Building a Bridge (James Martin, SJ) -- A Review

There are many pressing issues confronting the Christian community, ranging from immigration to heath care.  In fact, there are so many issues facing the church that it’s easy to become overwhelmed. So, perhaps it is best if we take them one at a time, seeking to find solutions that honor God and honor our neighbors. One of these critical issues facing the church today involves the question of the status of LGBTQ folks in church and society. If the table is open to all, is anyone not welcome?

A little over a year ago the congregation I serve as pastor chose to become "Open and Affirming." This action came after several years of open and at times difficult conversation. We lost people as a result. We took this action as a congregation, and we had the ability to do this, because in our tradition such matters are left to congregations. As difficult as that move was, can you imagine the challenge of moving the largest Christian communion, one that is both ancient and nearly universal, in a new direction. While winds of change are being felt in the Roman Catholic Church, change comes slowly. Indeed, it can take generations for changes to be fully experienced. For those most affected by the slow pace of change, can become discouraged and leave, even as there some for whom the pace is much too quick. So, in such a case, how does one build a bridge that allows for productive conversation within in an ancient institutional church that finds it difficult to change (look at what happened with the reforms of Vatican II) when it comes to the full inclusion of LGBTQ Catholics when the weight of tradition and practice stands in the way of change?

The good news is that there are voices within the church establishment who are willing to engage in conversation, and perhaps even welcome change. One of these figures is James Martin, a Jesuit theologian and author, who has demonstrated a unique ability to stand in the gap on several issues. He is one who desires to be faithful to the church he has committed himself to serve as well as to the people whom has come to know, people who are often marginalized and excluded, and this includes LGBT Catholics. Writing as a Catholic priest, he seeks to build a bridge by appealing to Catholic teaching and personal experience. In building this bridge he appeals to a word of guidance found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which calls on Catholics to treat LGBT people with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” This book makes use of these three concepts to create a dialogue between the institution of the church and its LGBT members and allies. He makes it clear that this is not a conversation between the church and LGBT Catholics, for to be Catholic is to be in the Church. Thus, when he speaks of the church, he speaks in term of the institution, which includes the Vatican, hierarchy, church leaders, clergy, and all who work in official capacities.   

The origins of this brief, readable, thoughtful book, is to be found in the response by Catholic leaders to the shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. He writes that he found revelatory the fact that "only a few Catholic bishops acknowledged the LGBT community or even used the word gay at such a time that the LGBT community is still invisible in many quarters of the church. Even in tragedy its members are invisible." (p. 2) He acknowledges that a chasm exists between the institutional church and the LGBT community, and that a bridge needs to be built. He hopes that this little book can be the start of that effort. He writes from the perspective of one who has "ministered to and worked with LGBT people, most of them Catholics." (p. 3). In addition to his relationships with LGBT folks, and their families, he has also worked with Catholic leaders. So, he knows the lay of the land. He knows of the deep hurt felt by those excluded and their families, and he seeks to address them.

This book, he notes emerged from a presentation given to a Catholic group—New Ways Ministry—that ministers to and advocates for LGBT Catholics. He received an award from that group for his work in building bridges. He seeks, in this book, to urge the church he loves to treat LGBT people with "respect, compassion, and sensitivity," as well as asking that the LGBT community would reciprocate in their relationships with the church. He knows that what he asks of those hurt by the church will be difficult, but he also knows that there are many in the church, like himself, even among the hierarchy, who want the church to be fully welcoming. He asks, however, for time and for patience, something difficult to offer when you have been hurt. He writes with compassion and desire to see change. He would like it to come faster, but as he notes, this is not just an American church, and so what sounds rather bland and even retrograde to an American audience might be radical to the ears of Catholics in other parts of the world.

I read the book as a Protestant who is cisgender, heterosexual, married, white, privileged. I have a brother, a cousin, and a cousin-in-law who are gay. I have church members and colleagues in ministry who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender. I have learned from them that each story is different and distinct. It is with this background in mind, that I read this book written by a Catholic to members of the Catholic Church, whether LGBT or not. I am not the primary audience of this book, but I appreciate Martin’s commitment to pursuing a conversation that calls for people to engage each other with respect, compassion, and sensitivity, even when the sides seem so far apart. This is not a bridge that will be built in a day. At the same time, this is not simply a call to agree to disagree. This is a call for engagement. It is a call to build a bridge so that Catholic tradition can be respected, even as the institutional church is being asked to respond with compassion and respect to the concerns and needs of members who are LGBTQ. This is important to hear. Martin makes it clear that there are faithful Catholics who are gay, lesbian, bi, transgender. They are his friends, his brothers and sisters in Christ. Would he like the church to move faster? Yes, he would, but he is also aware that you don't turn a super-tanker on a dime.

Even if you are not Catholic, this is worth reading. It might be helpful to the conversation within one’s own congregation, even if not Catholic. One of the helpful contributions of the book is a set of "Biblical Passages for Reflection and Meditation." These are not the typical texts one engages when addressing the question of inclusion. These are texts that deal with names and naming, different gifts, care for those who are persecuted, Jesus meeting people where they are, a reminder that we are all "wonderfully made," God is our strength, Jesus' own proclamation of his identity, the call of Peter, the appearance of the risen Christ to Mary Magdalene, and the road to Emmaus. The texts are diverse, but using the discussion questions provided for each text, one will find important resources for the journey.  None of the texts are directed to matters of sexual orientation or identity. They are designed to get us talking about our common faith and common humanity. It’s on that basis that a bridge begins to take shape, a bridge will provide an opportunity to deal with matters of great importance related to sexual orientation.

The book concludes with a prayer that Martin wrote titled "A Prayer for when I feel rejected." It is written for "all who feel excluded, rejected, marginalized, shamed, or persecuted, in any way or in any place, religious or otherwise" (p. 144). The prayer begins with a recognition that God has made us all who we are: "I praise you and love you, for I am wonderfully made, in your image."

There are many books that engage this important conversation. Some of them deal with biblical texts that are used to exclude. This isn’t one of those books. Other books are written from personal experience of being excluded. This isn’t one of those books either. Some books are long and involved. This isn’t one of those books. What it is, is a brief meditation on three qualities that if embraced can form the basis of a bridge-building effort. If one is already affirming, then the word to the gay and transgender community may seem harsh at times. The church might be seen as being let off too lightly. That’s understandable. However, perhaps this is the first step that will lead to that full inclusion, perhaps even sooner than many expect.  The principles of respect, compassion, and sensitivity may have value for other conversations facing the church. After all there are many conversations we need to have. 


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