To build relationships with LGBT Catholics, just talk

For Father James Martin, following Pope Francis means standing with LGBT people.
In the Pews

With the help of his aptly-titled book, Jesuit Father James Martin has begun building a bridge between the LGBT community and the Catholic Church. Outraged by the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Martin wrote Building a Bridge (HarperOne) in hopes of opening up dialogue around LGBT issues in the church.  

Through his parish-based book tour and dynamic social media presence, Martin has stressed the importance of compassion and respect in welcoming LGBT persons, who have long been a feared and marginalized group in the church. “Once someone encounters an LGBT person or discovers that their son or daughter or grandchild or niece or nephew is gay or lesbian, things change,” he says. 

Martin says that response to his book—both positive and negative—has been overwhelming. “It dawned on me that it’s having someone in a collar say these things, from the pulpit, that is really resonating with people,” he says. 

Despite facing hateful criticism and pushback from some, Martin has managed to start a long-overdue conversation in the church. Building a Bridge has been so successful that Martin has now published a revised second version that he hopes can be a helpful resource for LGBT Catholics and their allies. 

Why is there such a variance in the church regarding LGBT issues?

The variance comes from the selectiveness of the application of church teaching. It’s usually only applied to LGBT people, and usually only in regard to their sexual morality. 


For example, LGBT teachers in Catholic schools have been fired because of their sexual orientation. We don’t fire Catholic school teachers who are single and living together before they’re married, which is also against church teachings. How many teachers are in that situation? Nor do we fire teachers who are divorced and remarried without an annulment. Nor do we fire teachers who use birth control. 

The selectivity of focus on LGBT people and their sexual morality is, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a sign of “unjust discrimination.” We choose to overlook some of the other matters because we’ve accommodated those situations. But somehow the LGBT person is seen as the greatest and the worst and the only sinner in the church now.

One of the arguments made against opening a dialogue about LGBT issues is that the church shouldn’t change in order to accommodate culture. Do you think that’s fair?

It doesn’t have to do with accommodating culture; it has to do with accommodating the reality of people’s situations. It’s welcome and inclusion and encounter radically based on the gospels. You can say the same thing about Jesus reaching out to Zacchaeus the tax collector in the tree, Jesus speaking to the Roman centurion, or Jesus speaking to the woman from Samaria.

In the story of Zacchaeus in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus sees the chief tax collector of Jericho, who would have also been seen as the chief sinner in the area. Of all the people in the town he calls up to him and says, “I’m going to dine at your house today.” The Gospel of Luke says, “The crowd began to grumble.” That’s exactly what’s happening today.

Any extension of mercy to people on the margins will always cause people to grumble. But that’s what Jesus did, so that’s what we’re called to do. It’s pretty simple.


I think some critics of my book have an historic antipathy toward LGBT people and yet, as devout Catholics, they know that Jesus in fact reached out to people on the margins. That cognitive dissonance and internal tension is just infuriating for some people, because they know this is in fact what Jesus did. You cannot argue with the fact that Jesus continually went out to people on the margins. You also cannot argue with the fact that the LGBT person is the most marginalized person in the church. There’s no question. 

What has been the most surprising response to your book? 

Some reactions have been really surprising because the book really is pretty mild. It doesn’t challenge any church teaching, otherwise it would not have gotten the official approval of my superiors or the endorsement of cardinals and archbishops and bishops. It’s the reaction to just the idea of speaking about LGBT people that has shown how marginalized they are.

A friend of mine, who is a very conservative priest, took me aside after one of my talks and said, “I have a confession to make. I read your book, and I don’t see what all the fuss is about.”

I’ve been most surprised by the intense emotional reactions of people at the talks I have given at parishes. Many tears. Many hugs. Many people will just break down when they start talking about their experiences, so that’s been extremely gratifying and surprising. It surprised me at the beginning because I’m not saying anything that radical or that different than other people have been saying. People also may like having these things written down in a book that they can hold on to. 

Another surprising thing about the reaction to the book is that in reviews the second half of the book has been completely ignored. The first half is about dialogue. The second half is about prayer. In what other circumstance do you have reviewers ignoring an entire half of a book? It’s astonishing to me that Catholic reviewers and Catholic websites would ignore the part about prayer. That’s the more important part of the book.

If you could ask church bishops to do one thing that would make a difference in the lives of LGBT Catholics and LGBT Americans, what would it be?

Listen to them. That’s it. Come to know them as friends. Listen to their lives. Talk to them about who God is. Ask them about their experiences with the church. 

A friend of mine, a gay man, worked for many years for a certain U.S. bishop. He was the bishop’s social justice person in the diocese, so frequently they would take car rides together to a parish or diocese meeting. In those car rides the bishop would say all sorts of homophobic things but would also praise my friend for his hard work in the office. My friend never came out to the bishop for fear of losing his job. Through his homophobia the bishop missed out on an opportunity to really get to know an LGBT person.

I met a different man who told me his local bishop was also very homophobic. Since the man’s son is gay, he wrote the bishop a letter, and they set up a meeting. In the meeting the father told the bishop how rejected his son felt and the bishop said, “Why?” The bishop had no clue why a gay person would feel rejected by his own church. He didn’t understand that a church that is unwelcoming to LGBT people affects not only the LGBT people but also people who are related to and friends with LGBT people.


Both of those cases show the need for familiarity and friendship with LGBT people. To understand their situation and how the Holy Spirit is at work in them you have to listen to them. That’s what the church is not doing. When bishops listen they will be astounded by the hurt that they hear. 

Do you think it’s possible for the church to get united on LGBT issues?

The increasingly public nature of LGBT people; the emphasis of the pope on accompaniment, encounter, and mercy; and the greater openness of Catholics about their sexuality and identity have been sources of great joy for many people and sources of rage for a few others.

So in gradual ways the church has begun to change. I think there are two main reasons for these changes. The first is Pope Francis. His five most famous words, “Who am I to judge?” have really helped transform our understanding of our relationship with LGBT people. He’s also appointed cardinals, archbishops, and bishops who have been very welcoming. 

The second reason is that as more and more Catholics come out and are public about their identity, more and more families are affected. As more and more families are affected, they bring their hopes and desires into the lives of their parishes. That means more priests and deacons and pastoral workers are affected, too.

The other day I was giving a talk and a grandmother came up to me and said, “Father Jim, thank you for your book. My grandchild is transgender, and all I want is for her to feel at home in her church.” Ten or 15 years ago that child may have never been public about being transgender. That grandmother would have never had an encounter like that, and the issue may have been an abstract one for her. But now it’s personal. Ministry to LGBT people is now ministry to her, and increasingly it’s a ministry to the whole church. 

How can you begin dialogue about LGBT issues? 

There are many reasons why people are reluctant to discuss LGBT issues. Fear of the LGBT person as the “other,” for one. With that fear comes a certain hatred and vilification of the LGBT person. There can also be an unfounded worry that any sort of dialogue may betoken a change in church teaching, which it isn’t. Based on conversations with psychologists and psychiatrists, that reluctance can also come from a discomfort with one’s own complicated sexuality. We’re all on a spectrum, and for some people bringing up LGBT issues is threatening. That translates into anger sometimes and unwillingness to dialogue.

If it’s someone who’s unwilling to listen to anything, Jesus says you may need to shake the dust off your feet and move on. But for most people, all it takes is an encounter with an LGBT person and to listen to his or her stories.

The revised and expanded version of my book has more stories from the lives of LGBT Catholics. The first edition was more abstract, more theoretical. This one actually has stories and statistics and more insights from the lives of LGBT Catholics. I see it as much more of a resource for LGBT Catholics and their allies.

There’s a reason why Jesus used stories and not definitions when explaining the reign of God. Stories open up our minds, and I think it’s the same with LGBT issues.

What role does social media play in the conversation around LGBT issues in the church?

It depends on what part of social media we’re talking about. Social media is a two-edged sword. On one hand, it enables people to discover stories they may not have heard of before. For example, for a young LGBT person who’s stuck in a place where he or she doesn’t feel accepted, it could be a real lifeline.

By the same token, there are a few sites on social media that really traffic in hatred, homophobia, and personal attacks and that basically just create more fear. A disturbing thing about these sites is that a great number of Catholics are now confused about what Pope Francis is teaching.

Jesus says, “You will know them by their fruits.” There are some sites that bring peace, unity, and concord into the church and the lives of Catholics, and there are some sites that create division, discord, and despair in the lives of some Catholics. We have to look at them carefully and discern which are healthy and which are unhealthy. The New Testament says, “Perfect love drives out fear,” and we know that, but perfect fear also drives out love. Be aware of that, and always work for the love.

On my Facebook page, what I try to do is invite people to see parts of the church that they might not have seen before. For example, the story of the welcome Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, where Cardinal Tobin welcomed LGBT pilgrims. It wasn’t covered, initially, as a story in the national media. Many people might not have known about it except for social media. 

At what point do you feel like heated debate and conversation turn into bullying on social media? How do you know when to step away?

I’m certainly not going to let some fringe websites deter me from doing what I consider the work of the gospel. I never engage in ad hominem attacks or anything I consider unchristian because I don’t think that’s what a Christian should do, a Catholic should do, a priest should do, a Jesuit should do.

I have to stop reading certain comments, websites, or articles when I know they’re not helpful and they’re just attacking me. I realized those types of comments aren’t coming from God. Why would I engage them? Thoughtful critiques are one thing, but a good deal of the reaction to me and my book has just been hysterical, ad hominem, personal vilification, so why would I even pay attention?

I always compare it to walking down the street—I live in New York—and hearing a person shout out, “You’re a murderer!” I know I’m not a murderer. Why would I listen to that? Why would I listen to something that’s not only false but also mean? A lot of these people seem so Catholic that they are barely Christian anymore.

This article also appears in the April 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 4, pages 34–37).
Image: via Sarah Pflug on Burst