Rev. James Martin, one of the leading LGBTQ allies in the Roman Catholic Church, says he had an encouraging private audience with Pope Francis about LGBTQ people in the church.
Martin, who met with Francis in the latter’s private library at the Vatican Monday, declined to reveal details of the pope’s comments, but he did tell the Catholic magazine America, “Among other things, I shared with Pope Francis the experiences of LGBT Catholics around the world, their joys and their hopes, their griefs and concerns. I also spoke about my own ministry to them and how they feel excluded. … I saw this audience as a sign of the Holy Father’s care for LGBT people.”
Martin is the author of Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. He is a member of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, a Catholic order noted for its scholarship and, to some degree, liberalism. His book calls for greater acceptance of LGBTQ people in the church but stops short of calling for changes in doctrine. The church considers same-sex relations sinful and gender God-given and immutable. A Vatican source told America that Francis has read the book and is aware that Martin has been harshly criticized for his pro-LGBTQ advocacy.
The site of Martin’s meeting with the pope is noteworthy, according to America. “It took place not as a private encounter in Santa Marta, the Vatican guesthouse where he lives, but in the pope’s private library where he meets heads of states and international organizations, cardinals and bishops conferences, leaders of the other Christian denominations and of the world’s major religions, as well as distinguished persons,” the magazine reports. “By choosing to meet him in this place, Pope Francis was making a public statement.” Martin and Francis met for half an hour, talking in English and Spanish, with just one other person, a translator, in the room.
Martin told Crux, a website covering Catholic issues, that Francis was an “incredibly attentive listener, and from the questions he asked, you could tell that he cares for [LGBTQ] people.” Martin added, “I think that it will be seen as a real sign for his pastoral care and concern for LGBT Catholics and LGBT people worldwide.” The pope also wrote a note to Martin’s nephew, who is taking Francis as his confirmation name.
Pope Francis has sent mixed signals to LGBTQ people. He has been far more conciliatory in his language than his predecessors, with his “Who am I to judge?” statement about gay priests, but he has cautioned against admitting gay people to the priesthood — even though there are many gay and bi men already serving as priests.
Additionally, Pope Francis reportedly once told a gay man, “God made you like this and loves you like this.” He famously met with a transgender man who called him “kindness personified,” and he has at least one close gay friend from his time in Argentina. But he has contended that the only true families are those headed by heterosexual couples and objected to any idea that gender is fluid. And Catholic doctrine on gender and sexuality has not changed, and most observers would acknowledge a major change would be too much to hope for.
His meeting with Martin brought both praise and criticism. Praise came from pro-LGBTQ Catholic groups, such as New Ways Ministry. “It is a clear signal that Pope Francis is calling the church to conversion away from the negative messages it has sent in the past about LGBTQ people,” said a statement issued by New Ways Executive Director Francis DeBernardo. “It is a day of celebration for LGBTQ Catholics who have longed for an outstretched hand of welcome from the church that they love.”
From the other side, Lifesite News, an anti-LGBTQ website, called Martin a “pro-homosexual celebrity priest” and noted that the meeting “inspired a fresh wave of criticism from those who believe Martin has, through his activism, misled Christians who experience same-sex attractions, their families, and their friends.” And U.K. journalist Damian Thompson criticized the pope as well, tweeting that his meeting with Martin “is intended to taunt the US conservatives that he demonises” and that “ordinary American Catholics are the victims.”