Monday, 18 September 2017

I’m with Fr. Martin: respect, compassion, and sensitivity for LGBTs

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2413 words, 12 min read

Jesus’ last will and testament, which he passed on to the apostles at the Last Supper, contains the following exhortation: “that they may all be one” (John 17:21). Here, Jesus explains in the same verse that “one” means to relate to each other “as you, Father, are in me and I in you.” And since “all” means “all,” it falls to every Christian to strive towards building relationships with everyone like those among the persons of the Trinity - i.e., relationships of loving self-noughting and self-othering. This means that there is no more us versus them, only an all-encompassing us.

Now, this “us” undoubtedly also includes those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender, and indeed anyone else too, regardless of their sexual orientation. It is therefore essential that we, Christians make everyone, regardless of their sexuality, feel not only welcome but loved and since this has often not been the case, there is a need for a deliberate effort to reach out, which has also been apparent in many things Pope Francis, and many other representatives of the Catholic Church, have said and done recently.

In this context, an important contribution has recently been made by Fr. James Martin SJ, who has for many years ministered to the LGBT community and who has now written an excellent book on how to bring it and the institutional Church closer together. The book is entitled “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity” and contains four parts. The first two are built on the metaphor of a bridge between the institutional Church and the LGBT community, where Fr. Martin’s advice for traversing it in both directions is based on what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches with regard to LGBT people, which is to treat them with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” (§2358). The third part comprises a series of scriptural passages that Fr. Martin found helpful in his ministry, each with an introduction and followed by questions suitable for reflection. Finally, the book concludes with a beautiful prayer - “A prayer for when I feel rejected”.

When I first read this book, I found it to be a pure expression of the Gospel desire to share the Good News that Jesus brought to humanity - an invitation to mutual love, to dialogue and to closeness. I also thought that it was highly non-controversial and entirely consistent with the Catholic Church’s teaching and I thought no more about it. During the course of recent days, things have changed though and I have seen a savage and persistent campaign of hate directed at Fr. Martin, who is now being accused of heresy and whose name is being dragged through the mud of social media echo chambers. I am no censor or even theologian, but as a member of the Church’s laity, I have a right and duty to support and defend those who uphold the Gospel, and Fr. Martin certainly does that in spades.

Instead of engaging in a futile rebuttal of his critics, I would just like to share with you some of my favorite passages mostly from the first part of “Building a Bridge,” since it is there that I have most felt spoken to myself.

In the opening pages of the book Fr. Martin sets out the rationale for writing it, which is about breaking down us v. them barriers:
“[T]he work of the Gospel cannot be accomplished if one part of the church is essentially separated from any other part. [...] In these times, the church should be a sign of unity. Frankly, in all times. Yet many people see the church as contributing to division, as some Christian leaders and their congregations mark off boundaries of “us” and “them.” But the church works best when it embodies the virtues of respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”
Next, he looks at each of respect, compasion and sensitivity in turn, as they apply to the institutional Church’s relationship with LGBT Catholics and the LGBT community in general. Thinking about respect first, Fr. Martin highlights three consequences of it, the first of which is recognition:
“[R]ecognizing that the LGBT community exists, and extending to it the same recognition that any community desires and deserves because of its presence. [...] Jesus recognizes all people, even those who seem invisible in the greater community.”
Throughout the book, Fr. Martin also presents and engages with potential reservations about his proposals. For example, in the case of recognition being misconstrued as blanket approval, he writes:
“Some Catholics have objected to this approach, saying that any outreach implies a tacit agreement with everything that anyone in the LGBT community says or does. This seems an unfair objection, because it is raised with virtually no other group. If a diocese sponsors, for example, an outreach group for Catholic business leaders, it does not mean that the diocese agrees with every value of corporate America.”
The second aspect of respect then is “calling a group what it asks to be called.”:
“[P]eople have a right to name themselves. Using those names is part of respect. And if Pope Francis and several of his cardinals and bishops can use the word gay, as they have done several times during his papacy, so can the rest of the church.”
The third side of respect is to recognise that LGBT Catholics bring many gifts to the Church:
“Respect also means acknowledging that LGBT Catholics bring unique gifts to the church—both as individuals and as a community. [...] Many, if not most, LGBT people have endured, from an early age, misunderstanding, prejudice, hatred, persecution, and even violence, and therefore often feel a natural compassion toward the marginalized. Compassion is a gift. They have often been made to feel unwelcome in their parishes and in their church, but they persevere because of their vigorous faith. Perseverance is a gift. They are often forgiving of clergy and other church employees who treat them like damaged goods. Forgiveness is a gift. Compassion, perseverance, and forgiveness are all gifts.”
In summary, Fr. Martin argues that respect translates to participation in God’s love:
“Seeing, naming, and honoring all these gifts are components of respecting our LGBT brothers and sisters and siblings. So also is accepting them as beloved children of God and letting them know that they are beloved children of God. The church has a special call to proclaim God’s love for a people who are often made to feel, whether by their families, neighbors, or religious leaders, as though they were damaged goods, unworthy of ministry, and even subhuman. The church is invited to both proclaim and demonstrate that LGBT people are beloved children of God.”
Turning to compassion, the model is Jesus’ incarnation itself and the need for listening to and living alongside others:
“The word compassion (from the Greek paschō, “to suffer”) means “to experience with, to suffer with.” So what would it mean for the institutional church not only to respect LGBT Catholics, but to be with them, to experience life with them, and even to suffer with them? [...]

The first and most essential requirement is listening. It is impossible to experience a person’s life, or to be compassionate, if you do not listen to the person or if you do not ask questions. [...]

We need not look far for a model for this. God did this for all of us—in Jesus. The opening lines of the Gospel of John tell us, “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (1: 14). The original Greek is more vivid: “The Word became flesh and pitched its tent among us” (eskēnōsen en hēmin). Isn’t that a beautiful phrase? God entered our world to live among us. This is what Jesus did. He lived alongside us, took our side, even died like us.

We can celebrate and treasure more than simply their gifts. We can celebrate and treasure them. This is a kind of compassion too—to share in the experience of Christian joy that LGBT men and women, young and old, bring to the church.”
Next, sensitivity is presented as a call to closeness, along Pope Francis’ lines of encountering and accompanying and in imitation of Jesus’ reaching out also to those considered on the margins of the People of Israel, in an outside-in motion:
“Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines sensitivity as “an awareness or understanding of the feelings of other people.” That’s related to Pope Francis’s call for the church to be a church of “encounter” and “accompaniment.” To begin with, it is nearly impossible to know another person’s feelings at a distance. You cannot understand the feelings of a community if you don’t know the community. You can’t be sensitive to the LGBT community if you only issue documents about them, preach about them, or tweet about them, without knowing them.[...]

In this, as in all things, Jesus is our model. When Jesus encountered people on the margins, he saw not categories but individuals. To be clear, I am not saying that the LGBT community should be, or should feel, marginalized. Rather, I am saying that within the church many of them do find themselves marginalized. They are seen as “other.” But for Jesus there was no “other.” Jesus saw beyond categories; he met people where they were and accompanied them. The Gospel of Matthew, for example, tells the story of Jesus meeting a Roman centurion who asked for healing for his servant (8: 5–13). Although the man was not Jewish, Jesus saw a man in need and responded to his need. [...]

The movement for Jesus was always from the outside in. His message was always one of inclusion, communicated through speaking to people, healing them, and offering them what biblical scholars call “table fellowship,” that is, dining with them, a sign of welcome and acceptance in first-century Palestine. In fact, Jesus was often criticized for this practice. But Jesus’s movement was about inclusion. He was creating a sense of “us.” For with Jesus, there is no us and them. There is only us.
In this context, Fr. Martin also addresses the potential objection that Jesus also admonished sinners not to sin, arguing that his approach was one of inclusion first and conversion second (a conversion we are all called to and in need of):
“One common objection here is to say, “No, Jesus always told them, first of all, not to sin!” We cannot meet LGBT people because they are sinning, goes the argument, and when we do meet them, the first thing we must say is, “Stop sinning!” But more often than not, this is not Jesus’s way. In the story of the Roman centurion, Jesus doesn’t shout “Pagan!” or scold him for not being Jewish. Instead, he professes amazement at the man’s faith and then heals his servant. Likewise, in the story of Zacchaeus, after spying the tax collector perched in the tree, he doesn’t point to him and shout, “Sinner!” Instead, Jesus says that he will dine at Zacchaeus’s house, a public sign of openness and welcome, before Zacchaeus has said or done anything. Only after Jesus offers him welcome is Zacchaeus moved to conversion, promising to pay back anyone he might have defrauded. For Jesus it is most often community first—meeting, encountering, including—and conversion second. Here I’m talking about the conversion that all of us need, not simply LGBT people (and, incidently, not “conversion therapy”). Pope Francis echoed this approach in an inflight press conference in 2016, on his return to Rome from the countries of Georgia and Azerbaijan. “People must be accompanied, as Jesus accompanied,” he said. “When a person who has this situation comes before Jesus, Jesus will surely not say: ‘Go away because you’re homosexual.’””
At the conclusion of the first half of the book, Fr. Martin spells out a point that forms the bedrock of his approach, which is that:
“[w]e are all on the bridge together. For that bridge is the church. And, ultimately, on the other side of the bridge for each group is welcome, community, and love.”
And, finally, he draws our attention to the sustaining power of the Holy Sprit, to the need of our, universal brotherhood and sisterhood, and to God’s constant accompanying of humanity:
In difficult times you might ask: “What keeps the bridge standing? What keeps it from collapsing onto the sharp rocks? What keeps us from plunging into the dangerous waters below?” The answer is: the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, which is supporting the church, is supporting you, for you are beloved children of God who, by virtue of your baptism, have as much right to be in the church as the pope, your local bishop, and me. Of course, that bridge has some loose stones, big bumps, and deep potholes, because the people in our church are not perfect. We never have been—just ask St. Peter. And we never will be. 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. In short, you are not alone. Millions of your Catholic brothers and sisters accompany you, as do your bishops, as we journey imperfectly together on this bridge. More important, we are accompanied by God, the reconciler of all men and women as well as the architect, the builder, and the foundation of that bridge.
To my mind, Fr. Martin has written a beautiful treatise on dialogue, openness and love that could just as well be applied to any other group of people who are and/or feel marginalised by the Church. The text could easily be transposed to refugees or atheists or to other groups and communities, whom parts of the Church may not be as welcoming towards as they should1 and I highly recommend the book in its entirety.

1 E.g., see Pope Francis’ words from the press conference during his return from Armenia in June 2016: “I think that the Church not only should apologise … to a gay person whom it offended but it must also apologise to the poor as well, to the women who have been exploited, to children who have been exploited by (being forced to) work. It must apologise for having blessed so many weapons.”