Father Martin’s ‘LGBT’ Approach Sparks Concerns

Critics say it fails to communicate Catholic truths.

Chapel of the University of Malta in May
Chapel of the University of Malta in May (photo: Facebook/Drachma Parents Group)

Jesuit Father James Martin views himself as a “bridge-builder” between the Church hierarchy and “LGBT” Catholics. But his campaign to bring the two together is drawing sharp criticism from those who see his approach as instead undermining fundamental Church teachings regarding human sexuality.

In a new book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity (HarperOne), Father Martin proposes that the Church’s cardinals, archbishops and bishops get to know and listen to Catholics who experience same-sex attraction. In turn, he urges the “LGBT” community to show respect for the hierarchy.

Although the book does not advocate a change in Church teaching on homosexuality, it avoids stating what the Church does teach on that subject, except for citing a single phrase in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that says those with homosexual tendencies should be “accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.”

Father Martin quoted the same section of the Catechism on Facebook in 2015 in urging Catholics to respond with charity if they disagreed with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex “marriage.” He wrote: “No issue brings out so much hatred from so many Catholics as homosexuality. … God wants us to love. And not a twisted, crabbed, narrow tolerance, which often comes in the guise of condemnations, instructions and admonitions that try to masquerade as love, but actual love.”

While the Facebook post neither affirmed nor disagreed with the decision, Father Martin’s words were championed by many as support for a decision that comprehensively contradicted the Christian understanding of the nature of marriage. By contrast, in an official U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops statement, then-USCCB president Archbishop Joseph Kurtz described the decision as “a tragic error that harms the common good and most vulnerable among us.”

In a Washington Post review, Eve Tushnet, author of Gay and Catholic, said Father Martin never even hints in his book at the existence of people like herself who are homosexual and “accept celibacy out of obedience” to the Church. Building a Bridge, Tushnet said, ignores the root cause of why “LGBT” people and the Church often are polarized. “The Catholic sexual ethic is this book’s embarrassing secret. It’s never mentioned, and so the difficulties the teaching itself poses for gay Catholics in our future are never addressed.”

An author and editor-at-large of America magazine who recently was appointed by Pope Francis as a consultor to the Vatican Secretariat for Communications, Father Martin says in the book that he was inspired after the June 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, to expand on his three decades of informal efforts to bring the Church and “LGBT” Catholics together.


New Ways Ministry

His book, which was released June 13, is based on a talk he gave to the dissident group New Ways Ministry upon accepting their “Bridge Building Award” in October 2016. Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, has endorsed the book, as have two other bishops and New Ways co-founder Sister Jeannine Gramick.

New Ways defines itself as a “gay-positive ministry of advocacy and justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Catholics,” but in 2010, Cardinal Francis George, then president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the group could not legitimately speak for Catholics because it denied central aspects of Church teaching.

Before that, in 1999, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith prohibited Sister Jeannine and New Ways co-founder Father Robert Nugent from continuing their pastoral work with homosexual persons after the two were said to have caused confusion by advancing doctrinally unacceptable positions regarding the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts and the objective disorder of the homosexual inclination. Sister Jeannine and Father Nugent, like Father Martin, often cite the Catechism’s call to treat homosexual persons “with respect, compassion and sensitivity” as the motivation for their work. 

Yet according to the CDF, “the promotion of errors and ambiguities is not consistent with a Christian attitude of true respect and compassion: Persons who are struggling with homosexuality no less than any others have the right to receive the authentic teaching of the Church from those who minister to them.”

The restrictions on New Ways Ministry, Sister Jeannine and Father Nugent, who died in 2014, were never lifted.        

In an interview with the Register, Father Martin said he accepted the New Ways invitation with the permission of his religious superiors and that, although he knew it might stir people up, he thought it would be worthwhile to address the group. He also reiterated that he is not advocating any change in Church teaching on homosexuality in his book, only that “LGBT” Catholics and the hierarchy “meet in the middle of the bridge and know that they’re all part of the one body that St. Paul spoke about.”

He said he did not deal in the book with the Church’s call for people with same-sex attraction to live chastely because the teaching is clear and well-known in the “LGBT” community, but also is a point of division. Rather than focus on what divides, he said he chose to build a bridge over possible common ground.


‘Differently Ordered’

However, in an interview with Religion News Service, Father Martin said some of the language about homosexuality used in the Catechism of the Catholic Church needs to be updated and suggested that “objectively disordered” might be changed to “differently ordered.”

“As I say in the book, saying that one of the deepest parts of a person — the part that gives and receives love — is disordered is needlessly hurtful,” he told RNS.

But Father Gerald Murray, pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church in New York City, said the phrase “differently ordered” would constitute a change in Church teaching. “It would mean that God created two different orders of sexual behavior which are both good and right according to his will: Some people are homosexual by God’s design and some are heterosexual by God’s design. If that is the case, then homosexual acts themselves could no longer be described, as they are in the Catechism ... as ‘intrinsically disordered.’ If the inclination is simply different, and not disordered, then acting upon that inclination is simply different, and not disordered. It would be natural behavior for ‘differently ordered’ people.” 

Robert George, McCormick professor of jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, said in a June 9 Facebook post that it is clear to him from the RNS interview that Father Martin rejects the Church’s teaching on sexuality and sexual morality, though he attempts to avoid saying so explicitly. “… It seems to me quite dishonest of him to seek to undermine and cast doubt on the Church’s moral teachings while pretending that he is not dissenting from them.”

George subsequently asked his Facebook audience in a June 13 post for examples of any of Father Martin’s writings or video lectures that affirm the Church’s teaching on the intrinsic immorality of homosexual conduct. He told the Register he did this because some of his Facebook friends follow Father Martin on social media and might be familiar with his work. “I was not looking for people to criticize him or affirm that I was right. I was looking for possibly sympathetic readers who could point out to me why I was wrong so that I could then correct the record.” At the time he was contacted by the Register, he had received no such examples.


More Recent Comments

In a post for America magazine responding to several reviews of his book, Father Martin said he had anticipated both negative and positive reactions, but that, so far, most have been favorable. Indeed, some in the “LGBT” community seem to see the book as signaling a shift in the Church. For example, in “One Priest’s Plan to Queer the Catholic Church” on Vice.com, Xorje Olivares asks Father Martin whether he thinks “full inclusion” of “LGBT” Catholics is possible in their lifetime. Although Father Martin has said “LGBT” Catholics are already part of the Church by virtue of their baptism, he responds, “Yes, I do,” citing Pope Francis’ “Who am I to judge?” comment and his reminding “LGBT” people “before all else” of their dignity in Amoris Laetitia.

In the Vice.com interview, Father Martin also mentions Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey — who is another of the trio of bishops who have endorsed his book welcoming a Catholic “LGBT” group to his cathedral in May. “That would be absolutely unheard of just a few years ago,” he said. “So full inclusion is possible, and as for time, I think it’s speeding up.”

And in a June 25 tweet, Father Martin appeared to endorse nationwide “Pride” parades, which advocate for a range of policies the Church opposes and frequently include flagrantly sexual displays. His tweet stated, “To all my LGBT friends: Have a fun #Pride2017 weekend. Have pride (and feel joy) because you’re beloved children of God, made in God’s image.”


Questions About Language

Critics of Building a Bridge, meanwhile, remain concerned that its message will weaken Church teaching. Some also object to Father Martin’s insistence that Catholics with same-sex attraction be called “LGBT,” which he says is the name they prefer. “Part of respect is allowing a group to name itself,” he said.

Two key documents on ministry to homosexual persons from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the USCCB state that because sexual inclinations do not constitute someone’s fundamental identity, those who experience same-sex attraction should not be encouraged to define themselves primarily in such terms. Rather, the documents say, the Church sees everyone as having the same identity as children of God.

But for Father Martin, there is no harm in calling someone “LGBT.”

“It just presumes they have a particular sexual orientation that they have come to identify with, so why wouldn’t we call them that?”

He said he doesn’t think that for most people in the “LGBT” community their orientation is the most important thing in life. “The most important things in their lives are God, work, friends, usually not their sexuality, but there does have to be some sort of name that we give them. All I know is that when they hear phrases like ‘afflicted with same-sex attraction,’ it’s very offensive to them. Besides, the term ‘same-sex attraction,’ which some people want to use, also identifies them by their sexual preference. So how is that any different?”


The Courage Approach

Father Philip Bochanski, executive director of the apostolate Courage International, agrees that names are important, but he said his group uses “people who experience same-sex attraction” to be faithful to the Church’s request not to relegate a person to a label. He added that Courage has learned from the broader society the importance of using people-first language. “I’m not so focused on same-sex attraction, but on a person who is experiencing this reality. Pope Francis would say the focus is always on the person.”

Father Bochanski also said not every person who experiences same-sex attraction prefers the “LGBT” or “gay” label. “When I talk about a whole group of people in the Church who are living with this experience, I don’t want to assume I know everybody’s story, so I’m more comfortable referring to them as people, brothers and sisters, fellow members who have this experience.”

Father Mike Schmitz, chaplain for Newman Catholic Campus Ministries at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and director of youth ministry for the Diocese of Duluth, said he employs both labels to be as respectful and yet as accurate as he can be, and did likewise in a book on the Church’s teaching on same-sex attraction, to be published by Ignatius Press in September.

However, Elliot Milco, deputy editor of First Things, said using the language of the “LGBT” community is problematic given the political and ideological atmosphere. “[‘LGBT’] is tied up in a million ways with something that is very vocally and in a principled way opposed to Catholic orthodoxy.”

At this time in the Church, Milco said, clarity is necessary. “We need to draw lines. We need to be loving and understanding and sympathize with people where they’re at, but truth still needs to be truth, and it still needs to be stated clearly.”

For Milco, the best “bridge” is an authentic, authoritative, clear statement of Catholic doctrine. “I think that’s what will reach out to people in a most profound way. Too often today, that’s what’s lacking from the hierarchy. There’s a lot of hemming and hawing, a lot of hiding, a lot of bureaucratic distractions and not enough clear proclamation of the Gospels.”


Lack of Clarity?

Such clarity, Father Martin’s critics say, is lacking in his book. Father Murray said he fears that even though the book does not explicitly advocate doctrinal change, it will have the effect of leading people to think Christian charity requires that the Church accept the “gay” lifestyle.

Building a Bridge also suggests that the Church has not reached out to “LGBT” Catholics in a meaningful way. Yet, Father Murray said, Father Martin never refers in his book to Courage, which helps Catholics who experience same-sex attraction to live chaste and holy lives.

“More needs to be done to promote Courage and other outreach programs to help people experiencing the homosexual inclination to reject the so-called ‘gay’ lifestyle and embrace purity and true and chaste friendships,” Father Murray said. “Father Martin never hints at this in a book that claims to want to help homosexual persons enter into a better relationship with the Church.”

Judy Roberts writes from

 Graytown, Ohio.

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