Commentary

Fr. James Martin's LGBT book: Where it's strong, where it falls short

Rainbow flag. Credit: Guillaume Paumier via Flickr, filter added (CC BY 2.0).
Rainbow flag. Credit: Guillaume Paumier via Flickr, filter added (CC BY 2.0).

.- There’s been a lot of chatter about Fr. James Martin’s new book, “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity,” and given the topic, it’s understandable why. Pope Francis’ call to “encounter” has reinforced the necessity for Catholics to go bring the Gospel to those on the margins. Within American society at large, one of the most visible minorities on the margins are those who experience same-sex attractions or identify as LGBT, and ministry to this community has been of special concern among faithful Catholics in recent years. At the same time, both communities have borne legitimate struggles, as the Church faces pressures to choose between its teachings and public service, and those who identify as LGBT – including celibate Catholics who abide by Church teaching – have for years faced violence, ridicule and discrimination for their attractions.

The book contains many good and practical explanations for why conversations between these groups can come to a standstill. Fr. Martin points out how the scandal of the sex abuse crisis or mistreatment by persons in the Church can make it difficult for members of the LGBT community to listen to the Church’s guidance. Additionally, he explains to members of the LGBT community why it’s important to respect the teaching authority of the Church. Advice like this is clarifying and can help facilitate conversations with more patience and understanding. The book closes with a series of prayers and spiritual reflections, some of which provide a welcome antidote to the Pelagian poisons of our time: Fr. Martin rightfully reinforces God’s love for all his children in a world that places terms and conditions upon our human dignity and worth.

Yes, all of us are sinners and fall short of the glory of God and face the consequences of our actions. But all of us are created in the image and likeness of God; it is not our action or inaction, but God’s grace, which secures our salvation. I can only hope that these reflections provide spiritual fruit for all of the book’s readers who feel rejected, neglected, hurt, or who think their deeds somehow have rendered them unworthy of God’s love, particularly readers who experience same-sex attraction or identify as part of the LGBT community.

However, there were other aspects of the book that were troubling.  

Most of all, I was confused by the book’s avoidance of the Church’s teaching on the Sacrament of marriage, as well as the importance of the gifts of celibacy and chastity for the life of the Church. Likewise, I was baffled by Fr. Martin’s reluctance to acknowledge Catholics who experience same-sex attraction who live in obedience to Church teaching – either through celibacy or in sacramental marriages to persons of the opposite sex. If the purpose of the book is to build a bridge between the Church and the broader LGBT community, why skip over the perspective of those at the crossroads of living a Catholic life and experiencing same-sex attraction?

Eve Tushnet, an author, pro-life activist and Catholic who identifies as a lesbian spoke to similar frustrations, particularly the book’s avoidance of sexual ethics, in her review of Fr. Martin’s book for the Washington Post. “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 culture are never addressed.”  

Tushnet later continues: “In a culture where everything from pop songs to health insurance urges us to structure our lives around romance and marriage, gay Christians have a chance – or a duty – to show that you can make a life of devotion, joy and mutual sacrifice within celibacy. And straight Christians have a chance not only to live the models we’ve shown them, following the paths we’ve blazed, but to support us when our callings to non-marital love leave us economically or emotionally vulnerable.”

Given the topic, it seemed jarringly incomplete to be denied even a reference to the call of Tushnet and other LGBT Christians trying to live in accord with Church teaching.

After reading, I also found myself wondering about the definitions Fr. Martin lays out, particularly those surrounding identity.

While certainly respect and sensitivity are necessary for any difficult conversation, I can’t help but wonder if Fr. Martin’s fixation on identity as LGBT overlooks Catholics who experience same-sex attraction but do not wish to identify as such. For instance, members of groups such as Courage share experiences of same-sex attraction, yet many choose not to identify as “gay” or “lesbian.” Furthermore, even within the LGBT community, those labels of “gay” and “lesbian” are falling out of use among the Millennial generation, with the terms like “queer” taking their place. If this book is to help bridge an understanding, why limit this conversation to their exclusion?

On top of that, all of these sexual identities – including that of “straight” – are very recent social constructions. This isn’t to say that identities don’t reflect on how we are shaped and encounter the world, or that they cannot be an effective shorthand for describing one’s background or community. Yet, as Pope Benedict XVI wrote while he was still Joseph Ratzinger, “the human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation” (or any other temporal identity). While we might claim a given identity – Gentile, Jew, Gay, Straight – they aren’t essential to who we are as children of God, nor should they limit us in doing what the Church, our Mother, asks of us.

Sadly, this point of Church teaching and historical understanding doesn’t come across clearly in Fr. Martin’s book. In one section, Fr. Martin rightly points to the hypocritical “acceptance” of some other groups who publicly disobey Church teaching such as known usurers or those in cohabiting relationships. However, he doesn’t merely call for consistency, but for consistency in acceptance of these forms of public sin. This is problematic for a number of reasons, but most of all because it seems to despair of God’s grace and sells short Christ’s call for all of us to live lives of virtue.

Overall, there are some useful insights in the Building a Bridge’s prayers and descriptions of where many conversations on this topic come to a standstill. And, the book may be a useful tool for a well-formed Catholic who wants a better insight into the LGBT experience, or for a member of that community who wants to understand a neighborhood priest's perspective. However, bridge-building is a difficult task. Hopefully the fruits of this book will prove to be a solid plank, but there is clearly a need for other resources, materials and direction to make up for what is lacking in this book as we seek to span these waters.

Tags: Marriage, Catholic News, Church Teaching, Dialogue, LGBT, Respect

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