A Genuine Service?
Students and faculty assess the value of Fr. Martin’s message
In its last issue, the Rover covered the live video conference with Father James Martin, S.J., which took place on November 6 in DeBartolo Hall. Sponsored by Campus Ministry, the Gender Relations Center, and the Center for Social Concerns, the event provided Fr. Martin with an opportunity to discuss his recent book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity, with students, faculty, and staff.
The book, in addition to Fr. Martin’s related comments to various media outlets, has received mixed reactions, including both high praise and serious concern. For this reason, the Rover decided to revisit the issue, and, in particular, to inquire into the implications and impact of Fr. Martin’s (virtual) presence on Notre Dame’s campus.
First, however, it is important to review the circumstances that have justified a deeper examination of Fr. Martin’s talk and his proposals regarding the Church and the LGBT community. A Jesuit priest, author, and editor-at-large of the national magazine America, Fr. Martin is a popular figure in both Catholic and non-Catholic publications and on programs such as NPR and Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report. Drawing on his experiences of ministry with persons with same-sex attraction, Fr. Martin published Building a Bridge in 2017 to encourage dialogue between the Church and the LGBT community. The overarching message of the book is Fr. Martin’s appeal to the Church to treat the LGBT community with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity”—an expression taken directly from section 2358 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church—and for the LGBT community to return the gesture.
Father Martin has been invited to speak on the subject of his book at a number of institutions across the United States. He visited Villanova University on August 29 and at the Jesuit-run Holy Trinity Church in Washington, D.C. on September 30. Several days later, he was scheduled to speak at Theological College, the National Seminary of the Catholic University of America (CUA), but this invitation was rescinded because, according to the seminary’s rector, of the negative feedback that Fr. Martin’s book has received on social media sites.
In a statement published the following day, the Catholic University of America explained that it regretted the implication that CUA supported the decision to disinvite Fr. Martin. The statement also quoted CUA’s President John Garvey, who maintained that universities must be places of free and civil discourse.
Other prominent Catholics, however, have expressed their concern about the limitations of Fr. Martin’s proposals. Affirming the indispensable role that “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” play in the interactions between LGBT Catholics and the Church’s hierarchy, many nevertheless lament that the book is silent about Catholic teaching on marriage and the call to chastity.
Father Roger Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, and the national chaplain for Catholic Voices USA, wrote in an article in the National Catholic Register, “The biggest problem with the book, however, is that it never engages the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, as if that’s not a crucial part of the infrastructure of a bridge between the Church and those gays and lesbians who feel alienated from it.”
The problem, critics say, with Fr. Martin’s message, is not so much what he does say, but what he deliberately chooses not to say. “Father Martin rightly quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church in expressing the necessity of treating the LGBT community with compassion, respect, and sensitivity,” senior Molly Weiner, who attended Fr. Martin’s lecture, told the Rover. “However, he ignored the remainder of the CCC on this matter, particularly where the Church must, using these three qualities, call the LGBT community to the same ‘chastity’ and ‘Christian perfection’ as She does with all Her members.”
Other members of the Notre Dame community revealed a similar respect for Fr. Martin’s efforts to foster reconciliation between LGBT Catholics and the Church, while also admitting that the book lacks a more explicit call to holiness—which necessarily includes chastity for all members of the Church. “Father Martin’s proposal for a bridge to the LGBT community manifests a Christian impulse towards reconciliation and mercy,” Professor of Political Science Daniel Philpott explained. “If the bridge is not undergirded by the truth about sexuality and marriage that the Church teaches, however, it will not stand. Apart from truth, reconciliation and mercy lose their meaning. A sound approach to education on this hotly argued topic must speak to each side of this relationship and not omit one side, as is all too common in today’s discourse.”
Professor of Law Gerard Bradley criticized the university’s decision to invite Fr. Martin when, he argued, other potential speakers could have offered a more exhaustive and richer message for LGBT Catholics and the Church as a whole. “It is especially unfortunate that Notre Dame did not take the occasion to invite a representative of Courage, an exemplary and faith-filled ministry to homosexuals and lesbians, to offer a sound Catholic perspective on the issues Fr. Martin addressed,” Bradley remarked.
Courage is a Catholic apostolate which ministers to persons with same-sex attraction. At the behest of the late Terence Cardinal Cooke of New York, Father John Harvey, in collaboration with Father Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R., founded Courage as “a spiritual support system which would assist men and women with same-sex attractions in living chaste lives in fellowship, truth and love.” Since then, Courage has continued to help “thousands of men and women find peace through fellowship, prayer, and the Sacraments.” In addition to offering support to the LGBT community, Courage also provides resources for priests who are chaplains for Courage or who minister to persons with same-sex attraction.
To date, Father Martin has not received any commendations from Courage, but in October 2016 he received the annual “Bridge Building Award” from New Ways Ministry. New Ways Ministry is an organization which, according to its website, “educates and advocates for justice and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Catholics, and reconciliation within the larger church and civil communities.” It describes its philosophy as “solidly Catholic,” though in 1999 its work was condemned by the Holy See.
When asked about the decision to invite Fr. Martin to discuss his book at Notre Dame, Director of Campus Ministry Father Pete McCormick, C.S.C. noted the strengths of Fr. Martin’s message. In a statement to the Rover, Fr. McCormick said, “Father Martin was invited to speak via live video conference because he brings an important perspective as the Church continues to minister to all those who seek to live out the Catholic Faith. Through Fr. Martin’s presentation, my hope is that we will continue to build connections between those who identify as LGBTQ and the Catholic Church through respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”
“Ultimately, the LGBT community should rightly demand [compassion, respect, and sensitivity],” student Molly Weiner concluded, echoing Fr. McCormick in his esteem for Fr. Martin’s bridge-building efforts. The LGBT community is entitled to the Church’s compassion, respect, and sensitivity, Weiner explained, “but the Church has as much right to desire the pursuit of spiritual greatness and holiness in return.”
Nicole O’Leary is a senior studying Theology, Medieval Studies, and Italian and living in McGlinn Hall. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.