(RNS) — In my work as a kind of roving correspondent in the culture wars, I have seen the debate over the role of LGBT people in the life of the church play out in both Protestant and Catholic communities — and it plays out differently.
Protestant traditions, some of which are fully affirming of LGBT people in the life and ministry of their churches, can almost by definition tolerate debates, denominational switching and changing interpretations.
In the Catholic Church, both the institution and its LGBT adherents have faced different kinds of challenges. The result has been a kind of institutional dismissal that particularly alienates and marginalizes people whose sexual identities clash with the teachings of a Church that struggles with whether or how to recognize them.
And yet LGBT Catholics have stories to tell.
Regrettably, those stories have largely gone untold or unheard, lost in an unbridgeable chasm between Catholics who are LGBT and the Church into which they were baptized.
The Rev. James Martin, a New York-based Jesuit priest and writer, discerned a vocation to fill that gap. His ministry led to a 2017 book, “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity.”
For his efforts, Father Martin has received widespread appreciation from LGBT Catholics and their families. He has also received considerable scorn, of a stunningly personal and vicious nature.
Though some of his appearances have been canceled due to pressure from self-styled traditional Catholics, Father Martin maintains a brisk speaking schedule.
Intrigued by the passion of his fans and his detractors, I eagerly attended a talk he gave this week at Georgetown University.
It turns out that not much of what Father Martin says is opinion. Most of his talk was simply stating facts leading to the rather obvious conclusion that the Church has not treated LGBT people with respect, compassion or sensitivity.
Neither, Father Martin openly concedes, has the LGBT community regarded the Catholic Church respectfully, compassionately or sensitively. This is not a major theme of his book talk, but it figures prominently in the book and has led to strong criticism from LGBT activists and allies.
Father Martin’s approach is fundamentally pastoral, and he is careful to never contradict Church teaching. This balance is what infuriates his detractors.
He is open with some things: “Let us lay to rest terms like ‘afflicted with same-sex attraction.’” He plainly stated, “I am concerned with the recent trend of Catholic institutions firing LGBT men and women.” Noting the uneven application of Church teaching used to root out school, parish and charity employees in same-sex marriages, Father Martin points out that the Catechism forbids unjust discrimination.
But we never hear Father Martin say the Church is wrong about marriage and sexuality, though his critics believe this is obviously his view.
At the Georgetown event, an audience member asked Father Martin what he would do if he could make one radical change in the Church relating to LGBT people.
He did not say that the Church should endorse same-sex marriage. He did not say that the Church should affirm same-sex relationships, though he noted approvingly that the cardinal archbishop of Vienna has made statements about the imperative to recognize aspects of gay relationships.
He simply said he would ask the pope and others to reconsider the terms “objectively disordered” and “intrinsically disordered” — those used by the Catechism of the Catholic Church in reference to homosexuality.
Much of Father Martin’s presentation, and a forthcoming expanded edition of his book, recalls heartbreaking stories of exclusion, rejection and pain that LGBT Catholics have endured.
After his talk, I hoped to ask Father Martin to say more about his pastoral recommendations for LGBT Catholics. Might their encounter with Christ lead them to affirm Church teaching and aspire them to lives of celibacy? Should it?
Should noncelibate LGBT Catholics receive Communion? Can they be in a state of grace, or are they necessarily in a state of grave mortal sin? Are they akin to fornicators and adulterers, or is their sin (if it is a sin at all) comparable to eating meat on Lenten Fridays?
But the moment after Father Martin ended his presentation with a brief, fervent prayer, the stage began filling with men and women of every age. They all had stories to tell, and they needed a priest to hear them.
The moment seemed wrong for “gotcha” questions from a heathen journalist, though I suspect Father Martin will have to answer them sooner or later if he has not already.
I milled about at the wine reception, contemplating how I as a nominal mainline Protestant can believe whatever I want about the divisive theological questions of the day. There is always a church where I can receive Communion. My own conscience is all that stands in my way. How different it must feel for these Catholics!
I asked one gay Catholic layman why he didn’t just convert to Episcopalianism. “This is my Church,” he said. “She is my mother. I am hers and she is mine.”
After a while, I walked back into the auditorium, hoping to ask the famed Jesuit my questions.
He was still there, listening to stories.
Maybe more priests and bishops should do likewise.
(Jacob Lupfer is a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)