Fr. Martin’s Bridge: Welcome But in Need of Repair
Fr. James Martin, S.J., a winsome and widely read writer about all things Catholic and Jesuit, proposes to build a bridge between LGBT Catholics and the leadership of the Church. He published a book this past summer, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into A Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity, which received much attention in the Catholic press. Critics, including a reviewer in the left-leaning Commonweal, question why Fr. Martin scarcely incorporated the Church’s teachings about sexuality and marriage into his proposal. I will also raise this question. But not just yet. Building a bridge is a very Christian thing to do.
The Christian life assuredly involves obedience to the moral law but also much more: laboring to repair what is broken. Bringing together people and groups who are at odds, healing wounds, repentance, and forgiveness are all, in the theology of the Church, the work of reconciliation, of which the Apostle Paul exhorts the Church in Corinth – and us – to be ambassadors. The Letter to the Ephesians describes Christ as the one who preached peace by “destroying the dividing wall of hostility” and reconciling estranged communities through His death on the cross. To work for repair is to live out the Eucharist, as Pope Benedict XVI explained in his apostolic exhortation of 2007, Sacramentum Caritatis. It is to heed the Beatitude, blessed are the peacemakers. And it is to practice mercy, the virtue that Pope St. John Paul made the theme of his pontificate and that Pope Francis has placed at the center of his own.
Fr. Martin opens his book with the shootings at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June 2016 and thus draws our attention to violence against gays and, by extension, to mockery, marginalization, and other forms of mistreatment over many centuries. Not long after the shootings, Pope Francis called on Catholics and other Christian communities to apologize to gays whom “[the Christian community] has offended.” He thus extended a practice of mea culpa that Pope St. John Paul II performed with respect to over 21 people groups and historical episodes. This is authentic Catholic repair work.
Fr. Martin also rightly reminds us that reconciliation begins with the initiative of God, who “demonstrated his own love for us . . . while we were still sinners,” as Paul wrote to the Church in Rome. Calling upon the Church to imitate this initiative, Fr. Martin draws our attention to the story of Zacchaeus in the Gospel of Luke, in which this corrupt tax collector climbs a fig tree to see Jesus above the crowd. Jesus gazes upon Zacchaeus and says, “I must stay at your home today,” leading Zacchaeus to turn his life to justice. In like manner, Pope Francis has extended his hand to people estranged from the Church through dramatic gestures like telephoning them. This, too, is the work of repair.
Fr. Martin has built numerous friendships with LGBT Catholics (to use his term), describing how, over three decades, he has “listened to their joys and hopes, their griefs and anxieties, sometimes accompanied by tears, sometimes by laughter.” His commitment to repair is personal and pastoral. He is not only the designer of a bridge but also a construction worker, offering his own loving labor to span a chasm that troubles him.
It is out of sympathy for Fr. Martin’s bridge that I see in it the need for some critical repairs. Reconciliation means the restoration of right relationship – people overcoming obstacles to right relationship with one another and to God. Healing the wounds of the past is essential. So are the Church’s moral teachings, through, which define the content and contours of right relationship. In a YouTube video that Fr. Martin taped in response to his critics, he defends his scant reference to the Church’s teachings by explaining that everyone already knows them and that the depth of disagreement over them inhibits his construction project. Better to begin with what we agree upon, he says.
But can such a bridge succeed in spanning this chasm? The inhabitant of one side of the chasm, which Fr. Martin calls the “institutional church,” meaning “the Vatican, the hierarchy, church leaders, the clergy, and all who work in an official capacity in the church,” does not propose these teachings as arbitrary rules or atavistic obstacles to harmony but rather as the very pathway to happiness, flourishing, and salvation that Jesus Christ sets forth. The Second Vatican Council both emphasized this connection between moral norms and intrinsic human fulfillment and called upon moral theologians to reflect upon it further. Essential, not incidental, to this fulfillment is the complementarity of male and female in marriage and the generative character of sexuality. Through this complementary and generativity, the Bible depicts God’s very creation and redemption of the world, as when Hosea describes God’s espousing Israel to Himself or when Ephesians analogizes the relationship between husband and wife with Christ’s love for His bride, the Church. Reason may discern the truth of the norms as well, the Church teaches. The church, then, cannot omit chastity – for gays, for lesbians, for all of us, each in our own condition – even silently or tacitly from the work of repair.
Omitting the truth of the Church’s teachings about mercy and sexuality places strain on one of the pivotal selling points that Fr. Martin’s offers for his bridge: mercy. Mercy is compassion for the suffering of others that is realized through restorative acts. Unstructured by clear moral norms, however, restoration will lack meaning: What requires restoration? Restoration to what? Were past wrongs and unjust exclusions the results of the Church’s norms themselves? Or of a failure to accompany their truth with compassion and outreach? Lacking an end or standard, mercy will suffer confusion and even a deepening of wounds when bridge crossers discover that inhabitants of the other side did not mean what they had thought or hoped.
Fr. Martin’s silence about norms also confuses another point upon which he insists, that the Church call the LGBT community by its chosen name (or by a variant like LGBTQ, etc.). To omit this name, he says, is to disrespect the people who claim it. Has Fr. Martin considered the Church’s reasons for reluctance, however, or has he dismissed them out of hand? Over the past half-century, LGBT activists have campaigned not simply for compassion and respect, which they rightly deserve, but also for a wholesale revision in norms of sexuality and marriage that the Church has taught over the entire course of its history and that virtually every known civilization has upheld. They have striven to reinvent homosexuality as not just an inclination but also an identity, one whose expression in sexual acts then would be cruel to deny. Hence, they are LGBT (or a variant) and members of the LGBT community. And they have won no less than a Supreme Court decision in favor of the right to marry persons of the same sex.
This claim to identity, though, does not square easily with the Church’s firm and constant teachings. The Catechism speaks respectfully of homosexuals, and Pope Francis of gays, which can be understood to mean persons of deep seated and enduring inclinations. Some Christians have argued that these inclinations can be expressed as gifts that can be channeled towards affectionate yet chaste friendship between members of the same sex. Understandably, some may want to take another step and render the inclination itself as an identity, perhaps expressing the giftedness of the whole person. Yet many in the Church worry that to make this move is to accept the wholesale reinvention of human sexuality and marriage and to negate the Church’s teaching. Pope Francis, with whom Fr. Martin is keen to align himself, has spoken often and directly against “gender ideology,” which holds that the complementarity between male and female has no basis in nature and is entirely culturally constructed. Francis has also spoken against definitions of marriage as other than between man and woman. The nomenclature that respect requires, then, is not as clear as Fr. Martin makes it out to be.
Though Fr. Martin wisely installs two lanes on his bridge, calling LGBT Catholics to respect the hierarchy of the church and not merely the reverse, his lane running to the Church omits consideration of another issue that greatly worries the Church: religious liberty. Over the past decade, merchants, employees, colleges and universities, and religious institutions have been threatened with the loss of jobs and livelihoods for refusing to accept a wholesale reinvention of human sexuality and adhering to traditional norms of marriage and sexuality. Differences over religious liberty widen the chasm that Fr. Martin wishes to ford and cannot be ignored if his bridge is to have two credible lanes.
Let us fix, not nix, Fr. Martin’s bridge. It is worth saving because overcoming enmity, building trust, and exercising mercy are the stuff of the Church’s ministry of reconciliation. Unless the bridge is fastened and girded by the truth of marriage and sexuality, though, it will not stand. A restructured bridge would reflect the holistic, both/and character of Catholic teachings, involving repentance, inclusion, forgiveness, and the rejection of all unjust discrimination, structured by the church’s firm and constant teachings, and cemented together by religious freedom.
Fr. Martin might reply that such a bridge would see little traffic. As I think he would agree, though, reconciliation occurs step by step. It may have to begin with partial crossings and meetings in the middle. This, too, though, counts as traffic.
Professor Philpott is a professor of political science and international relations and serves as a faculty advisor to the Irish Rover.