This interview was conducted on August 4. It introduces our readers to Father Martin’s Building a Bridge, released earlier this year. The first part of his book expands upon a lecture that he delivered last year to New Ways Ministry in the wake of the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando.
In publishing this interview the editors of Orthodoxy in Dialogue ask if such a conversation as Father Martin advocates is possible and necessary in the Orthodox Church.
GIACOMO: Father Jim, thanks so much for making the time to discuss your new book with me. You and I share a concern that our respective Churches adopt a more pastorally responsive approach to questions of same-sex love. (See my recent articles here, here, and here.)
FATHER JIM: It’s my pleasure to talk with you. Thanks for giving me the chance to speak more about this outreach to our LGBT Catholic brothers and sisters.
GIACOMO: Let’s begin by talking about your long experience of priestly ministry with Catholics who are oriented spiritually, emotionally, and intimately to their own gender. Have any Orthodox ever approached you for pastoral care on this issue? Have they shared their experiences in the Orthodox Church with you?
FATHER JIM: That’s an interesting question. You might be surprised to learn that this ministry to LGBT people—or rather this more public ministry—is new for me. For some time, I’ve done what you might call an informal ministry to that community: they’ve approached me after Mass or after lectures; sought me out for spiritual direction and counseling; and come to me for confession. But the more formal, or public, ministry that began with this book is new.
Consequently, it’s been only recently that Roman Catholics have been aware that I was ministering to LGBT people. So it probably won’t surprise you to learn that I’ve not encountered any Orthodox LGBT people who were seeking pastoral care—yet. In other words, I’m still at the stage where I’m meeting members of my own denomination engaged in this ministry, and where Roman Catholics are seeking me out. But of course, I’m open to hearing from Orthodox people and, also, looking forward to learning of Orthodox outreach.
GIACOMO: What do you consider to be the key points of your book? For readers of this interview who might not get to your book, what is the single most important thing that you want to say to them?
FATHER JIM: The first key point is that both groups that I speak about—LGBT Catholics and members of the institutional church (that is, church leaders)—need to treat one another with “respect, compassion and sensitivity,” virtues highlighted by the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Naturally, I “unpack” that more in the book, but that’s the basic message. And it’s been surprising to me that this rather mild message has proven controversial in a few quarters of the church.
The second key point is that when Jesus met people who felt they were on the margins of society, his first response was to welcome them—to invite them into community. In the book, I highlight two important instances from the Gospels—Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus in Luke and his encounter with the Roman centurion in Matthew and Luke. In both passages Jesus is encountering people who were considered “out of bounds.” In the case of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector and therefore chief sinner in Jericho, Jesus offers to come to the man’s house, a public sign of welcome. In the case of the Roman centurion, a non-Jew, he heals his servant, a sign of his respect for the man, whose faith he goes on to praise. The examples of Jesus’ outreach to those on the margins can be seen throughout the Gospels: the Samaritan woman, tax collectors, those who are sick. For Jesus, it’s welcome first. That’s essential for the church to learn.
And the most important thing I’d like to say to those who might not read this book is that LGBT Catholics should be made to feel welcome in their own church. To that end, you wouldn’t believe some of the stories I’ve heard about how LGBT Catholics are mistreated by the Catholic Church. Recently, a woman wrote to ask if I knew a “compassionate priest” in her city. (I won’t say where.) Why? Because she was working in a hospice and the local priest refused to anoint a man who was dying—because he was gay. We must address the terrible ways that LGBT people are sometimes treated in their church.
Sometimes they’re made to feel like dirt. Instead, they should be made to feel like who they are—beloved children of God. This is the way that Jesus treated people, so it’s the way the church should treat people.
GIACOMO: If the cliché that “perception is everything” holds any truth, how do you respond to the possible perception—if not the authorial intent—that your book scolds LGBT Catholics for their attitude toward the church hierarchy more than it appeals to the hierarchy for a more nuanced pastoral response to LGBT Catholics?
FATHER JIM: That’s certainly not my intent. I think I’m clear in the book, and I’ve made the point in several interviews since the book’s publication, that the onus is squarely on the institutional church. Why? Because it’s the institutional church that has made LGBT Catholics feel marginalized, not the other way around. Moreover, I acknowledge the deep pain that the LGBT community has often felt at the hands of some church leaders.
And scolding them is the farthest thing from my mind, especially given what they have gone through. It’s more of an invitation: I invite LGBT Catholics to treat church leaders with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Not only because it’s the Christian thing to do; it’s also good strategy for dialogue.
GIACOMO: In your book you mention the need for repentance several times with respect to how the church hierarchy and LGBT Catholics relate to each other. Can we take the theme of repentance as a way of life for all Christians a little deeper? In your pastoral discernment, what does repentance look like specifically for a Catholic who engages in sexual intimacy with members of his or her own gender? What does chastity look like in a monogamous same-sex relationship between two Christians? How do you respond to the assumption that “the gay community” promotes unfettered sexual freedom?
FATHER JIM: The book intentionally does not delve into questions of sexual morality or challenge any church teaching. Why? Because the two groups I mentioned—LGBT Catholics and the institutional church—are simply too far apart on those issues. Church teaching is clear: same-sex relations are impermissible. By the same token, most LGBT people feel that same-sex relations are part and parcel of their lives.
So I purposely avoided those topics, as well as the other ones you mentioned. That’s not what the book is about. Instead, I wanted to focus on areas of possible commonality and, more generally, invite people into dialogue. If you want to begin a dialogue, you don’t start where two groups are miles apart.
Instead, the “conversion” that I’m speaking about—I don’t use the word “repentance”—is the conversion we’re all called to. In the Gospel of Mark, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus calls the people of Israel, and by extension all of us, to metanoia.
It’s important to think about what that means. Therefore, it’s worth going back to the original Greek, the language in which the Gospels were written. Some translations have that as “repentance,” but it’s more accurately translated as “conversion.” Meta is “after” or “beyond,” and noia (really nous) is “mind.” So it’s a kind of conversion of minds and hearts. We’re all called to metanoia—church leaders, LGBT Catholics, you and me. That’s the most important kind of conversion there is, because that’s the conversion Jesus calls us to.
GIACOMO: Let’s return to “perception is everything.” Unless I misread you, it seems to me that you draw the line at the Catholic Church’s acceptance—as an act of compassion and mercy—of a demographic whose lives are forever doomed not to conform to church teaching. Am I correct to understand you in this way, or is it rather the case that you map out some necessary first steps (the full inclusion of LGBT Catholics in the life of the Church), to be followed by an articulation of an actual theology of same-sex love? Can the Church find a way to sanctify same-sex love in the fulness of her sacramental life, or must we remain forever satisfied with mere tolerance? If you think a Catholic theology of same-sex love is possible, what might it look like?
FATHER JIM: As I said, I don’t enter into matters of moral theology. And just as you say, I’m trying to map out the very first steps in a dialogue, because before we can get to any discussion of anything, the two groups have to speak to one another. And that isn’t happening very much. One sign of that is that even this mild book has proven so controversial. Among a few people, even the suggestion that dialogue is called for has been met with alarm.
So what needs to happen to move things forward? Both sides need to listen, and enter into what Pope Francis has called a culture of “encounter” and “accompaniment.”
Here’s an example of what I mean: At a recent parish talk, I met a middle-aged man whose son is gay. He told me that his local bishop has been condemnatory of LGBT people, and regularly mentioned same-sex marriage in his homilies at Confirmations in the diocese. In any event, this man wrote to his bishop, and they exchanged letters that started out as hostile and then moved into respectful. In time, they met. The two of them have now talked to one another regularly about their experiences—the father about what it’s like to have a gay son; the bishop about his understanding of church teaching.
This is the kind of dialogue we need more of, so that both can learn from one another. For the Holy Spirit is at work in both men. Now, a few people may argue that only the father should be doing the learning. But it’s important to see that the bishop also needs to listen, to learn. He could ask the father, “What has it been like for you to have a gay son? How has your son been treated by the church? What’s your own experience of the church been? What’s your experience of God?” The Holy Spirit is at work in the father, and so the bishop is invited to encounter the Spirit in him. What is the Holy Spirit telling us through the father?
GIACOMO: Your book and my much more modest articles say virtually nothing about sex itself. Yet, out of all proportion to what we’ve actually written, both of us have provoked an astonishing level of hostility from some quarters in our respective Churches. Can you reflect on the “place” within traditional Christianity whence it seems so easy for such virulent hostility to flare up on this one topic?
FATHER JIM: First, it’s important to say that the vast majority of people have had quite the opposite reaction. Since the book’s publication, I’ve given many parish talks and lectures, and the reaction has been intensely and overwhelmingly positive: LGBT people, their parents and grandparents, their siblings and friends, have come up to me with tears in their eyes, hugged me, and thanked me.
In fact, those often highly emotional reactions—the tears, the hugs, the intense expressions of gratitude—really took me by surprise. I wondered: Why would such a mild book provoke such intense emotions, so much gratitude, so many tears? After some reflection, and talking about it with a few friends, I think the reason is that perhaps they’ve been waiting for such a long time for this discussion to be made public, and for a priest in particular to mention the need for outreach. There’s something about seeing someone in a collar say these things, even if they’re mild.
But yours is a good question. It’s true that there’s been some fierce, and often vicious, pushback, even though the negative reaction is rather limited, and is mainly confined to certain far-right websites and magazines.
Where does the hostility come from? First, it comes from a disagreement with what I’m trying to do: a few people feel that any attempt at dialogue, or a call for listening, means a change in church teaching, which to me is ridiculous. They only need to look at the formal permission from my Jesuit provincial that’s listed in the front of the book (the Imprimi Potest), as well as the endorsements from two cardinals and a bishop, to know that I’m not suggesting any changes in teaching.
But it’s clear that even the suggestion that church leaders should listen to the experiences of LGBT people is threatening to some people. And that should tell us something about where we are as a church.
Second, it seems to come from a fear of the LGBT person as the “other.” The way that some people speak about LGBT people is, frankly, unbelievable. I’ve seen online the most hateful and unchristian language you can imagine, and, even when it’s not hateful, it’s almost exclusively couched in the language of “sin,” as if LGBT people are the only ones who sin.
Fear is at the root, as well: fear of the other, fear of someone different, fear of change, fear of dialogue, fear of listening, fear of learning, fear of the new. And some of it is an old fear. It’s the same kind of fear that makes children shun someone seen as different, calling them “f-gg-ts” and other hateful names. It really saddens me that the same kind of language and invective that is used by children on the playground is now being used by some adult Catholics towards their own brothers and sisters. It’s shameful.
As St. Paul said, “Perfect love drives out fear.” I would add, “Perfect fear drives out love.” So this fear leads to hatred.
Finally, the hostility may also come from fear of their own complicated sexuality. We’re all on a spectrum in terms of our sexuality, as my friends who are psychologists and psychiatrists tell me. And if you’re uncomfortable with that reality, or uncomfortable with your own complex sexuality, then any discussion of homosexuality will be very, very, very threatening. That fear is then directed outwards, towards other people.
Overall, though, and even with some of the hostility, I’m very much at peace with the book, for a number of reasons. First, as I said, the overwhelming majority of people, both in person and online, have told me that they’ve found the book helpful. I’ve received probably hundreds of letters, cards, emails, and messages through social media from LGBT Catholics—especially young people and their parents—as well as meeting people at these parish talks. It’s been very gratifying. Second, I have the backing of my Jesuit superiors and brothers (as well as a few cardinals and bishops, both publicly and privately). Third, what I’m calling for is really very mild: respect, compassion and sensitivity. And, most importantly, Jesus has been very close to me in prayer, and I’m convinced it’s the right thing to do.
GIACOMO: Your closing thoughts?
FATHER JIM: One thing that has surprised me, and even baffled me, is that most reviewers have completely ignored the entire second half of the book. The invitation to dialogue, which we’ve been talking about here, is only the first half of the book. The second part is a series of Scriptural meditations and reflection questions designed to help LGBT people reflect on their relationship with God, with the church and with themselves. So it’s surprising that very few reviewers bothered to review the whole book. It really is the most remarkable thing. When have you ever heard of reviewers only reviewing one half of a book?
Now why is that? I’ve been thinking a lot about why that is.
On the secular left, perhaps they simply cannot enter into any sort of conversation about spirituality, or they think that spirituality is useless. You know, if you don’t believe God exists, then it’s going to be hard to appreciate an invitation to prayer. On the far right, perhaps they cannot admit that these passages might have something new to say to them about LGBT people. When I’m feeling in a darker mood, I wonder if it’s because a few on the far right, even in the church, feel that LGBT people can’t have a spiritual life. Or that they don’t deserve one. Or maybe, on both sides, on the far right and the far left, people are more comfortable with debate than they are with prayer.
In any event, if you read most of the critical reviews, it’s as if I only wrote one half of a book. Very strange. And for me, the second half is by far the more important part. Because the first part is an invitation to dialogue, but the second part is an invitation to prayer.
GIACOMO: Thank you once again, Father Jim. I’m deeply grateful for this opportunity to chat with each other.
FATHER JIM: It’s been my pleasure. I’m delighted and honoured to speak with you.
James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America, the Catholic magazine, and consultor to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communication, a post to which he was appointed by Pope Francis in 2017. He is the author of numerous books, including the New York Times bestsellers Jesus: A Pilgrimage and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.
Giacomo Sanfilippo is an Orthodox doctoral student in theological studies in the Faculty of Divinity, Trinity College, University of Toronto, and an editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue. He completed the course work for the MDiv at St.Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, and subsequently obtained his BA in Sexuality Studies from York University and his MA in Theology from Regis College/St. Michael’s College with a thesis entitled, “A Bed Undefiled: Foundations for an Orthodox Theology and Spirituality of Same-Sex Love.” He is also an alumnus of the graduate seminar at the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at University College, University of Toronto. Based on his reading of Father Pavel Florensky he has recently introduced the term conjugal friendship as a theological category for discussing same-sex love.