Some Catholics are very disturbed at the reemergence of dissent in the Church. One of the most aggravating instances is the work of Father James Martin, SJ, whose book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity is full of ambiguity. Calls for clarification have not been heeded but the subtext makes his position clear, as do many statements made in his public presentations. For instance, at a recent presentation at Villanova University, he told to a young man, “I hope in 10 years you will be able to kiss your partner [in church] or, you know, soon to be your husband.” Anyone reading his book or listening to his talks can reasonably conclude that Father Martin believes the Church does not present correctly God’s plan for sexuality; that he thinks the culture knows better.
For Catholics who have some background in theology and philosophy it is deeply disappointing when a highly educated priest uses specious arguments to advance his cause; for those whose every fiber of their Catholic being leads them to want to trust priests, bishops, and religious superiors, such instances of untrustworthiness are scandalous; for those of us who have been fighting dissent for nearly 40 years, seeing a dissenter get ecclesial support and public acclaim is demoralizing. But, mostly, it is sad in the extreme that souls could well be lost.
I find myself, as an aging Catholic warrior, experiencing déjà vu all over again. The faithful of my generation spent a lot of our lives countering the equally specious (though more sophisticated) arguments of Father Charles Curran and his ilk—those who dissented from Humanae Vitae and for decades dominated virtually every Catholic institution. We fought a fight that has enjoyed a lot of success. Because of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Saint John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor, the appointment of good bishops, the reform of seminaries and many Catholic colleges and universities, the proliferation of the “movements,” and the development of nearly countless good resources and programs, it seemed dissent was almost a thing of the past. Indeed, the younger generation, in general, is unaware of it. Thus they are even more scandalized by dissent when it does emerge.
But it is back and, to be sure, I am despondent to some extent. Though undoubtedly the damage will still be great, it helps that we are much better equipped to respond to it this time. We must not let this crisis go to waste.
Much of the growth of strong orthodoxy has been the result of faithful Catholics trying to refute the arguments of dissenters, minimize the effects of dissent, and to fortify themselves and others against the confusion and corruption of faith that result from dissent. Many good things came from the push-back to dissent on sexual issues: the growth of wonderful organizations promoting Natural Family Planning methods, chastity education programs, marriage prep programs, etc.
While I am profoundly frustrated that the views Father Martin espouses are again in the spotlight, I am gratified, inspired, and consoled by the immediate and responsible refutations of his thinking. We should commit ourselves to distributing copies of these refutations to others whenever his name comes up (articles by Archbishop Chaput, Eduardo Echeverria, Father Roger Landry, and myself, among others, come to mind). It is manifestly providential that Daniel Mattson’s superb book Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay was published at the same time as Father Martin’s book; those looking for an alternative to Martin’s will find a strong and bracing corrective in Mattson’s book.
One element that makes Father Martin’s work so appealing is that he sensibly asks for a respectful, sensitive, and compassionate response within the Church to those who experience same-sex attraction. But it is scandalous and unintelligible that he does not acknowledge the existence of Courage and Encourage, since those are apostolates that have been providing a respectful, sensitive, and compassionate response for decades and are now building the following they deserved all along.
I haven’t seen anything in Martin’s work indicating he has much to contribute to the “welcoming” effort, since his approach seems largely condescending. Instead of challenging people to embrace the fullness of the faith, he tries to hide or downplay, or even reject, the teachings of the Church in order to appear welcoming. True welcoming means we make it clear we want everyone to join us in following Jesus; we want to share with others the truth and beauty we know, and we will do our best to explain beliefs and teachings that might be hard to understand or accept. We do so not thinking we are any better than anyone else but wanting to be faithful to our beloved Jesus, who commissioned all Christians to stand up for challenging truths.
It is also providential that Father Martin’s work has appeared just as many New Evangelization outreaches are coming to the fore. We are definitely getting better at “welcoming,” but we are also discovering that many new pastoral services are needed to do the job well. Those working in the vineyard are finding there is a serious deficiency in most Catholic parishes of the means to welcome newcomers and inquirers into our midst, not to mention other groups with distinct needs.
I am among those who think parishes can and should be much more welcoming to those who experience same-sex attraction, as well as to a myriad of other groups (the handicapped, the mentally ill, the married, the widowed, the divorced, the unmarried, single parents, the jobless, caretakers, etc.), and I hope that will happen.
Father Harvey, who founded Courage, learned a lot from Alcoholics Anonymous. Indeed, all of us could benefit from the techniques of Alcoholics Anonymous: the practice of acknowledging our besetting flaws and sinfulness and asking for forgiveness, the need for being accountable to others, the encouragement and mentorship of those who are swimming closer to the shore than we are, the radical reliance on our heavenly Father (and the sublime help of the sacraments). All Catholics—and all newcomers and seekers—should be able to find within their parishes a welcoming support group with whom they can pray and associate, and who will accompany them on their journey of faith—and we hope they will accompany us on ours. Heterosexuals can learn enormous amounts from chaste homosexuals; for instance Andy Comiskey’s books (such as The Naked Surrender) provide guidance for anyone who loves the Lord and is confident the Lord will make us “whole enough” to live our sexuality as He intended.
Those of us who want to be welcoming and compassionate to those who experience same-sex attraction need to learn a lot, certainly about the phenomenon itself: its causes and treatment, and the justifications for Church teaching. But we also must learn how to listen to those who experience same-sex attraction (for a good primer, see Living the Truth in Love: Pastoral Approaches to Same-Sex Attraction), to learn their struggles and fears, to learn how to be good friends and fellow Christians to them. These days I am recommending the book Out of a Far Country (Waterbrook, 2011), a book co-written by a mother and her son about their journey into Christianity through dealing with his homosexuality. It is a beautiful, modern story of God’s constant presence in our lives and the power of prayer and patience.
We cannot and must not be content simply to rant and rave and wail because of Father Martin’s slick dissent and its pernicious influence. We must be the ones reaching out with genuine love, a love that strongly believes in the transforming and fortifying power of grace to enable us to embrace God’s plan for sexuality, whatever challenges it presents.