Cardinal and Reverend in War of Words Over LGBT Inclusion

Robert Sarah and James Martin
From left: Cardinal Robert Sarah and Reverend James Martin

A Vatican cardinal has denounced Rev. James Martin’s new book on how LGBT Catholics and the church can find common ground, saying homosexuality is “at odds with human nature” and the church must always emphasize that same-sex relations are “gravely sinful.”

Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, made the remarks in a column published Thursday by The Wall Street Journal. The column is available to subscribers only, but it has been quoted by other publications.

Martin’s Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity calls on both the church and LGBT Catholics to engage in dialogue and seek to understand each other. He does not question Catholic doctrine, which opposes same-sex relationships, but he does urge the church to welcome LGBT members and recognize the gifts and talents they bring.

That did not sit well with Sarah, known as a traditionalist on the topic of sexuality. Martin, he wrote in the Journal, “repeats the common criticism that Catholics have been harshly critical of homosexuality, while neglecting the importance of sexual integrity among all of its followers.” The church has a duty to remind them that same-sex relations are “gravely sinful and harmful to the well-being of those who partake in them.”

Martin responded in several interviews. “Cardinal Sarah is correct that I have been critical of the Church’s overall pastoral response to LGBT Catholics, and have found it lacking,” he told Crux, a website covering Catholic issues. “On that point, His Eminence is correct, and I also think that we agree on that.”

But, he told the Catholic magazine America, “Cardinal Sarah’s op-ed inaccurately states that my book is critical of church teaching, which it is not. Nor am I. Building a Bridge is not a book of moral theology nor a book on the sexual morality of LGBT people. It is an invitation to dialogue and to prayer, and I’m sure that Cardinal Sarah would agree on the importance of both.”

He encouraged Sarah, however, to consider why many LGBT Catholics and their families have rejected church teaching. “The only way that the church will be able to answer that question is by listening to them, which is part of the bridge building I am calling for in my book,” he told America. Also, he said, Sarah’s column failed to recognize “the immense suffering that LGBT Catholics have felt at the hands of their church.”

Martin and Sarah did agree that the church should enforce its doctrine equally. A point Martin made in the book and in an interview with The Advocate is that while Catholic churches and charities have fired employees for entering into same-sex marriages, they have not tended to police whether straight employees are complying with Catholic teaching on divorce and remarriage, sex outside marriage, or contraception.

But it appears Sarah’s answer to that would mean more firings, not fewer. Martin, he wrote, “is correct to argue that there should not be any double standard with regard to the virtue of chastity, which, challenging as it may be, is part of the good news of Jesus Christ for all Christians. … For the unmarried — no matter their attractions — faithful chastity requires abstention from sex.” The church should hold up as examples Catholics with “same-sex inclinations” who remain celibate.

Sarah, who is from the west African country of Guinea, has previously cited “gender ideology and ISIS” as two major threats to the family, "almost like two apocalyptic beasts.” He made those remarks at the Vatican’s Synod on the Family in 2015, according to the National Catholic Register.

The family is going through “subjectivist disintegration in the secularized West through quick and easy divorce, abortion, homosexual unions, euthanasia et cetera,” he said at the time, while there is also a threat from the “pseudo-family of ideologized Islam which legitimizes polygamy, female subservience, sexual slavery, child marriage."

Not all members of the church hierarchy find Martin’s book controversial. It has the endorsement of two Cardinal Joseph Tobin, who is archbishop of Newark, N.J., and Cardinal Kevin Farrell, the highest-ranking American clergyman in the Vatican, who heads the Dicastery (department) for the Laity, the Family and Life. It was published with the approval of his supervisor in the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), the Catholic religious order to which he belongs. 

[RELATED: This Priest Is Building a Bridge Between the Catholic Church and LGBT People]

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