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Q&A: Rev. James Martin contemplates reaction to his book on LGBT Catholics

'What most LGBT Catholics want first is simply to feel at home in their parishes, and not be treated like dirt, which many of them are,' said the Rev. James Martin, author of a new book on the Roman Catholic Church and LGBT people.

“Building A Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity” by the Rev. James Martin. Images courtesy of Harper Collins

(RNS) — Since its publication in June, Father James Martin’s book on LGBT Catholics and their church, “Building a Bridge,” has initiated widespread and occasionally heated discussion.

In his book, Father Martin, a Jesuit priest and best-selling author, calls for LGBT Catholics and the Catholic hierarchy to treat each other with “respect, sensitivity and compassion.”

The book has been endorsed by several bishops and two cardinals, including Cardinal Kevin Farrell, a Vatican official who called it “welcome and much-needed.” A recent discussion of the book at Fordham University with two theologians prompted this interview with another Fordham professor, Charles Camosy.  

A recent discussion of the Rev. James Martin’s book at Fordham University. Photo courtesy of Charles Camosy

Your most recent book has caused quite a stir. Can you share some of the more positive reactions? How do they correspond with what you hoped the book might accomplish?

Well, the positive reactions vastly outweigh the few negative ones, which are mainly confined to online responses, and even those mostly confined to far-right websites.  The most common responses, though, are typified by those that come when I speak at parishes, retreat houses and at other Catholic venues. And it’s been overwhelming, to be honest: LGBT Catholics, their parents and grandparents, and their brothers and sisters, hug me and cry when they tell me what the book means to them.  

For a long while I was confused about the intensity of the emotional reactions, since the book is pretty mild. But the more I thought about it, and asked friends about it, the more I realized has to do with the fact that it’s a priest saying these things. 

My main hope for the book was that it would start, or at least continue, a conversation that needs to happen about how the Catholic Church treats its LGBT members.  I also hoped to invite church leaders — bishops, priests and lay leaders — to consider the ways that the institutional church reaches out to LGBT people.  Or doesn’t reach out to them.  

And I know, from a number of public statements as well as private communications from cardinals, archbishops, bishops and even a number of people in the Vatican, that the book has prompted that discussion.

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What about some of the more significant negative reactions? 

Any book is bound to get some criticism, especially one on a topic like this. “Building a Bridge” was meant to start conversation, after all, so I’ve been grateful for the thoughtful critiques, like David Cloutier’s insightful piece in Commonweal, for example. 

But some of it has been vicious: hateful comments, ad hominem attacks and deeply un-Christian reactions, apparently animated by homophobia. But it always reminds me of what many LGBT people put up with daily, and the need for advocacy for LGBT people. 

The most common noncrazy critique is that there wasn’t more focus on chastity, which the catechism requires for LGBT people. But the book is not a book about sexual morality, or a book about moral theology or a book about how LGBT people are supposed to lead their sexual lives. It’s an invitation to dialogue and then to prayer. It’s about welcoming LGBT people with “respect, sensitivity and compassion.”

The LGBT community is the only one that some Catholics view exclusively and entirely through the lens of sex. But what most LGBT Catholics want first is simply to feel at home in their parishes, and not be treated like dirt, which many of them are.

On the far right, though, even the notion of listening to LGBT people seems anathema. The hatred and contempt are just astonishing. And I wonder, “Do these people know any LGBT Catholics? Have they ever listened to them? Do they even think they’re human?” Again, it’s a reminder of the sheer hatred that some people have. 

Much of this is based on fear. Fear of the LGBT person as the “other.” Fear of listening to someone who might challenge your stereotypes. Fear of their own complicated sexuality. As St. Paul said, “Perfect love drives out fear.” But perfect fear drives out love.

I’ve noticed that in recent days the attacks on you have been ramping up and become particularly nasty. 

Yes, a few days ago one prominent Catholic said that I was “pansified,” which I suppose  is a way of calling me a “pansy,” a slur that I know many  gay men have had to hear. When I pointed out that is the kind of insult that LGBT people have to hear every day, and an illustration of homophobia in the church, rather than apologize, the attacks continued. And there have been other attacks, of course, sometimes near-hysterical ones. One far-right website has produced a whole series of attack videos on me.

Another  seems obsessed with attacking me, and LGBT people, every day. Sometimes every hour. 

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising. As I’ve said, there is a lot of hate around, even in the church. And most of it seems motivated by a blinding anger. But, again, the hatred only serves to remind me that advocating for LGBT people is necessary. The hate reminds me of the need for love. 

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But criticism has also been directed at you from people who are strong LGBT allies, yes? For instance, just a few days ago you had a public conversation with my colleague Patrick Hornbeck in which you faced some criticism along these lines.

Yes, that conversation with Patrick and Natalia Imperatori-Lee, who are both theologians and also friends of mine, was very helpful for me. But I would say that anticipated the kinds of critique that Patrick advanced in our conversation. I expected that a few LGBT Catholics would say that I hadn’t gone far enough. Some wanted me to promote same-sex marriage or challenge church teaching, which the book doesn’t do. Nor would I do. 

Patrick also feels that the listening and dialogue that I’m calling for isn’t enough, and that LGBT people have to push more, in order to effect a change in the way that the church treats them. I understand his perspective, but I think that we’re still at the very beginning of the conversation. So calling for listening and dialogue — on both sides — is the first step, and, as we’ve seen from some of the hysterical reaction on the far right, certainly challenging.

The Rev. James Martin, center, in Hoboken, N.J., for a recent discussion of his book. Photo courtesy of Charles Camosy.

It’s also challenging for LGBT Catholics to be invited to treat their bishops with “respect, compassion and sensitivity,” as the book does. That’s understandable. Many of them have been marginalized, excluded and insulted by church leaders. I’ve heard, especially since the book was published, some of the most incredible stories from LGBT Catholics about mistreatment from church officials. Still, part of being a Christian is loving those with whom you disagree, and praying for them, and surely that’s part of “respect.”

Now, I want to make clear that the onus for this bridge-building is on the institutional church — because it’s the institutional church that has marginalized LGBT Catholics, not the other way around. Nonetheless, it’s a two-way bridge. We’re all Christians.    

One of the many things I’ve loved about your public interventions is that intellectually honest people could never put you in a “right” box or a “left” box. One day you’ll be calling out Paul Ryan for a position on health care that’s contrary to Catholic teaching, but the next day you’ll be calling out Justin Trudeau in a similar way for his pro-choice position on abortion. Has it been difficult to inhabit this Catholic space?

Not really! The Gospel transcends all those categories. Being pro-life, as I am, means supporting all life as a precious gift from God. That includes life in the womb, of course. And most people would expect, and should expect, a Catholic priest to defend that. 

But it also includes the life of an inmate on death row. The life of an elderly person in a hospice. The life of a refugee on a crowded boat in the middle of the sea. And here, the life of an LGBT person, who also deserves to have his or her or their life raised up as holy, precious and unique. Pro-life is a lot broader than people might think. So my “box” is the Gospel.

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Church politics can be even more nasty than secular politics. You’ve been at the center of some biting criticism in recent weeks and months, but you are also a hero to many serious Catholics in the United States and around the world. As someone who cares very deeply about the church’s unity in the midst of its diversity: How do you gauge the level of polarization in the church at the moment? 

The level of polarization is the worst I’ve ever seen in my 30 years as a Jesuit.  And I think a lot of it has to do with the pushback, opposition and downright contempt for my fellow Jesuit, Pope Francis.  His emphasis on mercy, on accompaniment, on encounter and, especially, as in (his apostolic exhortation) “Amoris Laetitia,” on discernment, has driven some people into near hysterics. 

The crashing irony is that the same people who were saying during the pontificates of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI that any disagreement whatsoever with a pope was equivalent to dissent are now disagreeing with the pope all over the place. 

To that point, a bishop friend who works in the Vatican said to me: “It’s not surprising that you’re getting so much criticism. They can’t attack the pope all the time, so they’ll attack you.” Social media just intensifies all of this.

Some of this spills into parishes, but not much. In most parishes, people ask if the book is getting much pushback, and I’ll say, “A little bit — mainly online.” Then they’ll ask me from what people, and I’ll tell them and they’ll say, “Who?” So it’s not much to worry about, much less fear. 

(Charles C. Camosy is associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University and author of “Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation.” The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service)