“There is an organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas. Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure. Conversely, if our life is upright, our intellect and heart will be open to welcome the light shed by the dogmas of faith” (CCC, no. 89).
By the therapeutic mentality I mean a subjectivist philosophy in which a feeling of well-being, feeling good about oneself, is the only, or dominant, criterion by which we measure what is acceptable or not to us. A good example of this mentality is found throughout the recent book by James Martin, SJ, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity (New York: HarperOne, 2017; hereafter, BB).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 2357; hereafter, CCC) teaches: “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered’.” Fr. Martin doesn’t cite this passage. I’ll return to this matter below. All he cites is the phrase found in CCC that the homosexual inclination is “objectively disordered” (no. 2358). After this, we see the therapeutic mentality at work in the following remark. “The phrase relates to the orientation, not the person, but it is still needlessly hurtful. Saying that one of the deepest parts of a person—the part that gives and receives love—is ‘disordered’ in itself is needlessly cruel” (BB, 46-47).
Fr. Martin doesn’t say that the problem with this term is solely with the language used that otherwise correctly describes the homosexual condition. So, let’s just change the language to describe an expression of human brokenness as a consequence of man’s fallen state. He doesn’t consider whether the term is morally right about homosexual practice; or even whether it is, however inadequately, getting at the reality of the homosexual condition.
Rather, he only considers how the term leaves one feeling about himself, hurt or abused verbally. That’s it.
Confusion and assumptions
It seems to me that Fr. Martin confuses how we relate to people, on the one hand, and evaluating their beliefs and practices on the other. The former relation should be ethical, honoring a person’s dignity, relating to that person in the context of “encounter, accompaniment, and friendship” (BB, 46). But the latter relation calls us to assessment, critical judgment, discerning the difference between good and evil, embracing the former and rejecting the latter (cf. Rom 12: 9; 1 Thess 5:21-22). This distinction between relating to people and evaluating their beliefs and practices is affirmed by Vatican II: “But it is necessary to distinguish error, which always merits repudiation, and the person in error, who never loses the dignity of being a person even when he is flawed by false or inadequate religious [or moral] notions” (Gaudium et spes, no. 28).
Now, it is my contention that Fr. Martin implicitly presupposes that “same-sex” attraction is good from the order of creation. That is, a homosexual qua homosexual is “wonderfully made” (Psa 139), as he suggests in asking him to reflect on himself in light of that psalm. In this connection, it follows that he holds it to be legitimate to ground human identity in homosexual orientation, which encompasses an individual’s personal and social identity. How does Fr. Martin justify the legitimacy of this self-description—indeed, insisting on it? The only criterion that he suggests that legitimizes it is individual experience. Individual experience becomes a supreme court for adjudicating the gospel, the teachings of the Church. This leads him to the conclusion that a person’s homosexuality is a creational given rather than being in itself inherently disordered, a sign of brokenness, an expression of man’s fallen condition.
Thus, Fr. Martin doesn’t just object to the formulation of the homosexual condition as “inherently disordered.” If that were solely it, then, he would acknowledge the distinction between the normative order of creation and the order of the fall, followed by the order of redemption. He would acknowledge, in the words of Aidan Nichols, OP, in Christendom Awake: On Reenergizing the Church in Culture: “It is not experience we should trust but the transmutation of experience by Scripture and Tradition.” One would then take as normative the truth that God made man, our created nature, as male and female for each other (Gen 1:27), and that this nature is savagely wounded by sin, broken, but, thanks be to God, it is redeemed in Christ through his atoning work.
Hence, homosexual practice is morally unacceptable, not only because such sexual acts are not open to life but also they cannot realize unity, because sexual differentiation is a fundamental prerequisite for the two-in-one-flesh union between a man and a woman. As Robert Reilly puts it in Making Gay Okay, How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior is Changing Everything, “only a unitive act can be generative, and only a generative act can be unitive—in that only it makes two ‘one flesh’.”. This one-flesh union is not just posited by ecclesiastical law. Rather, Jesus calls us back to the law of creation (Mk 10:6-7) that grounds an inextricable nexus of permanence, twoness, and sexual differentiation for marriage. In particular, marriage is such that it requires sexual difference, the bodily-sexual act, as a foundational prerequisite, indeed, as intrinsic to a one-flesh union of man and woman. “So then they are no longer two but one flesh” (Mk 10:8).
The key evidence for my contention is, then, that Fr. Martin nowhere presents the so-called LGBT community with the Church’s stance toward homosexuality. Except for the phrase, “respect, compassion, sensitivity” (CCC, no. 2358), being the sole basis on which he builds his position, he completely ignores the entire normative context of Christian anthropology that is the prolegomena in the Church’s teaching on the sixth commandment (CCC, nos, 2331-2336), the vocation of the human person that follows from that anthropology (nos. 2337-2347), and the sexual morality of man’s vocation to chastity (nos. 2348-2356). Having ignored that normative context, he never discusses the teaching of the Church regarding the relationship between chastity and homosexual practice (CCC, no. 2357).
Where’s the Church’s teaching on homosexuality?
Fr. Martin might respond by saying that he informs the members of the so-called LGBT community to respect the authority of the Church’s teaching, but, he is quick to add, “not all [teachings] have equal authority” (BB, 69; also, 55). As a general principle, this is of course correct. He adds, “Catholics must prayerfully consider what they are teaching. To do that, we are called to listen. Their teaching deserves our respect” (BB, 51). Still, you would think in a book that deals with the Church’s stance toward homosexuality, Fr. Martin would make a real effort to inform the members of the so-called LGBT community of the Church’s teaching on the sixth commandment and all its implications for sexual morality and the moral life in Christ (CCC, nos, 2331-2359). But he never does. No, not one word in this book.
Fr. Martin never tells them which teachings, in this connection, are binding in faith, on what grounds, and to what extent. Why binding in faith? “Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself” (CCC, 1812). Respect doesn’t come close to what the assent of faith requires when we are speaking of teachings that are irreversible, definitive, indeed, infallible and hence possessing the highest degree of certainty—such as the teachings in CCC, nos. 2331-2359—and which therefore require the assent of faith, meaning thereby that they should be held to be true. Furthermore, even those truths that the Church teaches authoritatively but non-definitively require more than just respect. The assent here, too, is intrinsic to the logic of faith such that “the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent,” which is a “religious submission of mind and will” (Lumen gentium, no. 25).
Against this background, we are not surprised that Fr. Martin never presents the members of the so-called “LGBT community” with the call to chastity, namely, “to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition” (CCC, no. 2358). In addition, “By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection” (CCC, no. 2359).
Yes, Fr. Martin generalizes by saying that “we are all imperfect people, struggling to do our best in the light of our individual vocations. We are all pilgrims on the way, loved sinners following the call we first heard at our baptism and that we continue to hear every day of our lives” (BB, 76). True enough. And yet, once again, one would think that in a book about human sexuality, an author writing from a Catholic perspective would identify the specific sexual struggles of the moral life in Christ as the sixth commandment bears upon them, and the corresponding sexual sins against chastity. But no, they receive no attention; they do not figure in this book at all.
Some sins are graver than others
In this connection, this is not the book’s only flaw. I surmise that Fr. Martin is trying to diminish the importance of sexual sins relative to others by suggesting that all sins are equal before God, with none being worse than others. But is this true? Isn’t there a hierarchy of sins, such as is implied in the distinction between mortal and venial sins? In short, all sins are equally covered by the atoning work of Christ, but they are not equal in all respects, and hence some sins are graver than others.
St. Paul tells us that the Church must not succumb to a lax attitude toward sin (see 1 Cor 5:6: “a little leaven leavens the whole lump”). He urges the believers at Corinth to take action against a man’s sexual sin (i.e., incest) by removing him from the community. The community should mourn for him rather than become inflated with pride (5:2). As St. Paul says elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, we must “not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoice with truth” (13:6). The truth being that we in the Church are all sinners who are saved by grace: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received in faith” (Rom 3:23-25).
Nevertheless, says St. Paul, the Church should take a stand against all sorts of sexual sin by warning the offending believers that if they continue in sexual immorality they will not inherit the Kingdom of God. Against this Pauline background, we should ask Fr. Martin how he proposes to help these offending believers to be “saved” from judgment “on the day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5:5). What about St. Paul’s teaching that serial and unrepentant immoral sexual practices puts one at the risk of not inheriting God’s eternal kingdom (1 Cor 6:9-10; 2 Cor 12: 21; Gal 5:19-21; Rom 1:24-27; 6:19-23; Col 3:5-10; Eph 5:3-6, 4:17-19; 1 Thess 4:2-8)?
This Pauline teaching is stated clearly in CCC, no. 1861: “Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment [regarding the eternal standing] of persons to the justice and mercy of God.”
Furthermore, if sinners are called to follow their baptismal vocation throughout their lives, as Martin rightly says, how then does a person who is actively and unrepentantly engaged in same-sex practice change his life, radically reorient his whole life, put an end to sin, turn away from evil, if no one, least of all the Church, least of all Fr. Martin, calls him to interior repentance, conversion, that is, “the conversion of the heart, interior conversion” (CCC, no. 1430), and a holy life?
Moreover, how should we understand, as Fr. Martin holds, that “[we] are loved by God as [we] are” (10)? Yes, we come to the Lord just as we are, sinners who sins are under the mercy and justice of the cross. Is that what Fr. Martin means? Does he understand that “Christ died for the ungodly,” and so “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:6, 8). Indeed, “when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son” (vs. 10).
Yes, God is rich in mercy (Eph 2:4). He forgave me of my sins out of love for me in Christ even while I was dead through my trespasses (Eph 2:5), even while I was still his enemy (Rom 5:10). In this light, we can easily understand the wideness of God’s mercy, why mercy is inclusive, grounded in divine redemption, and hence neither discriminating nor relativizing—all men are sinners and are under the power of sin (see Rom 3:9-18). But “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3: 16). The Church welcomes all sinners, none are excluded.
Failure to tell the truth
But how shall they know that they are called by the Gospel to repentance and amendment of life, if they have not heard that call (cf. Rom 10: 14-17). But “how can they hear without someone preaching to them” (vs. 14). Thus, when proclaiming the Father’s mercy in Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit towards others it must be clear to them that our action is rooted in God’s prior act of mercy shown to us in and through the finished work of Christ. Thus: “if we confess our sins he is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us” (1 Jn 1: 9-10).
Pope Francis has written: “Although it sounds obvious, spiritual accompaniment must lead others ever closer to God, in whom we attain true freedom. . . . To accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father” (Evangelii gaudium, nos. 169-170). Fr. Martin’s book does not tell the LGBT community the truth, indeed, the gospel truth, and hence he cannot help people avoid the danger of what Francis calls here therapeutic self-absorption. Chiefly, spiritual accompaniment calls for conversion. As CCC teaches, “This endeavor of conversion is not just a human work. It is the movement of a ‘contrite heart’, drawn and moved by grace to respond to the merciful love of God who loved us first” (Ps 51:17; Jn 6:44; 12:32; 1 Jn 4:10).
Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity
by Fr. James Martin, S.J.
New York: HarperOne, 2017
Hardcover, 160 pages