Father James Martin Explains His Vision Regarding ‘LGBT’ Catholics

‘My advocacy of members of the LGBT community doesn’t mean I agree with everything they espouse, or everything they do,’ the author of Building Bridges tells the Register.

Jesuit Father James Martin
Jesuit Father James Martin (photo: Wikipedia Creative Commons)

In his new book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity (HarperOne), Jesuit Father James Martin has proposed that the Church forge “a relationship of respect, compassion and sensitivity” with “LGBT” Catholics. He talks here with Register correspondent Judy Roberts about his vision.

This conversation is a part of the Register’s treatment of Father Martin's book. A response to controversial or contested statements in this interview can be found here and here.  


You’ve said you’ve been trying to build bridges between the Church and “LGBT” Catholics for years. Why are you the right person to make this overture?

I don’t know if I am the right person. There are many other people more qualified than I who have spent more time in “LGBT” ministry. I would say I have spent many years counseling people and accompanying people who are “LGBT,” in spiritual direction, on retreats and after talks and lectures when they ask for advice and share their stories with me. So I’ve had considerable experience in accompanying “LGBT” Catholics.


You have been called “pro-gay” and you accepted an award from New Ways Ministry, a dissident group that advocates for “LGBT” Catholics. Are you too much associated with one side of this issue to introduce this proposal?

No, I don’t think so, because I’m just as associated with the institutional church as a Jesuit priest, and someone who knows many cardinals and archbishops and bishops as I am with being a friend of the “LGBT” community.

The other thing is that “pro-gay” is kind of a strange term to use as an insult, because it’s like saying “pro-migrant” or “pro-elderly.” I think the other implication is always that the gay person is sinful, whereas if you were pro-Catholic businessperson, you wouldn’t say that means you agree with everything the corporate world espouses.

My advocacy of members of the “LGBT” community doesn’t mean I agree with everything they espouse, or everything they do.


Who has farther to go in building the bridge you propose: “LGBT” Catholics or the institutional Church?

I think they both have very far to go. I think the hierarchy is called to get to know that community and listen to them.

In my experience, I have lot of cardinals, archbishops and bishops as friends, and they don’t have much experience in knowing “LBGT” Catholics. By the same token, there is a lot of mistrust in the “LGBT” community towards the hierarchy. What I’m trying to do is invite people to the halfway point — to say to the hierarchy, “Can you start listening to their experience?” and to say to the “LGBT” community, “Can you respect the hierarchy?” Actually, that’s going to be the harder sell because all the bishops I know are sincere in their desire to reach out to “LGBT” Catholics, but a lot of the “LGBT” Catholics I know feel really wounded by the Church and don’t feel they want to reach out to the hierarchy.


In your book, you stress what the Catechism says about treating “LGBT” Catholics with “respect, compassion and sensitivity,” but not the teaching about living chastely. How long does one employ “respect, compassion and sensitivity” before calling “LGBT” Catholics to chastity?

The reason I didn’t talk about chastity in my book is because Church teaching is clear on that matter, and it’s well-known in the “LGBT” community. I don’t think there’s any “LGBT” Catholic alive who doesn’t understand that teaching. By the same token, there seem to be few “LGBT” Catholics who have accepted that teaching. Theologically speaking, you could say the teaching has not been “received” by the “LGBT” community, to whom it was directed. So rather than focusing on a topic where the two groups — the institutional church and the “LGBT” community — are miles and miles apart, I preferred to try to build a bridge over areas that could be places of common ground. And as for “respect, compassion and sensitivity,” one can always employ those virtues even when one is in disagreement with the other person. If you’re a bishop who is speaking to an “LGBT” person who disagrees with Church teaching, you can still treat him or her with respect, and the “LGBT” person can do the same with the bishop. As for calling them specifically to chastity, it’s important to remember we are all called to chastity, so that is part of everyone’s call as a Christian and as a Catholic. So that virtue is not something that applies only to the “LGBT” person.     


Trying to build a bridge between the institutional Church and the “LGBT” community seems somewhat like trying to bring the pro-life and pro-choice movements together. What kind of bridge can be built if one side does not give on something significant, such as the Church’s long-held teaching on this issue?

I don’t know, but it’s certainly worth a try. So many “LGBT” Catholics are really hungering and longing for a place in the Church, and some of them already work in the Church — as music ministers, lay pastoral associates and lectors. They’ve been so wounded and they just want a place in the Church. A place they have a right to, by virtue of their baptisms.

By the same token, many bishops want to include them and, at least as I see it, sometimes seem to not know how to. “LGBT” Catholics just want a feeling of welcome, because I don’t think most expect Church teaching to change. I may be wrong, but I think it’s just a feeling of welcome and not being constantly castigated from the pulpit or personally excluded... And the thing that they experience at the hands of Church officials is something shocking. The other day someone contacted me and asked if I knew a priest in a particular part of the country who was “compassionate.” This person worked in a hospice and said that the local priest was refusing to anoint a man who was dying — because he was gay. That’s what they have to deal with.


You begin your book with a quote from Psalm 139, which says, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” and include the entire Psalm in one of your Scripture reflections: You also reference this in the book’s “Prayer When I Feel Rejected” Are you suggesting by this that God made “LGBT” people the way they are?

Yes. Science and psychology shows that, and most people are finally coming to see that this — for mysterious reasons — is the way they are made. That’s something that’s held by almost every reputable psychologist and biologist. And the “LGBT” people I speak to have always felt that way. Part of it is accepting oneself and accepting this is the way God made you.


In your acceptance speech for the Bridge Building Award from New Ways Ministry, you referred to the importance of consulting one’s superiors. What do your superiors say about your taking on this topic?

Before I went to New Ways Ministry for the talk, I asked my local Jesuit superior, the provincial of the Jesuits in the Northeast Province, and asked for permission, and he said Yes. Next, I asked the provincial of the Maryland Province, and he said Yes. I asked my editor-in-chief, who said Yes. He then sent the talk to an outside theologian for vetting. I did the same for the book, and received the “Imprimi Potest” from my Jesuit provincial. So both the talk and the book have been approved through the formal channels

 I’ve never been asked by my superiors to stay away from the topic, but everything I say and write reflects on the Society of Jesus and the Church, so I’m very careful and they know that. They assume, rightly, that I would never contradict Church teaching. Rather, I’m using current Church teaching and reflecting on that. Even though I get a lot of attention for this, it’s a very small part of my Jesuit life. I don’t work in an “LGBT” outreach group or say “LGBT” Masses. Most of my writing is about spirituality and Jesus.


Why did you accept an invitation from New Ways Ministry, a dissident group that opposes Church teaching?

Some see it as a dissident group. Others see it as one of a few groups that has been doing outreach to the “LGBT” community for a while. You know, at their last meeting Bishop [John] Stowe of Lexington spoke to them, so I’m not the only one who doesn’t see them as “dissident.”


You talk in the book about supporting “LGBT” people and listening to them and so showing compassion. Is it possible to listen without giving the impression that you are endorsing their actions if they are engaged in homosexual acts?

Yes, and I think you could ask the same thing about Catholic business leaders. Let’s say you’re meeting with CEOs and you know they’re paying their laborers unjust wages. By meeting and listening to them, no one assumes that the Catholic Church approves of unjust labor practices. You might not bring this up at your first meeting with them, but you might do it further down the line. But first you have the encounter. I like to use the example of Jesus and Zacchaeus. The first step is Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. He doesn’t tell him he’s a sinner. And Zacchaeus is converted. I think an encounter with the Church is powerful because we are meeting Christ.