There seem to be two great burning issues on the Catholic blogosphere these days, and they both involve showing mercy and compassion to sinners. One issue is how to deal with divorced and remarried couples in the Church, and the other involves the Church's outreach towards the gay community. The Catholic blogosphere has personified these issues in two people: Pope Francis and Father James Martin. Those who self identify as the only true Catholics in the world today have relentlessly attacked and vilified Pope Francis and Father Martin, accusing them of heresy and basically saying they are agents of the devil.
I have recently written a couple of posts regarding Pope Francis. Today I am focusing on Father Martin. An article from Catholic World Report by Janet Smith encapsulates this issue very well. She starts her article by claiming that Father Martin's approach is "full of ambiguity." She pointed to a talk at Villanova University in which she pulled exactly one small quote from an hour long conversation Father Martin had with Brandon Ambrosino, a gay Catholic man.
From her article:
For instance, at a recent presentation at Villanova University, he told to a young man, “I hope in 10 years you will be able to kiss your partner [in church] or, you know, soon to be your husband.” Anyone reading his book or listening to his talks can reasonably conclude that Father Martin believes the Church does not present correctly God’s plan for sexuality; that he thinks the culture knows better.Ms. Smith gives us no context whatsoever for this comment. She does not give us even one other quote from Father Martin anywhere in her article. But from this one quote, she condemns Father Martin with the following:
For Catholics who have some background in theology and philosophy it is deeply disappointing when a highly educated priest uses specious arguments to advance his cause; for those whose every fiber of their Catholic being leads them to want to trust priests, bishops, and religious superiors, such instances of untrustworthiness are scandalous; for those of us who have been fighting dissent for nearly 40 years, seeing a dissenter get ecclesial support and public acclaim is demoralizing. But, mostly, it is sad in the extreme that souls could well be lost.So I followed her link and actually listened to the entire audio. Listening to the audio explained why Ms. Smith did not give us the context of this quote. The context blows her argument completely out of the water.
Brandon Ambrosino, the man with whom Father Martin has a discussion, is an interesting man. He is a convert to the faith who truly loves the Church. At the same time, he is in a relationship with a man and planning on getting married, even though he knows the Church does not accept this relationship. I can't even imagine the conflict he lives with each and every day. Those who condemn Father Martin would point to this as an example of heresy. They would insist that Brandon be driven from the Church unless and until he repents and leaves the man he loves. The fact that Father Martin does not condemn Brandon would be proof to these people that Father Martin is a heretic.
Brandon talked about his conflict towards the end of his discussion with Father Martin:
Because I got this Facebook notification that I was at this wedding. It was a beautiful Catholic wedding a year ago in Texas with Andy. I had a feeling Andy would be proposing, and it was such a beautiful wedding at this gorgeous church in Houston, and I just kept thinking, I can't have that. And people might say why is it important, why can't you do something civil? Well, because I believe in the Sacrament of marriage. That's what I want to participate in. That's what I want to have. And it's important to me to make that covenant before God with Andy. A lot of people have asked me, you go to yoga, you can pray on your own. Why are you sticking with the Church? In fact, why did you become Catholic as an adult? You knew what was there. In essence, they're saying the Church isn't going to come around to gay marriage, at least not in your lifetime, why are you sticking with it? And I always think about when Jesus is teaching crowds and everybody leaves him, and he says to his disciples, do you also want to go? And leave it to Peter. And he says, Lord to whom shall we go? It's kind of like we've learned that you are the the Son of God, and you have the words of eternal life. No one else. And that's what I tell these people. I can't go anywhere else. I've become convinced that Jesus is the Christ.Can anyone read these words and not feel deep compassion for this man? He loves our Lord, and yet he is still pulled in another direction. Why do we feel that the way to react to this is just condemn him instead of reaching out and trying to understand him? Do we really believe that Jesus Christ condemns him? That is certainly not what we see in the Gospels.
Following is Brandon's comment about living life in the Catholic Church as a gay man:
Encounter is tough for LGBT people, especially in churches. I go to a Catholic church with my partner, Andy, and I still always have this moment of decision when we pass the peace, when everybody greets each other. Because every other couple just hugs and kisses each other and nobody makes a big deal of it. But I've never kissed Andy in church. And I recently started thinking about that. Will we be in church 10 years from now in front of our children and during that part of the service, do we just hug each other, give a handshake? And it's not that anyone has ever said anything to me. Nobody has gone out of the way to say, oh just so you know it would be okay. Not that they have to do that. So encounter is a difficult thing for us to do, Just the fact of showing up, sitting in a church. It takes a lot of faith.
I can only imagine that many people reading this statement are so angry that they have steam coming out of their ears. How dare he be there with his partner at Mass! How dare he talk about having children with his partner! That is evil and must be rejected. And Brandon's plans to marry his partner and have children is most certainly against Church teaching. But read how Father Martin answers him. No condemnation, only compassion and mercy, reacting exactly in the way of Jesus Christ:
It does [take a lot of faith]. And I always say that LGBT people have more faith than, I think, straight people because of that. What you have just described is really interesting, Brandon. You have internalized rejection already. You don't even need to be told that you are rejected in the Church. You have internalized it, and that's very sad. And I think that's a lot of the people that Jesus came into contact with did the same thing. Think of like the woman with the hemorrhage who doesn't even feel worthy to kind of stand up and greet him. She reaches down and touches the hem of the garment. Or the Samaritan woman who comes to the well at noon in the heat of the day because she has been married five times and she is probably embarrassed. Maybe people didn't have to tell her, you're not welcome to come at the regular time when other women comes. She comes because she is embarrassed and she has kind of internalized that and that is very sad.
So I do hope in 10 years you'll be able to kiss your partner, or soon to be your husband. Why not? What's the terrible thing? And think of all the people in church who have all sorts of other things on their conscience. They feel perfectly at home. So why shouldn't a gay man feel perfectly at home in Church. It's up to the institutional church to make you feel welcome, because on one else, few people I think, would feel the same way you do in church, sort of rejected already. So that's why it's up to the Church to reach out to you. That's what I think.Notice what Father Martin says: "think of all the people in church who have all sorts of other things on their conscience. They feel perfectly at home. So why shouldn't a gay man feel perfectly at home in Church." Father Martin is not condoning the homosexual lifestyle. He is not saying that it is a good thing for Brandon to be sexually involved with another man. He is saying that being gay should not be singled out as the only sin which deserves rejection.
When the quote is taken in its full context, it is plain to see that Father Martin is not talking about a change in Church teaching. He is talking about healing wounds. He is talking about extending the love of Jesus Christ to the rejected of society. Father Martin truly listened to Brandon, and did so with empathy not judgment. He heard the pain of rejection from Brandon, and that is what he related to. He is saying he wants attitudes in the Church to change so that Brandon no longer has to live with rejection, feeling like an outcast.
Later on in his discussion with Brandon, Father Martin said this:
So this idea that that you can't possibly be a Gay Catholic or you can't be a Gay Catholic in good standing – yes, you are. This idea also that whatever you think about same sex relations or same sex marriage, that that is the greatest and only sin that we look at these days is just stunning to me. I really have a hard time with that. And when I say that to people, they have a hard time processing that. That that is elevated as the – certainly the LGBT community and then their sexual morality within that - is elevated as the only moral issue that we should look at, that should keep someone like you out of the Church. I would imagine probably sitting next to you is some businessman who doesn't pay a fair wage, or someone next to you on the other side who is using birth control, or someone behind you who is divorced and remarried without an annulment, or someone in front of you who is cheating on his or her spouse, or someone else who doesn't believe in Laudato Si, which I always remind people is an encyclical. But it's only you that is put under a microscope. I bet those other people don't feel internally rejected. Why is that?There is no ambiguity in this statement. Father Martin makes is perfectly clear that he is in complete agreement with Church teaching about the gay lifestyle as he puts it in the same context as not paying a fair wage, using birth control, divorced and remarried without an annulment, adultery, and rejecting a papal encyclical. The point Father Martin is trying to make is that homosexual sex should not be elevated as the greatest of all sins and worthy of complete rejection while other sins are not. Gay people are human beings with good and bad in them like everyone else. They are not better than straight people, but they are no worse either. They deserve respect and compassion as much as anyone else in the Church does. So why are they treated so differently?
Father Martin then went on to to give a further explanation:
My moral theology professor, Jim Keenan at Boston College, used to say that in the Gospels – I found this very helpful – Jesus usually doesn't critique people who are weak but trying. He critiques people who are strong and not bothering. So if you think about the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man who passes the poor guy outside of his house, or the Pharisees who don't bother to think that someone might need healing on the Sabbath – it's people who are strong or rich or wealthy or in power who are not bothering. And Jim Keenan's interpretation was - which I love- for Jesus and the Gospel, sin was most often a failure to bother to love. So where are people being fired for that? Where are people being fired for, as you say, passing a homeless man or being cruel or being unforgiving? I brought this up and some people said, well those aren't public acts, those aren't scandalous. Surely they are. You work in an office and a guy is just mean or racist – there is a sin. Do we fire them from Catholic institutions? No. The only thing that seems to have kind of been elevated is same sex marriage. So I think it's therefore discriminatory. Because the only group we are focusing on is gay people.Does this really seem ambiguous? It seems very straightforward to me. Father Martin is not arguing for a change in Church doctrine. He is arguing for a change in Church attitude, from rejection to love, from judgment to empathy and compassion. Jesus was roundly condemned by the religious leaders of his time because He refused to condemn sinners. That seems to be exactly what is happening with both Pope Francis and Father James Martin and all who support them.
Brandon asked Father Martin why so many in the Church turn a laser eye on gay people? Father Martin gave this answer:
Great question. That's a multi-part answer. First of all, homophobia. So in the two ways that that word is used. So actual fear homophobia means actually fear, as you know. Fear of the LGBT person as the other. So the person who is different, who is unlike us. So their whole presence is an affront to us. So we're afraid of them.
Secondly, hatred. That is the more colloquial use of homophobia. Not only fear of the person, but they hate them. And that's rampant in the Church. It's the same kind of bullying that young gay boys or I would assume lesbian girls get in the playground. Right?
Third, I think a misinterpretation of what's important in the moral life. And this elevation of LGBT issues as the only thing is really skewed. And I think a lot of that has to do with what the institutional Church has focused on in the last 30 or 40 years. This has been elevated that way. And I think also we see this online a lot. And I've talked to many psychologists and psychiatrists about this because I have been confronted online and in person with real rage, I mean absolute rage. And I said to this psychiatrist friend of mine, where does that come from? It's one thing to kind of disagree, I disagree with people and they might disagree with what I'm saying. But the sort of turning red in the face and screaming at me. And the psychiatrist, not alone, said it's their own complicated sexuality. And psychiatrists will tell us and psychologists that we're all in a continuum, we're all in a spectrum, and there's bisexuality in most people in different degrees, and for some people who are afraid of their complex sexuality, this kind of stuff is just terribly threatening. So the idea that you would be confronted with the reality of homosexuality or bisexuality or even transgenderism is frightening for people. And so they, rather than directing the anger internally, they direct it out at the person.
Now I note just for the record that a lot of people who are critiquing me on line are self professed – this is not my sort of reading into it, they will say this on their websites – former gays. So it's a lot of former gay people, and I would say that there is a lot of conflict going on.
So it's sad because what happens is their own junk inside gets focused outwards and on people who are actually trying to live a more integrated life.There can be no doubt that Father Martin is correct. The attacks against him and gay people are vicious and hateful. The attacks are also filled with half truths, mischaracterizations and misrepresentations. There is no other way to characterize them.
As further proof that Father Martin does support Church teaching on sexuality, he made an interesting comment to Brandon on the fairness of the church teaching on celibacy:
Brandon: One of the problems I have is I feel like when celibacy is used in the mouths of people who are anti-gay, it doesn't seem fair to me. That's very different from a priestly vow of celibacy.Notice here that Father Martin is affirming Brandon's feelings that celibacy is an unfair requirement for gay people. That is far different from agreeing with Brandon's statement. Note too that Father Martin firmly states that "we are all called to chastity." That is a complete rejection of the gay lifestyle which so often involves sex with numerous people. (As an aside, it should be noted that towards the end of the talk, at about the 57 minute mark, Father Martin also makes the statement that he is "a priest, a celibate man." So those who are looking for it will not find any personal scandal in connection with Father Martin.) There is no ambiguity in this statement whatsoever. For that reason, I am sure you will never see it quoted from those who condemn Father Martin.
Father Martin: Yes, it's not chosen. Celibacy in Catholic theology, in Christian theology – celibacy, we are all called to chastity – celibacy is supposed to be a gift, or it's something that you choose. For the LGBT person, it's, in terms of the Catechism and in terms of many Catholic thinkers and Catholic leaders, it is a requirement and in a sense, it is seen by many LGBT people as an imposition, which is what it sounds like you feel it is.
At this point, Father Martin makes a statement which has been condemned, but which again when seen in context, is actually in perfect alignment with Church teaching:
Brandon: I do [feel the requirement of celibacy is unfair]. Maybe I'm now confessing to you my sin of being angry.
Father Martin: No, I would say this. One of the things that I've thought about a lot is the notion, and you know we're in a theology department, the notion of teachings being received. It's a tradition that I think most people don't know about because it hasn't been really talked about for the last 30 or 40 years. Nor has conscience, really. For a teaching to be really authoritative, it is expected that it will be received by the people of God, by the faithful. So you look at something like the Assumption. So the Assumption is declared and people accept that. They go to the Feast of the Assumption, they believe in the Assumption, it's received. From what I can tell, in the LGBT community the teaching that LGBT people must be celibate their entire lives – not just before marriage, as it is for most people but their entire lives, has not been received. Now I say this and people go crazy. And this is simply based on LGBT people that I speak to. Now there are some who believe that. I would say it is a very small percentage of people. But that's a simple fact. You can say that they don't agree with it. I would say the teaching therefore has not been received by the community for which it was largely directed. And so the question is, what do we do with that?
That's the kind of question – to circle back to your original question – that reflection, what do we do with a teaching that has seemingly not been received by the community to which it was directed is a theological question that bishops and LGBT people need to think about. That's what I'm saying. And before we can get to that kind of deep theological reflection, we have to start with respect, compassion and sensitivity. And that's why the book is really baby steps. The book is not talking about those other. That's a very complex question theologically. But that's where the sort of baby steps start. But that's a real issue for people.
Respect leading to dialogue is the mission of Father Martin. Those who attack Father Martin make the claim that he never explicitly states Church teaching on the homosexual lifestyle. But right here he explains that this is not what his ministry at this time is about because that is not where the Church is at. He says that before we can even get to the theology, we first have to make peace with one another so that we can have a real discussion. How can the Church expect gay people to listen to her when all they ever hear is condemnation? They feel the Church doesn't even try to understand their position. Father Martin is trying very hard to change this situation so that there can be dialogue between the Church and the LGBT community. Once that happens, then - and only then - can we start to talk about theology.
Following is a part of the conversation between Brandon and Father Martin which I found especially illuminating. Father Martin starts out by explaining his reasons for becoming so involved in ministry to the LGBT community:
Father Martin: Last year, as most people know, there were 49 people that were killed in a massacre at the Pulse nightclub which was a largely gay nightclub in Orlando. After an event like that, people express their sympathy publicly, public figures, politicians, and normally bishops express their sympathy. For example, Hurricane Harvey bishops came out and expressed sympathy, some of the events in Charlottesville people expressed their sympathy, including bishops. But in Orlando, very few bishops bothered to talk about their sympathy for the LGBT community, and even when they did, they didn't mention the words “gay” or “LGBT.” It made me realize that even in death, LGBT people in the Catholic Church are largely invisible.
As a thought experiment, imagine if that massacre had happened in say a Methodist Church, or a Presbyterian Church, God forbid, you would have every bishop in the country saying we stand with our Methodist brothers and sisters. We stand with our Presbyterian brothers and sisters . They would be going to Presbyterian and Methodist churches, etc., etc. So the fact that I saw none of that really made me realize it was time to talk more publicly about my advocacy for LGBT Catholics.
Brandon: It's possible to engage in respect and compassion and sensitivity before even engaging in a theological debate, right?
Father Martin: Absolutely. We're not even there, yet. Most bishops don't even really know LGBT people. They know them, but they're probably closeted priests and sisters and lay people who don't feel comfortable being out with bishops because of the bishops' stance. So we're not even there yet talking about theological issues. We're at the stage of just dialogue and listening. And that's one way to dialogue [calling people by the name they choose, i.e., gay.]. So I came in and we were talking, and I was totally disrespectful to you, how could we even have a conversation about difficult theological topics. So that's kind of the first level. Just treating people with very simple Christian virtues enables us to get to the next level, which is sort of more substantive conversation about different theological issues.
Brandon: Which is something I think we see Pope Francis doing with concrete human encounter. And that is what the basis of anything really.
Father Martin: Yea, and that's one of the big phrases of his papacy, as you said, encounter. And people really reject that. But that was Jesus' way of doing things. When he met people on the margins, people who felt they were on the margins, shall we say, the Samaritan woman, Roman centurion, Zacchaeus the tax collector, lepers, on and on and on, he encountered them, even though people of his time and even the disciples didn't want him to do that. And so, I use the story of Zacchaeus from the Gospel of Luke, which I love, and one of the great lines which is a kind of throwaway is the people grumbled when Jesus reached out to Zacchaeus. The same way they are grumbling today. It's the exact same thing. I mean they are doing it online, but they're still grumbling.
See, an encounter is scary for people. God forbid we should meet someone who is different than ourselves. We might have to think in a new way or change or actually accept the fact that the Holy Spirit might be in this person.
Brandon: And I was reading some people who were interacting critically with your book. They were saying he didn't broach theology at all. But it just seemed like you were saying, hey, we're not even there. We're not even being kind toward one another.
Father Martin: No, we're not there yet. And the big critique was you didn't talk about that issue. You didn't talk about celibacy or chastity. And the reason is that it's not a book of moral theology. I'm not a moral theologian, I'm not a theologian at all. It's not a book of sexual ethics. It's certainly not a book of sexual ethics for the LGBT person. It's a book about dialogue and prayer. And a lot of these reviewers, as the old joke goes, they review the book that they wish you had written. But I'm sorry, I didn't write that book.
But you're right. You can't start at that deep level of reflection until you establish communications. If you walked into a room with some theologians, you can't just sit down. How are you? What's your name, where are you from, how was your trip? I read your book, that's real interesting. Do you know so and so? Who did you study under? It's like the species how they interact. You need to do that, and we are not there yet. Because most bishops think as you said. They can barely even use the word “gay.” So we're at the very first steps of that dialogue and encounter."It's a book about dialogue and prayer." Oh how I wish people would stop condemning and just listen to Father Martin! Do I agree with everything he says? Of course not. But his approach of compassion and acceptance is most certainly the way of Jesus Christ. As Father Martin says, just read the gospels. Jesus always went to those people on the fringe, and he never, never rejected them in any way. He just talked to them.
I could go on, and I probably will in future posts. But I write this to show why I continue to support Father Martin and his outreach to the LGBT community. There is no doubt in my mind that Father Martin is following the lead of the Holy Spirit. His work is of tremendous importance, and all those who resist him are resisting the work of the Holy Spirit. Those in opposition to Father Martin need to look deep inside of themselves and ask why they feel so much animosity for someone who is reaching out to a group that has been so persecuted and rejected, made to feel like the scum of the earth. That is not the way of Jesus Christ.
The most beautiful thing about the Catholic Church is that it is not a human institution. It is a Divine institution, born from the side of Jesus Christ as he hung on the cross. We have survived for over 2000 years not because of any innate goodness in the people in the Church but because the Church is not dependent on the people. We are founded on the Rock of Jesus Christ, who never leaves us. We are guided unerringly by the Holy Spirit. Our Blessed Mother intercedes for us constantly, asking her Son to pour out His Love and Mercy upon us. Our job as the Church Militant is not to judge and condemn. Our job is not to save the Church from sinners. Our job is to love sinners, just as Christ loves us in our sins. We are to show the world the compassion and mercy of Jesus Christ, to let the world know that no matter where they are, Jesus Christ will meet them and walk with them if they will only invite him to do so.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has unceasingly pointed us in this direction of love and mercy. Father Martin has displayed this same trait in his ministry to the LGBT community. As followers of Jesus Christ, can we do any less?