In his much-discussed book The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher makes clear that the widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage constitutes “the Waterloo of religious conservatism.” This is not, Dreher stresses, because such sins are somehow “worse” than any other. Rather, the Waterloo is the insistence on full, public acceptance and approval of these relationships—backed by the force of law if necessary. This means “Christian beliefs about the sexual complementarity of marriage are considered to be abominable prejudice—and in a growing number of cases, punishable.” There is just no cooperative way forward.
Fr. James Martin, SJ, could be said to be the anti-Dreher—and not merely on this topic. Call it the Ignatian Option. Martin’s works have consistently sought to convey the riches of Catholic Christianity in both a style and a language that is as accessible as possible in a pluralist, post-Christian culture. And it is one of Martin’s great gifts that he does not sacrifice sophistication in aiming at accessibility. His books are not “Catholicism lite.” I have used Martin’s Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything in several theology classes, particularly because it is one of those few books that proves appealing and enriching to the whole range of students who take required undergraduate theology courses. And thankfully, Martin’s books consistently avoid unbalanced polemics, especially about ecclesial politics, that (to be candid) are a turn-off to most young people trying to learn more about their faith.
As someone who went to a great Jesuit high school and then received doctoral training from Stanley Hauerwas at Duke, I am able to find appeal in both options. Thus, it is quite valuable to have Martin turn his attention to exactly the issue that Dreher has highlighted as so urgent for Christians in today’s culture. The heart of Martin’s book—expanded from a lecture originally given to New Ways Ministry, which presented him with a “Bridge-builder award”—is the desire for and articulation of a “two-way” bridge between the LGBT community and the institutional church. Martin adds to this essay a set of Scripture readings and reflections, emphasizing in particular an Ignatian “composition of place” for those who have experienced exclusion and alienation. The essay frames the situation in terms of a “lack of communication” and “a good deal of mistrust” on both sides. The required two-way bridge must be built, Martin says, on the basis of “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” that flows openly and intentionally in both directions. His essay then develops in more concrete ways what each of these terms might mean in such a dialogue. As it goes through specific tactics, approaches, and incidents, the book functions well as an extended examination of conscience for both sides in this often-bruising battle.
Martin’s overall approach is rooted in two key points. One is his conviction that this conversation can’t happen apart from a lived practice of treating everyone—truly everyone—as worthy of respect, compassion, and sensitivity. In a smart section admonishing those in the LGBT community who “mock bishops” for their effeminacies, and calling for more respect, Martin states: “Is it right for people to critique others for their supposed un-Christian attitudes by themselves being un-Christian?” Surely the same claim could be made in the other “direction” on the bridge: defenders of official teaching have often failed as Christians when they have seen homosexual persons as “problems” rather than as individuals. Martin quotes Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Florida, responding to the 2016 Orlando massacre at a gay nightclub. “Sadly it is religion, including our own” that “often breeds contempt” and “often plants a seed” that can lead to violence, Lynch said. “Respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” Martin writes, are owed to every human being by every Christian. If we can’t achieve these, then no amount of internal Benedict Option-ing will help the church survive.
Lest this approach be taken as a mere plea for more civility, Martin insists that the greater end is that each group will actually get to know the other. “You can’t be sensitive to the LGBT community if you only issue documents about them, preach about them, or tweet about them, without knowing them,” he writes. Similarly, Martin insists on prayer from the LGBT community for the bishops. His book is not meant to outline where the conversation might go but to set the necessary conditions for a conversation. This seems a reasonable initial goal of “accompaniment,” allowing for an ecclesial practice that is faithful to the church’s basic claim that gays and lesbians are “always our children”—and always children of God.
Martin’s reputation allows him to be candid about certain things that others might not be able to mention so forthrightly. One example is the aforementioned calling out of disrespectful mockery of church leaders by the LGBT community. In addition, he quite sympathetically conveys the overwhelming day-to-day responsibilities most bishops handle with diligence, sincerity, and (yes) holiness. On the other side of the bridge, Martin points out perceptively that some of the selective persecution of gays and lesbians in ecclesial settings might be due to the fact that straight men and women “are never forced to consider what would happen if they were gay.” Not facing the temptation, they need not actually worry about the challenge (or failure) in facing it. Moreover, in a very insightful section, he points out that many in the LGBT community have “endured, from an early age, misunderstanding, prejudice, hatred, persecution, and even violence,” and have nevertheless persisted in the church. Martin is right that many Catholics and other Christians misunderstand the official teaching of the church itself, and thus subject others to unjust suffering. Through this unjust persecution, Martin suggests, homosexual persons have been given gifts of compassion for others, perseverance through struggle and ambiguity, and forgiveness toward those who don’t even understand what they are doing. He is right to say that these gifts should be celebrated, not hidden.
There is much to commend in the image of a two-way bridge in which such things are recognized, and the prerequisite for such recognition is the kind of reputation for respect, compassion, and sensitivity to all sides that Martin has justly earned. That said, there are three ways in which the bridge seems shaky. The first is Martin’s initial characterization of the LGBT community as a “group.” At one point, he suggests that church leaders are obligated to treat the LGBT community like any other group—like the elderly or teenagers or different ethnic groups. As in these other cases, the institutional church should respectfully call the group by its chosen name. This question of naming, and its underlying question about the institutional church relating to “groups,” seems to me to be more challenging than Martin indicates. It may be that our tendency to frame ecclesial conversations in terms of group identities mirrors the fractious and often self-serving interest group politics of our society. But beyond that, it is also the case that these other groups do not inherently raise key issues about church teaching. Nor is “LGBT” itself uncomplicated. Some want a more complex label. Importantly, transgender persons raise different challenges from those for gays and lesbians. Deferring to the debatable assumptions about such group labels makes the kinds of comments Martin highlights by Cardinal Schönborn—about the potential value of the faith and love shown within the shared lives of gay and lesbian couples—less effective.
This overly tidy solution about naming leads to the second concern, which is whether this book is written for a socio-political context that no longer exists. At times, I imagined myself reading Building a Bridge in the early 1990s, when as a young Catholic at a very secular liberal arts college, I was learning to negotiate (hopefully with respect, compassion, and sensitivity!) LGBT issues for the first time. But on this issue, the early 1990s seem like ancient history. The idea of generous bridge-building is more difficult when anti-discrimination lawsuits lurk in the wings. Moreover, Catholics have observed decades of church-dividing strife among Protestant churches unable to make this sort of a bridge work, and Martin never hints at why Catholic bridge-building won’t end up in the same place.
Finally, the book never mentions sex. Or more precisely, the only mention of it comes in a quote from an Irish author who explains why gay men might have been attracted to the priesthood because they found “sex with a woman” problematic. Such men “had no blueprint for an easy future,” other than a vow of celibacy that “offered you relief.” Beyond this quote, one would have no idea that the fundamental issue at stake here is sex. Martin is right to point out that bishops and other church leaders are willing to interact with other groups whose agendas and membership do not entirely conform to church teaching (he uses business leaders as an example), but he elides the fact that the issue at the core of the LGBT community is the challenge to church teaching. I presume this omission of the question of sex is intentional, but there is a sense of “let’s pretend” that seems bothersome. Martin is careful never to call magisterial teaching into question, and he is more right than wrong when he points out that, for Jesus, it was “community first, conversion second.” But it was conversion second… and, needless to say, that doesn’t mean “conversion therapy.” It means being willing to avoid sex with a person of the same sex. Official church teaching on this issue isn’t complicated to understand. Just as Catholics should be rightly unhappy if a bishop speaks to business leaders without challenging them on hard questions about the rights of labor, solidarity, and the preferential option for the poor, how can Catholics fault bishops for doing the same thing with the LGBT community? It is true that the analogy here is not complete; business leaders often have cultural power that gays and lesbians do not, nor do they routinely face genuinely unjust discrimination. Nevertheless, especially as cultural power shifts on this issue, the messaging parallel holds: there are both words of compassion and words of challenge. For ultimately, the sexuality is not the problem; the sex is.
And don’t we all know that? It is telling that there cannot be candor about this issue, because it is so obviously a key piece of the bridge. It is resisted in part (not totally, but in part) because of structural obsessions in our society about the necessity of individual sexual fulfillment. The real, culturally perceived “abominable prejudice” Christians hold is the deep conviction that one can live a whole, fulfilling life in the absence of the fulfillment of one’s sexual desires. While we’re on the bridge, let’s talk as a church about chastity, even about involuntary celibacy, so that we might come to discern it as a potential gift, rather than an obvious curse. One wonders if we need church leaders who are able to state their sexual orientation without prejudice, so that they might communicate the possibilities of holiness in following the path of Christ. This is a worthy topic to take up because the effects of a society that so elevates sexual fulfillment should not simply be shouldered by gays and lesbians. There is a larger message here if the bridge can include a frank discussion about sex and contemporary society.
All these questions force us to consider whether Martin’s overall framework is too melioristic, no matter which side of the bridge one is on. Early in the book, he describes the status quo in terms of a group that has “felt hurt” and “excluded” and leaders that “want to reach out…but seem somewhat confused about how to do so.” Proponents of both sides might point out that the core problem is not how to bring together a marginalized group and an awkward church leadership. It’s really about two clashing views on the fundamental truths of justice and love. Each side has core beliefs about what these claims should mean, and we need to confront why those claims are at odds. Again, this is no different from what Catholics should expect from tough conversations on issues like economics and the environment: there is a clash of fundamental moral visions that must be engaged. If we’re going to have a conversation, we might not start with that clash. But any bridge is going to have to cross these troubled waters at some point. And perhaps then we’ll see if we need a new St. Ignatius or a new St. Benedict.
Building a Bridge
How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity
HarperOne, $19.99, 150 pp.