'Building a Bridge' Between the Catholic Church & the LGBT Community

Jun 18, 2018

June marked the one-year anniversary of the shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Many religious leaders and laypeople alike came together in the wake of the shooting to provide support, and mourn the loss of the victims killed in the LGBT nightclub.

However, during this time Jesuit priest James Martin, SJ noticed that relatively few Catholic leaders were reaching out, and even fewer mentioned the terms “gay” or “LGBT.”  The day after the shooting, Father Martin posted a video online calling on all Catholics to stand in solidarity with their LGBT brothers and sisters.  He says he believed the lack of outward support showed not only a lack of understanding by the Catholic Church, but a lack of compassion.

In the last year, Martin has continued to deliver that message of support for LGBT Catholics in speeches and with his new book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity.  He explains that three words in the Catechism calls for Catholics to treat LGBT people with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.

"Jesus is always reaching out to people who are on the margins, and really no group in our church is as marginalized as LGBT people," says Martin.

He also stresses that "the onus is on the institutional church, because it is the church that had made the LGBT community feel marginalized, not vice versa."

Credit Harper Collins Publishers

In Building A Bridge, Martin points out that there are many ways both big and small in which the church can treat the LGBT community with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. For starters, the church and its leaders need to use the terms "gay" or "LGBT," versus terms such as "same sex attraction" or avoiding using any language at all. Secondly, the institution should stop firing its LGBT employees.

"We really require no other group to that kind of standard," says Martin. "For example, we don't fire women who have children out of wedlock or people who use birth control. It's just the LGBTQ that seems to be focused on."

Most importantly Martin adds, is the church can simply listen to the community, welcome them, become friends with them, and stand up for them.

In turn, Martin says that the LGBT community can show these values by listening to priests and bishops and treating them with personal respect. Compassion can be shown through understanding the complexity of their jobs and being sensitive to the fact that they speak with different levels of authority within the church.

"It's basically just saying that each side needs to respect one another, which I hope is not too controversial," says Martin.

He notes that building this bridge will take time, especially since the LGBT person has been approached as a someone who is inherently wrong by the Catholic church and community.

"To single out the LGBT person as the person who is called to conversion above all I think is really unjust, and it's no wonder that they feel so marginalized and beat up in the church," says Martin. However, he says that both LGBT people who have remained with the church and those who have left it have inherent strengths that the church should welcome and and celebrate their gifts.

"Because they’ve been marginalized and persecuted, they’re often more compassionate to people on the margins," he explains.  "They have persevered in their faith, even though they’ve been treated like dirt for many years, and they forgive people who really mistreat them in the church."

Martin would like other church leaders to keep in mind that "ministry to LGBT people is ministry to a much bigger group than you would imagine." As more people come out and are public, he says it only affects the Catholic Church and its parishes more and more.

Martin notes Pope Francis' message of treating all people with dignity and says, "'Before all else, we need to remind people of their dignity, and that is a distinct change in tone."

While some people may hear conflicting messages from their local church and church authorities, Martin recommends  that LGBT members look for a welcoming parish and pastor, a place you can "feel like you're at home."

He also notes that every LGBT person has as much a right to be in the church as any other person, priest, bishop, or pope by the virtue of their baptism. For now, it is important to find that welcoming community, harbor open discussions, and live by example. Martin says that while it may be difficult for both the LGBT community and the Catholic Church, it is "worth the work" to bridge the gap.

"It's just very hard to tell people who have been beaten down that you need to forgive," he notes. "That is part of the Christian message, but I prefer to start right now with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. I think respect is a good first step for LGBT people, but really it's the church I think that needs to take the first step in this reconciliation."

Father James Martin is a Jesuit priest in New York, editor at large of America magazine and author of several books, including Between Heaven and Mirth and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.

*This interview originally aired 06/26/17