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

BUILDING A BRIDGE: How the Catholic Church and the LGBTCommunity Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. Revised and Expanded Edition. By James Martin, SJ. San Francisco: Harper One, 2018. 190 pages.   


The question of whether and how the church should include people who are Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Queer, or Questioning continues unabated in both Protestant and Catholic communities, and I expect Orthodox ones as well. My congregation voted a few years back to become Open and Affirming. We were acting that way, for the most part, but we hadn’t embraced it in an official way. We did. We lost a few members and gained some. It was a difficult journey, but it was, in my view the right path. For some traditions the path is more difficult, as there are institutional realities to navigate that my congregation did not face. This is especially true of the Roman Catholic Church. Despite the challenges, the conversation is taking place in at least some parts of the Catholic community, and among the key figures in this conversation is the Jesuit priest and author James Martin, SJ.

                In 2017 Martin published a book titled Building a Bridge, which I reviewed here. Here in 2018, his publisher has issued a second paperback edition. Because this edition is largely the same as the first in content, with a new introduction and a study guide at the end for use by book groups and for personal reflection, I am going to re-purpose that original review, while making a few comments based on what Martin shares in his new introduction.

If you have read books by Martin, you know that he is a devoted and faithful member of the Catholic Church. He is committed to the church, to the Jesuits, and to serving people who live on the margins. He has spoken on immigration and economic issues, as well as reaching out to 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.

The book itself emerged out of a presentation to New Ways Ministry, which 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 original book as a Protestant who is cisgender, heterosexual, married, white, and 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. This book is a relatively 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. 

The fact that Harper One is issuing this new edition, a year later, is a  testament to the influence the book is having within the Catholic community. He reports receiving much positive feedback, from church leaders as well as LGBTQ Catholics. Of course, not everyone received it the same way. Although the book received support from bishops and Cardinals, as well as his Jesuit superior, there were those who reacted angrily and even with hate. He reports learning five specific insights from the conversations.  First, he discovered that “ministry to LGBT people is a ministry not simply to the relatively small percentage of Catholics who are LGBT but to a much larger group.” One of those groups of people are parents, grandparents, siblings, and other relatives of LGBTQ Catholics. Therefore, he learned that this ministry extended not just to LGBT Catholics, but to the entire Church (pp. 2-3). The second thing he learned was that he needed to be clearer on who had the first responsibility for building bridges, and that was the institutional church. He felt he wasn’t clear enough in the first edition about that.  Thirdly, he notes why he chose not to address the church’s teachings on same-sex relations and marriage, as well as the sexual abuse crisis. On the latter, he writes that this is an issue that requires a more comprehensive treatment of the sexual-abuse scandal than is possible here. As for the question of the church’s stance on same sex relations, the official position is clear—they’re impermissible. On this matter the two sides are too far apart for there to be fruitful conversation. His purpose here is to focus on areas of commonality. The book isn’t so much about sex as it is about “dialogue and prayer.” The fourth area of discovery is the issue of hate. He notes that while most readers expressed gratitude, the book also “unleashed in a few quarters of the church a virtual torrent of hate.” While he had anticipated criticism, both from LGBT Catholics who wanted him to go further and from Catholic leaders who felt he had gone too far, but the hateful criticism was both unexpected and unhelpful. He notes five places out of which this hate emerges. Finally, he writes that he “underestimated the desire for conversation around LGBT Catholics within the church itself.” The book he writes is simply an invitation to a conversation rooted in Jesus, and it is a conversation that has begun and will not let up.

For many in the Christian community, the book doesn’t go far enough. That is a fair critique, but one must start some place. For many others in the Christian community, this is an important step toward understanding and inclusion. For a community as large and old as the Roman Catholic Church, that may take some time, but the signs are present that it is moving faster than one might have supposed, and one expression of that conversation is Martin's attempt at Building a Bridge.    


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