Reflections on Sexual Identities, the Youth Synod and Father Martin’s Bridge-Building

COMMENTARY: The only bridge worth building for people who are confused about their sexual identity has Christ as its architect.

Helle Krog, CC BY 3.0
Helle Krog, CC BY 3.0 (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Since my book, Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay: How I Reclaimed My Sexual Reality and Found Peace, came out last year, I have often been asked to express my thoughts on Jesuit Father James Martin’s approach to pastoral care for men and women who, like me, have what the Catechism would call “homosexual inclinations.”

Some people have wrongly assumed that I wrote my book in response to Father Martin’s Building a Bridge. But the timing of our books both being released in 2017 is purely coincidental, and I have consciously avoided writing on our different approaches. I would rather have our two books considered on their own merits.

However, recent comments made by Father Martin at the World Meeting of Families during the summer, and regarding the current synod on youth now taking place in Rome, have troubled me. Thus, I have thought it prudent to raise concerns I have about Father Martin’s approach.

I commend much of Father Martin’s work: I have no doubt of his love and compassion for men like me. But out of concern for how the youth synod might be influenced by Father Martin in ways that I do not think are consonant with Church teaching, I will focus my thoughts here on areas where I believe Father Martin’s book and ministry do a grave disservice to men and women with same-sex attraction.


Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity

Father Martin is very selective in how he quotes the Catechism. The hinge upon which his book and ministry turns is the Catechism’s teaching that those with a homosexual inclination need to be treated with respect, compassion and sensitivity. His personal interpretation of these three pillars becomes the template for his pastoral suggestions regarding outreach to those he describes as members of the “LGBT community.”

For Father Martin, the adoption of the phrase “LGBT community” is a necessary part of treating people with attractions to the same sex with respect.

In his talk at the World Meeting of Families, he used the term “LGBT” nearly 100 times, and in his most recent reflections on the youth synod, he said: “Naming LGBT people what they ask to be named is part of the ‘respect’ called for by the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”

His argument seems to be this: In order to treat someone with respect, one should use the words he chooses to use for himself. He supports this argument in his book by emphasizing the importance given to names in the Bible — particularly in moments when God gives a person a new name, such as was the case with Abraham and Sarah or St. Paul.

Yet here, “he turns things upside down,” to quote the prophet Isaiah, and supports the clay telling the potter how it was created. When God gives someone (or something) a name in the Bible, man has no power or authority to change that name. The Word spoke these words at the foundation of the world: God “created us male and female” — as reiterated by Christ himself, while he walked among us, as a man, born of a woman, when he said, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female?” Christ, as the New Adam, and Mary, as the New Eve, reveal to our confused world that the only sexual identities created by God are male and female, ordered toward each other.

Sadly, Father Martin fails to invite those who identify as “LGBT” to embrace their true sexual nature and identity, in accordance with the Catechism’s teaching in Paragraph 2333, which says, “Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity.”

Further, he seems to take great umbrage at those in the Church who speak of “men and women who experience same-sex attraction,” yet this is consonant with the Catechism’s own way of discussing the homosexual inclination. The Catechism wisely speaks of the homosexual inclination as “relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex.”

Our identities are either male or female, and our sexual desires are rightly ordered to persons of the opposite sex. Our attractions to the same sex are not our identity, but are feelings and emotions we experience. To quote the 1986 letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), “The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” the Church refuses reductionist labels such as “LGBT”:

“Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a ‘heterosexual or a ‘homosexual’ and insists that every person has a fundamental identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.”

This means we shouldn’t speak of people as “straight” either. There is no room in the Church’s anthropology for the “LGBT” person or the “straight” person, for no such persons exist in the creative wisdom of God.

In contrast to Father Martin, I urge the synod fathers to avoid using the phrase “LGBT person” precisely because it is not respectful, compassionate or sensitive enough. They should speak instead of men and women who experience same-sex attractions. This language respects our created dignity as beloved sons and daughters of God.

Father Martin’s concern for compassionate, respectful and sensitive language is also directed toward the Catechism’s use of the phrase “objectively disordered,” which describes the homosexual inclination. Father Martin argues that this is “needlessly hurtful. Saying that one of the deepest parts of a person — the part that gives and receives love — is ‘disordered’ is in itself needlessly cruel.” Instead of “objectively disordered,” he suggests the phrase “differently ordered.”

Two problems arise here. First, he equates the homosexual inclination with “the part that gives and receives love” in a person with same-sex attractions. This, of course, is not the Church’s view of human loves and affections.

Sexual intimacy is not the deepest part of the human person, nor is it the primary way man gives and receives love. We need only look at the example of Our Lord and Our Lady to know this, as well as Christ’s teaching that there will be no marriage in heaven.

Second, his proposed use of the phrase “differently ordered” is a clear case of sophistry, for with this subtle change of language, the sexual morality of the Church is completely upended.

A clue to how Father Martin is urging the Church to reimagine homosexuality is the comparison he has often made between homosexuality and someone who is born left-handed instead of right-handed. This naturally evokes comparison with earlier cultures that viewed being left-handed as a sign of something evil and sinister, though, of course, now modern man recognizes that being right- or left-handed is just a different (and indeed natural) way of living in the world.

If being sexually attracted to the same sex is analogous to being born left-handed, then Church prohibitions against same-sex sexual activity are similarly backward and prejudiced.

Father Martin never explicitly states this, but his argument, followed to its logical conclusion, would mean that prohibitions against same-sex sexual behavior are no longer rational, and therefore no longer morally binding. And since Church teaching on sexual morality is never arbitrary, but is, rather, rooted in the natural law, if people are “born gay,” and if they live in the world as gay qua gay, then that is their nature. Following their nature would then be morally licit.

This leads us to another troubling proposition of Father Martin’s that is in direct conflict with the Church’s teaching: that homosexuality has a “psychological genesis.” Contrary to the Church — and to the latest scientific conclusions — Father Martin believes and teaches that people are born with a same-sex attraction.


The Question of Science

At the World Meeting of Families, Father Martin urged his listeners to “to get facts, not myths, about sexual orientation and gender identity from scientific and social-scientific sources, not from rumors and misinformed and homophobic online sites.”

Father Martin has said on many occasions that science demonstrates that those he calls “LGBT” are “born that way.” For example, in a series of tweets earlier this year, he said that “God creates all sorts of people, with different attributes,” and argued that “psychiatry, psychology and biology” support the conclusion that “some people are simply ‘made that way’ … just as straight people are ‘made that way.’”

Here, however, Father Martin should heed his own counsel to “get facts, not myths, about sexual orientation and gender identity from scientific sources.”

Consider, for example, what psychology professor Lisa Diamond at the University of Utah said about the scientific findings on whether “being gay” is an immutable part of human nature that people are born with.

Diamond, who identifies as a “lesbian,” wrote in the Journal of Sex Research in 2016 that “arguments based on the immutability of sexual orientation are unscientific, given what we now know from longitudinal, population-based studies of naturally occurring changes in the same-sex attractions of some individuals over time.”

Any honest examination of the sciences reveals that Father Martin is wrong: Science has not concluded that anyone is “born gay.” But even if science will in the future argue that men like me are “born gay,” the 1986 CDF letter on “The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” states that “the Catholic moral viewpoint is founded on human reason illumined by faith and is consciously motivated by the desire to do the will of God our Father. The Church is thus in a position to learn from scientific discovery but also to transcend the horizons of science and to be confident that her more global vision does greater justice to the rich reality of the human person in his spiritual and physical dimensions, created by God and heir, by grace, to eternal life.”

Of course, this “rich reality” is realized in God’s division of humanity into male and female, complementary to each other. This duality is the source of the Church’s anthropology and thus her sexual morality — yet, sadly, Father Martin rarely seems to make any attempt at explaining why the Church’s teaching on homosexuality does justice to the dignity of the human person by appealing to the Church’s anthropology.

When critics have asked Father Martin to explain his failure to include these explanations, he has answered in two ways: First, he says he is not a moral theologian. But certainly any priest who hears confession must be aware of what sexual sins are in need of repentance and should be able to explain why the Church’s teachings on sexual morality are part of the Good News.

Secondly, he argues that the Church’s teaching on homosexuality has not been “received” by those he calls the “LGBT community,” so it is pointless — or perhaps not reflective of a respectful, sensitive and compassionate dialogue — to discuss the morality of homosexual behavior.

Yet, here again, the CDF’s 1986 letter provides a clear answer to Father Martin’s muddled view of pastoral compassion when it says, “We wish to make it clear that departure from the Church’s teaching, or silence about it, in an effort to provide pastoral care is neither caring nor pastoral. Only what is true can ultimately be pastoral. The neglect of the Church’s position prevents homosexual men and women from receiving the care they need and deserve.”

On this count, Father Martin fails, miserably.


Pastoral Recommendations

Though all of these elements are troubling, an even more serious problem revolves around the ministries Father Martin recommends as models for the Catholic Church to follow.

First is New Ways Ministry. His book was the result of receiving the “Bridge Building Award” from New Ways Ministry, founded by Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent. The teaching of Sister Jeannine and Father Nugent were determined by the CDF to be “erroneous and dangerous.”

Both were “permanently prohibited from any pastoral work involving homosexual persons,” and in 2010, the USCCB declared that “New Ways Ministry has no approval or recognition from the Catholic Church and that they cannot speak on behalf of the Catholic faithful in the United States.”

Nevertheless, Father Martin has remarkably stated that if he were to wish that any living person today would one day be canonized, he hopes it would be Sister Jeannine.

Second is a ministry often recommended by Father Martin, called Out at St. Paul, based at the mother church of the Paulist Fathers in New York City. Members of Out at St. Paul were featured in the documentary Owning Our Faith and are unabashedly hopeful the Church’s teaching on the morality of homosexual behavior will change.

Two of the subjects, for example, are civilly married, are in the process of adopting a child and vocally advocate for the Church to allow same-sex “marriages.” (On a personal note, only one priest has ever told me that having sex with a man is not sinful. He was a Paulist, stationed for a time in my own Diocese of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Remarkably, in the confessional, he urged me to find a boyfriend, with, he said, “the Church’s blessing.”)

Thirdly, Father Martin has also recommended a group at his own parish in New York, St. Ignatius of Loyola, called “LGBT Catholics and Friends.” He recommends a publication they produced called Our Stories: Being LGBT and Catholic.

One of the stories features a man named Lou discussing his relationship with the man he calls his husband, Mike. The mother of a man who identifies as gay says that her “fondest hope would be that he could marry at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.” A father of another young man who identifies as gay says he looks forward to meeting his future son-in-law, and says, “My son did not choose to be gay: My son was born gay. This is part of his being.”

Photos in the glossy brochure feature a rainbow flag, same-sex couples holding hands and two “married” women with a boy who presumably is one of their sons.

All of these ministries challenge the Church’s moral teaching on homosexuality. If these are the ministries Father Martin suggests as models to follow, what does this say, then, about his own belief in the Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality? When pressed to say whether or not he affirms the Church’s teaching, he says only, “As a Catholic priest, I have never challenged those teachings, nor will I.”

This seems to me a disingenuous response. He has already challenged Church teaching by recommending changing the Catechism’s language of “objectively disordered” to “differently disordered”; and by suggesting that “people are born gay,” he has challenged Church teaching that homosexuality has a “psychological genesis.” Indeed, he seems to support a belief that “being gay” is ontological.

More than, this, however, there is an open question that remains unanswered: Does Father James Martin himself, though he says he will never challenge Church teaching on homosexuality, inwardly assent to those teachings? And does he view those teachings as good news, particularly the Catechism’s call of chastity for men and women like me?

Based on the ministries he recommends, which cater to men and women who openly reject Church teaching on chastity, I fear that he does not.

What, then, should be the response to Father Martin’s strange view of respect, compassion and sensitivity and his attempt at bridge-building, and particularly his recommendations to the synod fathers at the youth synod? The answer must be a return to the Church’s constant teaching on the nature of man, rooted in Genesis 1:26-27 and the virtue of chastity that derives from God’s creative wisdom in creating humanity as male and female.

In 1985, Pope St. John Paul II offered counsel that would serve well as a guiding principle for anyone who desires to share the Church’s good news about homosexuality, and particularly for our bishops present at the youth synod:

“As bishops we are entrusted with the task of proclaiming and defending the whole of the Church’s teaching in all its authenticity. We must also be vigilant that others who preach and teach in the name of the Church should not be allowed to distort that teaching, to the consequent confusion and disturbance of the consciences of the faithful.

“This matter will often be for you a source of suffering and trial. You will sometimes be a sign of contradiction. Your love in these cases, sometimes for your closest collaborators, will be a love marked by forgiveness, patience, forbearance and courage. Your love should not become a false compassion that ends by undermining the truth and destroying the very harmony that it claims to preserve. The pastoral love that you have for your communities sometimes demands that you should not hide the ‘hard sayings’ which bridge the distance between sinful human nature and the moral requirements of life in the Spirit of Christ.”

This, then, is the only bridge worth building for people who are confused about their sexual identity, for its architect is Christ Our Lord.

Daniel Mattson is the author of Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay: How I Reclaimed My Sexual Reality and Found Peace, 

which can be ordered via EWTN Religious or(800) 854-6316.