“Treating LGBT people with respect, compassion, and sensitivity is much more than just looking at same-sex marriage and same-sex relations, because they’re more than just their sexual lives, just as straight people are. We would never focus completely on chastity or something like that with straight people – or even, say, straight young people. But we tend to do that with LGBT people, unfortunately.”
-Fr. James Martin SJ
Fr. James Martin is a Jesuit priest, scholar, author, and editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine “America.”
He’s the author of the book “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity.”
Father Martin is a respected and thoughtful voice in the Catholic Church. With this book he has turned his attention to addressing homosexuality in the church, advocating for a deeper level of understanding and inclusivity.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
BILL BAKER: LGBT Catholic: The future of inclusivity in the Catholic Church.
FATHER JAMES MARTIN: We treat LGBT people so differently than straight people. I mean, divorced and remarried people, people who use birth control, people who use IVF. They are not exempting themselves from the church. They feel perfectly welcome in their parishes. It’s the LGBT person who is sort of targeted and whose sexual morality is put under this kind of microscope. And so, when you meet these people you realize how great their faith is because they really have to want to be in the church. They have to choose to be in the church despite a lot of the persecution and exclusion that they feel.
BILL BAKER: This is Beliefs. I’m Bill Baker. Jesuit priest Father James Martin, a thoughtful and respected voice in the Catholic Church is the author of the book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity.
Known for his thoughtful, insightful theological views on many subjects, now he turns to homosexuality.
Father Martin is a passionate advocate for embracing a community often shunned by the church.
BILL BAKER: Father Martin, welcome.
FATHER JAMES MARTIN: Thank you. Good to be here.
BILL BAKER: Father Martin, you’re a well-known Jesuit, a well-known face of the Catholic Church in America. How did you wind up getting into this subject? Where did this come from?
FATHER JAMES MARTIN: Well, for many years, like many priests and brothers and sisters and laypeople, I’d worked, I would say, on an informal basis with LGBT people— seeing them for spiritual direction counseling, confession, those kinds of things. And I’ve written about them several times in America Magazine, where I work. But it wasn’t until the Pulse nightclub massacre in 2016, where 49 people were killed—gay people—that I started to think it was time to speak out more publicly. And what galvanized me was seeing that so few bishops had said anything after the massacres and you know as you know very well after any sort of shooting the USCCB or the Catholic bishops or individual bishops will say something and it struck me that it was very surprising and disappointing that the bishops didn’t come out to say something. And I thought we really needed to address this topic at this time.
BILL BAKER: The book is wide-ranging and it approaches the subject in the church that’s very complex. What is your approach?
FATHER JAMES MARTIN: Well, my approach is basically to use three words in the Catechism which are respect, compassion, and sensitivity, and unpack those words in the book and invite both the Catholic Church—the institutional church, that is, the decision makers—and the LGBT Catholic community to treat one another with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. And the second part of the book, which I think is the more important part, is an invitation to prayer. So, I use several gospel passages to invite people to think about the ways that Jesus treated people who felt like they were on the margins. And of course the way that we are called to treat people on the margins as well.
BILL BAKER: You made a really powerful video associated with this book. Do you want to tell people how they can get that video? But, let’s also talk about a couple of the aspects of the video, and one of those aspects is finding a church, a Catholic church, that works for you. Some Catholic churches don’t embrace the LGBT community. Others do.
FATHER JAMES MARTIN: Well, it is and it’s very sad. Some people have to drive miles and miles and miles to find one or sometimes go a different diocese just to find a place where they don’t feel excluded or marginalized or insulted. And the video I did, called “Spiritual Insights for LGBT Catholics,” tries to give advice to people who might not have someone to talk to. And I just think it’s sad that a person’s faith life should depend so much on where they happen to live. If you happen to live in a big city with welcoming parishes, you are in luck. If you happen to live and you’re an LGBT person—especially a young person—and you’re not welcomed in your parish, it can affect not just your outlook on the faith and the church, but on God as well. I think that’s actually a real scandal in the church, that so much depends on where you happen to be.
BILL BAKER: Now, this book has been praised by many, including a couple very significant cardinals, and it has also been criticized by many including some Catholic writers, people even from the LGBT community, saying things like, it’s one thing to have respect, but respect only works if it goes both ways. And many of the leaders of the church don’t respect that community.
FATHER JAMES MARTIN: Well that’s true. I think it’s important to say that the book was written with the approval of my Jesuit superiors. It’s been endorsed by all sorts of cardinals including Cardinal Farrell, who runs the dicastery for family, laity, and life, and for the most part I’d say 95 percent of people have been grateful for it. At the beginning there was some pushback from some quarters of the LGBT community, but I think that’s died down a lot because I think they’ve seen that the dialogue that started has been useful. There’s always going to be a push for more, but I also have to work within the constraints of being a Jesuit and being under obedience.
So, I think that the book was supposed to start a dialogue and I think it’s been successful in doing that.
BILL BAKER: The church itself, of course, has dealt with this issue formally and in some controversial ways. For example, in 1986, the bishops’ letter for from the Congregation of the Doctrine used words like “distorted notions and practices” when referring to the gay community. Also the current Bishops Conference priority is “defense of traditional marriage.” How do you make this work in your book in communicating with the gay lesbian community?
FATHER JAMES MARTIN: Well, an important thing to say is that in my book and in my talks I’m not challenging any church teaching. And so, I stay away from issues of same-sex marriage and even same-sex relations. But the point is that the so much more to talk about when it comes to LGBT people. To use an example, two or three weeks ago I did a retreat for LGBT Catholic families at a Jesuit retreat center in Wernersville, Pa. And I met a couple who had three LGBT kids, say 13, 15, 16. And now these kids aren’t in any sort of marriage. They’re not sexually active. And so the question is, where’s the church for them?
And I asked them, what is it like in your parish? And one of the kids said, well, some people won’t talk to us anymore. So, I think what we need to see is that treating LGBT people with respect, compassion, and sensitivity is much more than looking at same-sex marriage and same-sex relation because they’re more than just their sexual lives. I mean… we would never focus completely on chastity or something like that with straight people or even straight young people. But we tend to do that with LGBT people, unfortunately.
BILL BAKER: The pope himself has made some interesting statements. Someone asked him about gay and lesbian issues and he said, “Who am I to judge?” And then very recently the pope spoke to a young man and there’s a video of it, Juan Carlos. And he said the pope said, “God made you that way.”
FATHER JAMES MARTIN: Sure. I think he’s taken many positive steps forward. And as you say, his five most famous words, “Who am I to judge?” came in response to a question specifically about gay priests and he said, “If a man is seeking God, who am I to judge?” The next day they pushed him, as journalists often wont to do, and said, “Did you mean just gay priests?” And he said, “No, I meant all homosexuals…. all gay people.” He is the first pope to ever use the word “gay.” He met with Juan Carlos Cruz, who I know, and said, “God made you that way.” He has talked about Jesus not saying to homosexuals, “I would reject you” or push you away.
So, I think he’s been very forward-thinking. He has also perhaps, more importantly for the long-range future of the church, has appointed many cardinals archbishops and bishops who themselves are welcoming. For example, Cardinal Tobin, the archbishop of Newark, had a welcome mass for LGBT people. So, this pope has done a great deal. Some people feel that he hasn’t gone far enough. But you know, we know that he has gay friends and that he is very sympathetic, and so I think it’s he’s been a great boon to the LGBT Catholic community.
BILL BAKER: Father Martin, what’s next on this subject? You’ve kind of cracked the door open. Where do you think we’re going to go from here?
FATHER JAMES MARTIN: What I hope for is more dialogue. And I think one of the important things for the church to do is really to listen to the experiences of LGBT people. For example, that family I talked about before. What can the church learn from parents of LGBT people? What can the church learn from the experiences of LGBT people and not simply on LGBT topics but what’s their experience of God like? Who is Jesus for them? How can we do some theology with their experience and kind of reflect on their experience of Jesus Christ because the Holy Spirit is at work through them.
I also think that retreats and outreach programs and masses for LGBT Catholics help to really bridge the gap between, shall we say, their suspicions because often they’ve been treated really poorly, and our good intentions. And so I think more outreach programs and more specific ministries toward that population is really where the church needs to go.
BILL BAKER: The next thing I want to talk about is the subject of “being born like that.” Most psychologists, psychiatrists in this world say about 10 percent of America is gay or lesbian and they had no control over that. Do you want to talk a little about that subject?
FATHER JAMES MARTIN: Well, that’s right. As you say, most reputable psychologists, psychiatrists, biologists, social scientists say that people are simply born this way. More importantly, I say the lived experience of LGBT people they’ll tell you that, that they’ve always felt this way. And so, to treat people differently because of the way that they’ve been born, to say that they’re inherently sinful or that they are inherently bad, I think is really doing a number on people.
I met a woman, who is the parent of a gay teen, at a talk I gave about a year ago, and she said, “Do people understand how damaging that kind of thought is, how damaging it is to say you know you’re intrinsically disordered in yourself?”
And she said to me, “Do people understand what that could do to a 14-year-old child?” She said it could destroy them. And so, I think we have to be really careful about that kind of false science that says you choose to be LGBT, because it can be really destructive for someone— especially someone in adolescence. And so, the church needs to understand the effects of what I would call stigmatizing language and almost language that does violence against someone’s spiritual life.
BILL BAKER: What is amazing to me, really, is for decades how the church has treated people from the gay lesbian community and yet it seems like the people in that community still are seeking the church. Do you sense more people from the LGBT community coming back to the church these days or at least going to religion somewhere?
FATHER JAMES MARTIN: Well, I think that’s the good point, and what I want to say first is that that we treat LGBT people so differently than straight people. I mean, you know divorced and remarried people, people who use birth control, people who use IVF—they are not exempting themselves from the church. They feel perfectly welcome in their parishes. It’s the LGBT person who is sort of targeted and whose sexual morality is put under this kind of microscope. And so, when you meet these people you realize how great their faith is because they really have to want to be in the church. They have to choose to be in the church despite a lot of the persecution and exclusion that they feel.
And so, I always think of the line from Jesus meeting the Roman Centurion and in Capernium where he says, “Never in Israel have I seen such faith like this.” And so that’s the kind of faith that I see among these very faithful LGBT Catholics.
BILL BAKER: Can you give us some examples of LGBT Catholics that have really moved you during this whole experience?
FATHER JAMES MARTIN: Well, there are many. I again would point to that family that I met with the LGBT kids. I met a woman who told me that her pastor said to her after he found out that she was lesbian – and not married, by the way – “Your kind are not welcome here and you might want to try to find another parish.” And she told me about how she found this parish that was welcoming, and to me, her story is more about how persevering she was. A mother told me the story that her son had been estranged from the church for years because he was gay. And the son came back to Mass on Easter and when the priest got up to proclaim the Easter gospel and started to preach, he started to preach about the evils of same-sex marriage on Easter.
And so, he left; he walked out of the church. But the mother still perseveres and still prays for her son.
And so, it’s this sense of people who have been mistreated, been misunderstood, who have been excluded, but who know that they have a place in the church. I always tell people, “Look, you’re a baptized Catholic, you are as much a Catholic as Pope Francis, your local bishop, me, or anyone who sits in those pews.” For a lot of them, it’s sort of owning their baptism and recognizing that God calls them in the church even though it’s difficult for them, and for a reason—to help build up the church in their own way.
BILL BAKER: Let’s talk about the church, and not only the leaders of the church but the priests of the church, and sisters and the nuns of the church. There’s always been a kind of discussion saying there are a lot of closeted gay people in the Catholic Church, “closet clerics.” Do you talk at all about that?
FATHER JAMES MARTIN: I talk about that in my book and here’s the thing: there have always been celibate gay priests. And what I mean by that, to be specific, is men who are homosexual but are also celibate, chaste gay members of religious orders. So, brothers and priests and sisters in religious orders who live their vows of chastity. They’ve always been. I know them. I know probably hundreds of them. And I like to say to people you have been the masses with them, they have baptized your children, they have buried your parents. They have given you first communion, they have anointed you when you’ve been sick. You may not know about them, they may have been your teachers and in a religious school or an order school. They are there.
The reason that they’re not out, shall we say, or more public are many reasons. First of all, many of their bishops and religious superiors simply tell them don’t talk about it. All right. Second, many of them are just afraid. And in this poisonous environment where being gay is equated with being an abuser—which is a complete stereotype—who would want to come out? Who would want to be public? And third, a lot of them are simply private.
One of the reasons, therefore, that we don’t see more counterexamples to the abusive gay priests, for example, is because these men— hundreds of them, thousands of them— are unwilling or unable to be public about their sexuality.
And so, I think that what happens is the church misses an opportunity. And the stereotype of the gay priest is the abuser, which of course is a vicious circle because it makes people even less likely to want to talk about their sexuality.
Now, I want to be clear: I don’t think priests need to be talking about their sexuality all the time. But I think that if the church had some good examples of healthy and holy gay priests, you would see the conversation around gay priests and around homosexuality in general, change. And I might add, gay bishops as well.
BILL BAKER: Jesuit Father Jim Martin, thank you for being with us.
FATHER JAMES MARTIN: My pleasure.
BILL BAKER: Our guest was Jesuit priest and author Father James Martin.
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Beliefs is brought to you with the support of the Bernard L. Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy and Education at the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University. Jay Woodward is our producer. The theme music is by Edward Bilous.
I’m Bill Baker. Thanks for listening and please tell a friend.