Is a child created with an appetite for a particular genre of music? Or are they created with a natural appetite to hear pleasing sounds?
  3. Is a child created with an appetite for a particular relationship? Or is a child created with a natural appetite to be in relationship?

These are questions we need to ask. However, from what I have seen, Fr. Martin seems to not only prevent people from considering these questions, but he also seems to silence those who invite people to question. That is, it seems overly conspicuous to me that the only voices that are shared through him are the voices of Catholics who are convinced that “God created them that way” (with some of these people believing that it is their role to “change the Church”). From what I have experienced in my interactions with those who believe this, it seems to be rooted in the concept of “evolving theology,” but also in the idea that sin has to do with what feels as opposed to what is, in terms of what has been authored into creation (such as the complementarity of maleness and femaleness). Note that the development of doctrine does exist (such as when objective truths already upheld by the Church are applied to circumstances arising in our day), but that does not imply that the Church will (or even has the authority to) reverse that which is already recognized as objective truth.

Also, it seems overly conspicuous that the only voices that seem to be shared through him are the voices of Catholics who are convinced that they ought to “follow their conscience” as opposed to being convinced they ought to “follow their conscience” within the wisdom of the Church. Furthermore, though we are all obliged to follow our consciences, the idea of “conscience” is often misunderstood. What clearly points to this is how there are many Catholics who deliberately seek to undermine confidence in the Church as upholder of truth who also claim to be “following their consciences.” What we must recognize, however, is that the Church upholds that our conscience (as a facet of our personhood) is authored into existence by God. For this reason, it is sacred and thus all people have the right to have their consciences formed correctly (according to truth) so that they can arrive at right judgment. Furthermore, we are obligated to continue to pursue a greater degree of truth and to form our consciences accordingly, because we are not only responsible for what we know today, but also for what we choose not to know going forward.

The issue seems to be that many people mistakenly identify the experience of their appetites for the voice of conscience. That is, many interpret their own weaknesses and or unwillingness to resist their earthly appetites as “following their conscience.” Sadly, however, it appears that this misinterpretation of conscience draws people to abdicate their responsibility to pursue a greater degree of truth. The question that arises from all of this is as follows: Is our “following of conscience” in accordance with objective truths or merely a reflection of the appetites we experience?

It is also overly conspicuous to me that Fr. Martin seems to be unwilling to listen to any “gay” Catholics who actually strive to live out the Church’s invitation to chastity. For example, even Facebook posts that don’t play into the narrative he is promoting have been known to “disappear” from his wall. Many people can attest to this. However, is it right for him to prevent the voices of AveraShannonJosephmyself (and many many others) from being heard? Why doesn’t he want to let people know that people like us exist? Why does he seem to strive to direct people away from exploring the idea that we might not be “created that way”?

Out of respect for those who are earnestly pursuing a greater degree of truth on this topic, many of whom count themselves among the clergy, chancery staff, and parish ministries that I have personally trained throughout the country and internationally, I offer the suggestion that everything Fr. Martin has to say on this topic ought to be further examined. All Catholics, regardless of their role, deserve the opportunity to grow in clarity in their understanding of this topic. It seems that this is something Fr. Martin does not provide, nor initiate.

This concerns me because in receiving people and offering them popular sentiment while simultaneously impeding their ability to even become aware of the fact that there is yet a greater degree of truth to seek out (in terms of comprehending the origin of attractions/inclinations experienced), Fr. Martin robs people of the opportunity to grow in virtue and self-sacrifice to some degree. This is because an uninhibited pursuit of truth is paired with the uninhibited opportunity to die to oneself and to one’s own attachments (this may include dying to one’s own attachments to particular ideas about reality). Furthermore, an uninhibited pursuit of truth can bring about an uninhibited trajectory of spiritual growth – and that spiritual growth is what Fr. Martin’s message seems to counter. Note also that the impeding of one’s ability to become aware of a greater truth is not the same as merely holding back particular facets of the faith from a person who may be drawn to discover them at a later time within a shared journey. The latter may be necessary out of compassion, but in drawing people to embrace the idea that people are “created that way” by God, Fr. Martin seems to be doing the former.

Though none of us are in a position to judge the fullness of anyone’s heart (this is reserved for God alone), we are indeed called to judge actions. (We make judgments about all kinds of actions every day.) Actions, however, may indeed reflect particular attachments of the heart. Fr. Martin’s actions of promoting persons/groups that have been officially denounced by the Vaticandrawing people to reject the Catechism, and deliberately burying the message of those who have found joy and hope in Christ through the pursuit of virtue, in addition to what he says in his lectures and in his book, make it seem very apparent that he is attached to the idea that people are “created that way” by God. And that seems to be the root of his attachments to the LGBTQ+ identity labels. After all, those types of identity labels would make sense if, indeed, we were created that way.

With all due respect to his priesthood, however, preventing people from becoming aware that there is even a greater degree of truth to pursue on this topic, is something that seems very uncharitable to me. It saddens my heart that the inhibition of truth that he embeds into his approach (and choice of language) is spreading so rapidly without deeper questions being asked. On the other hand, Fr. Martin has provoked conversation on this topic, which will hopefully lead to a greater degree of understanding – and for that I am grateful.

As this unfolds, however, and as I learn about just how many people are indeed attached to the idea that God “creates people that way,” I find great peace in what is written in 1 Corinthians 11:19. It says that “there have to be factions among you in order that (also) those who are approved among you may become known.”

That excerpt reminds me that as long as we continue to have honest conversations about our differences while sincerely pursuing a greater degree of truth, there will actually be an overall benefit to the Church in the long run. This is because just as the Church has grown in wisdom from confronting various ideologies throughout the centuries, She will continue to grow as a result of the conclusions drawn from the questions of today.

What concerns me most of all, however, is that perspectives such as the one offered by Fr. Martin seem to be packaged (and lauded) as being the optimal pastoral (and now educational) response. To me, it seems to reflect an unwillingness to journey with persons beyond the “safe spaces” that they might be inclined to build around themselves as a form of protection from having to face themselves (and the traumas that they may have experienced). Granted it may not be that way for every person, but it was for me, and I know I am not alone.

With so many souls at stake, one might wonder why any person who demonstrates an intent to inhibit the pursuit of truth (and or who rejects the wisdom of the Church as expressed in the Catechism) would be considered as a potential speaker at a Catholic conference at all (let alone a Catholic educational conference). Those of us in Catholic education deserve to be exposed to persons who are, at the very least, invested in helping us actually understand our faith on a deeper level. Furthermore, striving to pursue truth and to uphold the wisdom of the Church in an educational setting will always require continuously clarified language. In fact, if we don’t draw people into an ever-deepening understanding of the language of the Church (via those necessary clarifications in language and nuance), then we, in effect, set people up to make inaccurate assessments of the Church. That is, just as learning the lyrics to a song might help us understand its meaning (as intended by the author), so too would learning the “lyrics” of the song of the Church help us understand the truths upheld by the Church. In saying that, the question that I’d like to invite all people to consider is this: To what degree do Catholics, in any context, strive to draw people to grow in their understanding of the language of the Church?

Every person I know who has same-sex attractions and or transgender inclinations as part of their story, and who has come home to the Catholic Church while embodying the joyful pursuit of virtue (and who is striving to die to self more completely so that they may more completely abandon themselves to the Lord), has arrived where they are on account of the very clarifications (and questions) that Fr. Martin is not bringing to light. I wonder if we, as Catholic educators, will ever take seriously the reality of that narrative – the one where people are joyfully striving for holiness and virtue. Unfortunately, it seems that Catholic educators are not even being given the chance to become aware of this particular narrative. As a fellow Catholic educator, I find that troubling because it denies the lived experience of a vast number of people. And in a time where we purport to strive for tolerance (and inclusivity), I am only left to wonder why persons who joyfully embody that narrative seem not to be tolerated much at all.

Will you give your students a chance to hear their story? Will you share the voice of someone like me?


Hudson Byblow is a member of Courage International. His full story can be heard here.

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