Fr. James Martin Responds to Critics of New Book on LGBT Issues

Amid the flurry of reviews and interviews surrounding his new book, Building a Bridge, Fr. James Martin, S.J. has responded to critics as a way to create greater dialogue. Today’s post features one review along with Martin’s responses. To read Bondings 2.0’s coverage of previous reviews by David Cloutier and Eve Tushnet, click here and here respectively.

y450-293Martin responded to Cloutier’s review in America by addressing the three problems which Cloutier believed makes the proposed bridge “shaky.”

First, Martin argues against Cloutier’s critique that LGBT people are problematically lumped together as a singular group in the book. Cloutier claimed that, in reality, there is tremendous difference among LGBT persons. He also stated that LGBT people differ from other groups in the church because their identities directly challenge church teaching. Martin replied:

“[M]y point was not that L.G.B.T. Catholics are all the same (or that that label is comprehensive) but that many have faced similar problems in the church: prejudice and exclusion based on sexual orientation and identity. . .

“We have an unfortunate tendency to view L.G.B.T. issues purely through the prism of only one of the Catechism’s teachings on homosexuality—its prohibition on sexual expression—rather than through the experiences of L.G.B.T. people as human beings. We tend to view them as a category of people who present a theological problem rather than as individuals with a graced history. I know that Prof. Cloutier does not wish to negate their pain, but it is important to see them as not inherently presenting a ‘problem.'”

Second, against Cloutier’s claim that the book seems more fitting for the LGBT conversation of the 1990s than the 21st century discussion, Martin said what has changed in the church is the number of LGBT Catholics who have come out:

“As more Catholics are affected, more parishes will be. As more parishes are, more priests will be. As more priests are, more bishops will be. And so on. I believe the explosion of L.G.B.T. Catholics ‘coming out’ and claiming their identities will lead to a growing desire among the entire People of God for welcome, and for what Pope Francis calls ‘encounter.'”

Encounter, Martin explained, is the work of the Holy Spirit and has no expiration date. Widespread social acceptance of LGBT persons “has been drive largely by encounter,” and within the church coming out “would still be quite novel, even radical in some circles.”

Third, Martin tackles Cloutier’s critique that the book never addresses sexual ethics. Martin said the omission was “intentional” because church teaching is already quite clear, but:

“At the same time, the L.G.B.T. community’s stance on the matter is clear: Same-sex relations are part and parcel of their lives. (I am leaving out the relatively small portion of the L.G.B.T. community that thinks otherwise.) Theologically speaking, you could say that this teaching has not been ‘received’ by the L.G.B.T. community, to whom it was directed.

“So I intentionally decided not to discuss that question, since it was an area on which the two sides are too far apart.”

Another review came from Sally Kohn, a lesbian essayist writing in The Washington Post, who offered an outsider perspective on the book. A secular Jew, Kohn said the book was “a lovely glimpse at church-community relations buttressed by an enlightening collection of uplifting scripture.” But, she continued:

“The problem is that Martin doesn’t adequately address the deep ecclesiastical and theological roots of the Catholic Church’s anti-gay antagonism. And so his book reads like a solution to a problem he fundamentally misunderstands.”

Kohn also questioned whether the question of homophobia in the Catholic Church could be adequately dealt with if not also addressing misogyny in the church. She added:

“Beyond the most superficial gestures and rhetoric of respect, compassion and sensitivity, Martin doesn’t address the sorts of lives he envisions for LGBT Catholics. Should they be celibate? Not marry? Exactly how welcome does Martin think they should be? Absent these details, Martin risks promising merely the illusion of equal dignity. LGBT Catholics don’t just want the lip service of respect, they want actual equal treatment.”

Martin responded to Kohn on the America website, saying her review “downplays [LGBT Catholics’] religious convictions and the mystical nature of the church.” He continued:

“To be sure, the onus is on the institutional church to reach out, to take risks and to take the first steps along the bridge of reconciliation. Why? Because it is members of the hierarchy who have marginalized the L.G.B.T. community, not the other way around. . .

“Moreover, the question of dialogue between L.G.B.T. Catholics and the institutional church cannot be seen strictly in ‘political’ terms, as Ms. Kohn seems to do in her piece. Granted, our ‘intrachurch’ discussion has ramifications beyond the Catholic world, but the discussion cannot be separated from questions of faith in God, companionship with Jesus Christ and trust in the Holy Spirit. A critique that does not work within this framework is going to come up short.”

Martin has a bigger message beyond answering the specific objections of this first round of reviewers:

“I hope the book shows how much in our Catholic tradition, particularly the Gospels, points us forward to a culture of radical welcome. The central assertion of the book—that for Jesus is there is no us and them, there is only us—does not need approval.

“My overall goal was not to win an argument but to help start a conversation and create a space for church officials who want to reach out to L.G.B.T. people, and for L.G.B.T. Catholics who want to know that they have a place in the church.”

Given the book’s high profile, and how contentious LGBT issues in the church can be, the conversation over Fr. Martin’s work will  surely continue, just as he intended.

Have you read Building a Bridge? What did you think? Leave your thoughts in the ‘Comments’ section below. To read Bondings 2.0’s full coverage about Fr. James Martin’s involvement on LGBT issues, click here. You can order Fr. Martin’s book by clicking here.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, July 12, 2017

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