Fr. James Martin, S.J.* Talks to El Ignaciano

This issue of El Ignaciano is dedicated to the question of what should be the proper and most Christian, pastoral stance of the Church towards LGBTQ persons. This is an issue that has been long overdue for discussion in the pages of this magazine where, over the years of its existence, such important issues as the plight of immigrants, the place of women in the Church, the current alienations of youth from the Church and others have received well deserved attention. That this issue may be controversial should not be a reason to avoid it, but on the contrary, it should be a reason to attend to it for it is the mission of El Ignaciano to bring to the attention of its readers, and to attempt to throw some light on them, those issues that are central to the pastoral mission of the Church. This issue certainly is.

Recently, Pope Francis in a documentary by Eugeny Affeenevsky titled Francesco made a few remarks concerning the right of gay persons to live in a family setting and to have a space where their rights would be protected. These comments taken in the context of previous statements made over the years by Pope Francis concerning gay persons which have shown great sensitivity for the plight of LGBTQ  persons gave rise to a hope on the part of that community, and of those who are open to a more compassionate as well as more realistic pastoral attitude towards it, that those words represented an opening on the part of the Vatican to move towards a more sensitive pastoral attitude towards that afflicted community.  Contrary to that hope, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a formal response to a question of whether Catholic clergy have the authority to bless gay unions. The response, contained in a two-page explanation and supposedly approved by Pope Francis, was ¨negative¨.  The apparent contradiction  between the Pope´s words in the Affeenevsky documentary as well as in previous occasions and this response gave rise to widespread controversy.

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We decided that as part of this issue´s effort to discuss the Church´s pastoral stance towards LGBTQ persons we should deal with the apparent contradiction between Pope Francis´s words and the ¨response¨ of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. No one better to begin to throw some light on this topic than Fr. James Martin S.J. who has published a wonderful book on the question of the relationship between the Church and the LGBTQ community and who has dedicated to it an exceptional amount of time and effort. 

We approached Fr. Martin with the apprehension that, given his multiple responsibilities and his very busy schedule, he would be unable to grant us any portion of his time and attention. Nothing further from the truth. He immediately responded to us with the care, gentleness and solicitude that one would expect from a truly pastoral and caring person. In all our exchanges he showed a humility and generosity for which we will always be grateful. He agreed to answer our questions and proceeded to do so without delay. The exchange follows below with our questions in italics and his answers in regular font.

  1. In 2018 you published a book called Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBTQ Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. ( •https://www.harpercollins.com/products/building-a-bridge-james-martin?variant=32117748236322) *How would you characterize the state of that relationship today, especially after the directive of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith against the blessing of gay unions? 

In general, the state of the relationship between LGBTQ Catholics and the institutional church depends a great deal on where people live. Certainly, many LGBTQ people told me that the statement from the CDF caused them considerable pain.  Many LGBTQ people are, as a result, considering leaving the church.  And certainly, a great deal of whether LGBTQ Catholics feel welcome in their own church depends on what comes from the Vatican, and especially from Pope Francis, who has done so much to reach out to this community.  After all, he’s the first pope even to use the word gay. 

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At the same time, a great deal depends on the kind of welcome that a person finds in his or her own local diocese and, even more so, parish.  In many larger cities and towns, for example, where there are bishops who are perhaps welcoming to LGBTQ Catholics, there are parishes that are very open and welcoming.  So, LGBTQ people feel at home.  But in other places, where bishops or pastors are less welcoming, LGBTQ people don’t feel at home in their church.  This to me is a great tragedy.  Why should someone’s relationship with their own church depend so much on where they happen to live?  Is this what God wants?  

2. You have taken a public stand with respect to the pastoral obligations of the Church to the LGBTQ community. How do you on a personal and ministerial level try to balance the demands of your fidelity to the Church’s official pronouncements with the demands of your ministry as a priest to serve all and to bring the “Good News” to all?

Well, I’ve been very clear all along that none of my writing or speaking is intended to challenge any church teaching.  And I also have the approval of my Jesuit superiors for this ministry.  But we have to ask: What is the heart of the church’s teaching?  The heart of the church’s teaching is not a book, not even the Catechism. The heart of the church’s teaching is a person: Jesus Christ.  And so, bringing the Good News to all, including LGBTQ people, is relatively straightforward: it means communicating Jesus’s message of love, mercy and inclusion for all.  It means inviting people into an encounter with Christ.  It means inviting people to see how much God loves them.

And we have to remember when we’re talking about church teaching, that Jesus went first to those on the margins: a Roman Centurion, a Samaritan woman, a tax collector in Jericho named Zacchaeus.  All people who would have been seen as “outside” or as the “other.”  Jesus brings his disciples from the inside to the outside; and he brings those on the outside to the inside.  Because for Jesus there is no “us” and “them.”  There is only “us.”

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3. What educational approaches and methods can we adopt as pedagogical tools to educate the rather large number of “people in the pews” who – from my own parish and faith-community experience – may still look down on LGBTQ people as “sinful” or “unworthy of church participation”? How can those attitudes be changed?

Mainly we need to remind Catholics of Jesus’s clear call to go to those on the margins.  Also, we need to remind them not to think of LGBTQ people first and foremost as “sinners” because we’re all sinners.  

Here is an example: Most married Catholic couples in the United States use birth control, which is against Catholic teaching as elaborated in Humanae Vitae, a papal encyclical, a document with one of the highest levels of teaching authority. Yet if I were to give a talk to Catholic couples no one would say, “Why are you talking to those sinners?”  Yet, that is how people speak of LGBTQ people—as if they are the only ones in the church whose lives do not fully conform to church teaching.  This targeting of LGBTQ people as the only “sinners” in the church must stop.  Who of us is not a sinner?  As Pope Francis has said about gay people, “Who am I to judge?”  Most of all, we must see them as beloved children of God, and as our brothers and sisters—and friends. 

  • James J. Martin SJ is an American Jesuit priest, writer, and editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine America. In 2017, Pope Francis appointed Fr. Martin as a consultant to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications.