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This Priest Is Building a Bridge Between the Catholic Church and LGBT People

James Martin

After a gunman killed 49 people and wounded dozens of others at Pulse nightclub in Orlando last year, Rev. James Martin heard many of his fellow Catholic clergy members offer condolences. But what struck him most was what he didn’t hear.

What was missing from many of their messages, Martin says, was any acknowledgment that most of the victims were LGBT people. “That to me was really revealing, and that showed me that even in death LGBT Catholics were invisible to the institutional church,” he tells The Advocate.

That set Martin on a mission to make LGBT Catholics visible — and to help them and the institutional church find common ground. It’s the subject of the prolific writer’s latest book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity.

The book is an expansion of a talk Martin gave to New Ways Ministry, a group that advocates for LGBT equality within Catholicism, a few weeks after the Pulse tragedy. He recognizes that journey to this place of respect, compassion, and sensitivity isn’t an easy one, either for LGBT Catholics and representatives of the church.

Catholicism still considers same-sex relationships a sin and calls on members to refrain from acting on same-sex attractions. People have lost jobs with Catholic churches and charities for going public with same-sex relationships, such as announcing a marriage. The church isn’t fully accepting of transgender people either, having taken issue with the idea that a person could have a gender identity different from the one assigned at birth.

Martin, who has been a member of the Jesuit religious order since 1988 and was ordained a priest in 1999, recognizes the pain that LGBT Catholics feel, even though many remain in the church despite its doctrine — and no, he doesn’t see a doctrinal change coming, even with Pope Francis’s conciliatory attitudes. Over the years, he writes in the book, LGBT Catholics “have shared stories with me about being insulted, slandered, excluded, rejected, and even fired.” He doesn’t intend to minimize their pain, but he sees ways LGBT people and the church can have a productive, mutually beneficial relationship.

For one thing, he recommends that the church, in enforcing doctrine on sexual and other matters, not single out LGBT people. Catholic institutions don’t fire straight employees because they’ve divorced and remarried without an annulment of the previous marriage, because they live with a partner outside of marriage, or because they use contraceptives. They also employ non-Catholics. “The selectivity of focus on LGBT matters when it comes to firings is, to use the words of the Catholic Catechism, a ‘sign of unjust discrimination’ … something we are to avoid,” he writes. America, the Catholic magazine where he is editor at large, has published editorials to this effect, he notes.

He also calls on the church to recognize the gifts that individual LGBT Catholics bring the church — a love of music, willingness to do charitable work, or any of numerous other talents. And, while he doesn’t expect a change in doctrine on same-sex relationships, he urges church leaders to see the love that is present in these relationships.

For instance, he says in our interview, he knows a gay man who has cared for a partner through years of serious illness. It would be hard for anyone, he says, “to look at that relationship and say there is not love.”

“The most important thing for the church to do is listen to people in these relationships,” Martin says. “That, to me, is the next step for the church.”

That may happen more and more, he says, as in the past few decades people have become more comfortable with being LGBT and coming out to people in their lives. “The Catholic Church is still in the first stages of getting to know LGBT people,” he says.

But the getting-to-know process is having an effect, Martin says, not only opening church leaders’ eyes but making friends and relatives of LGBT people advocates for them — something that has played out in secular life, with people who know someone who is LGBT less likely to be prejudiced.

After he gave a talk on Jesus at Yale University, he recalls, an elderly woman came up to speak to him — and what she said was that she wanted her transgender granddaughter to feel welcome in the church.

More and more conversations like that are happening, he says, and even though there are stories of LGBT people being fired, denied sacraments, or otherwise mistreated by the church, he believes the number of LGBT-welcoming clergy is growing. As an example, he mentions Cardinal Joseph Tobin, who heads the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., and has held special masses for LGBT worshippers.

Although the development of a respectful relationship between LGBT Catholics and the church goes both ways, Martin says, “the onus is on the institutional church — it is the institutional church that has marginalized the LGBT Catholic, not vice versa.” But he also calls on LGBT people to show respect, compassion, and sensitivity in a variety of ways.

Anger at being marginalized is understandable, he says, but disagreement can be expressed calmly and need not devolve into yelling and name-calling. And he urges LGBT Catholics to give the church what he calls “the gift of time,” given that out LGBT people are a relatively new presence in Catholicism.

He chose to focus his book on areas where common ground is possible rather than on divisive doctrinal questions, he notes, because he saw that as what is most needed in the church today. And above all, he wants the church to meet LGBT people where they are, which is, he says, what Jesus did.

And he sees this approach being embraced. His book has the endorsement of two cardinals — Tobin and Kevin Farrell, the highest-ranking American clergyman in the Vatican, who heads the Dicastery (department) for the Laity, the Family and Life. “To have a cardinal in charge of that office endorse the book is quite something,” Martin says. “That shows a shift in the church.”

And what about LGBT Catholics who don’t think the church has shifted far enough? “Most LGBT people that I know don’t opt out of the church but feel forced out,” he says. Basically, he says, they just want to be welcomed — and he’s hoping his efforts will help make them feel they are.

Building a Bridge is out now from HarperOne.

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