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Building a Bridge:
How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity

by james martin, s.j.
harperone, 150 pages, $19.99

Is sodomy a sin? Perplexed readers of Fr. James Martin, S.J.’s latest book will want to put the question to him, if only to understand why he felt it important to write at all.

Fr. Martin describes his project as that of reflecting “on both the church’s outreach to the LGBT community and the LGBT community’s outreach to the church.” From the outset the encounter is framed in political rather than pastoral terms. The term “community” in the phrase “LGBT community” is borrowed from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and in its present employment the word corresponds to no discernible social reality. One does not find among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people—taken as a collectivity—distinctive commonalities of religion, nativity, culture, recreation, or fellowship. Their shared interests are political; they are aggregated not as a true community but as something like a caucus. It is noteworthy that Fr. Martin voices his wish that his readers understand the LGBT acronym expansively as LGBTQA—that is, to include “questioning or queer, and allies.” The word “ally,” designating not sexual appetite but political allegiance, gives the game away.

The truth is that the Church, as Church, has no pastoral interest in the LGBT bloc apart from her concern that those who compose it be protected from sin contemplated and rescued from sin committed—precisely the same concern she shows for everybody else. That is to say, the Church is concerned with the prospect of salvation and damnation, and persons with a propensity for a particular sin engage her pastoral solicitude in the degree that the sin is grave and the propensity stubborn. She wants us to get to heaven.

With this duty in view, the Catholic Church teaches that sexual relations are the exclusive privilege of married love—and that between a man and a woman. The sexual revolution not only rejects this doctrine but is violently disdainful of it, and the cultural and political triumphs of that revolution have made defense of the teaching increasingly costly. It has also made fidelity increasingly difficult for all, but especially for those whose sexual libido is not ordered to heterosexual love. Same-sex attraction has received exceptional attention inside and outside the Church. This is not because the sin to which it tends is somehow more mortal than other mortal sins, but because both partisans and adversaries of the sexual revolution understand how much is riding on the preservation or elimination of the injunction against sodomy.

Fr. Martin is, of course, under no obligation, even in a book dealing with the Church and the LGBT caucus, to expound Catholic teaching on homosexual acts. Disconcerting, however, is his failure to acknowledge the existence of those afflicted with same-sex attraction who believe that the Church has it right today and has had it right all along. Priests who frequently counsel and hear confessions can attest that there are many such Catholics, who fully accept the difficult doctrines as the teaching of Christ and who struggle heroically to keep them. Such Catholics already live in the heart of the Church, as much as do any of the faithful, and no bridge needs to be built to them. Moreover, they do not need to be “accompanied,” as the jargon has it, because they have already arrived at, or never left, the home they share with their ­would-be accompanists. Very few of these men and women identify themselves as “gay” or wish to be so designated. They are simply Catholics, neither more nor less, struggling (as do the rest of us) with the spiritual and moral hardships that come their way. It is astonishing that Martin seems never to have met such a person.

To his credit, Fr. Martin concedes that there exists a “chasm” between the Church and the LGBT bloc, whence his call for a bridge to span the divide. His plea is to reduce the distrust that makes each side wary of the other by encouraging mutual “respect, compassion, and sensitivity”—using the language of the Catechism (2358). But why do we not find comparable chasms of distrust between the Church and other populations afflicted by a sinfully inclined disorder—say, kleptomaniacs? Most of us see the reason plainly: If the man next to me in the pew is struggling with kleptomania, I have no reason to believe he denies church teaching on property rights. But a person who announces himself as “gay” for that very reason (so it would appear) regards his same-sex attraction not merely as a libido experienced but as an identity embraced, and this embrace seems all but impossible to reconcile with Catholic doctrine. What percentage of those who claim membership in “the LGBT community” also endorse the teachings of the Catechism (2357) that “Sacred Scripture . . . presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity” or that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered”? There are a stalwart few, no doubt, but their number is tiny. In consequence, the mistrust that Martin deplores is not misplaced. The chasm is real, and reasons for its existence reveal themselves as more sound the more closely they are studied.

However well-intentioned, Fr. Martin’s book does not advance the Church’s response to the crisis of disordered sexuality; it waves a white flag. For all that, Martin is right to lament the antagonism that persists and correct in pointing to the need of spiritual assistance for same-sex-attracted persons. Here, too, I believe that recourse to the Church’s broader pastoral experience would go far to remedy the problem. Those with extensive experience in the confessional will have encountered penitents with many different disordered and objectively immoral desires, some associated with behaviors that even today are universally regarded as felonies. The Church is right to teach that all such people are deserving of respect, compassion, and sensitivity, which are their due simply as human persons, not as those who have achieved a given standard of probity or of psychological health. But her own task, carried out by means of her sacraments and the pastoral exertions of her ministers, is to reconcile the sinner and to strengthen the weak, so as to be a conduit of supernatural aid—that is to say, of graces that have their effect in spite of the human limitations of those who transmit them.

By an entirely understandable paradox, the seal of the confessional means that the Church’s pastoral successes in this regard almost never meet the light of day. The pastors are forbidden to speak and their penitents disinclined. Yet the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:10–14) is an admonition to remember that authentic spiritual renewal may not take place in the well-lit areas at center stage—where everyone is watching and public congratulations are fulsomely exchanged—but often occurs out of sight, in the darker and more private precincts of the temple, where humility and remorse seek the truth, and are rewarded with new life.

Paul Mankowski, S.J., writes from Chicago.

Follow the conversation on this article in the Letters section of our November 2017 issue.