Some Thoughts on Father James Martin's Building a Bridge

Douglas P. McManaman
July 3, 2019
Reproduced with Permission

For a long time I've wanted to read Father James Martin's Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. The very idea of such a book is timely, and it is an essential work of ministry; in fact, you could say that building bridges is an essential part of the Church's mission - after all, "pontiff" is likely derived from the Latin pons (bridge) and fex (maker). A peacemaker, let alone a pope, is a bridge builder.

I've never come across anything that Father James Martin has written or said that is objectionable or contrary to Church teaching, which is why I could not understand some of the vitriol directed against him in some quarters. After reading his book, I still fail to understand it. Most impressive was his challenge to some members of the "LGBTQ community" in their attitude toward the magisterium, among other things.

However, there are some minor points in the book that I am concerned about. I am relatively confident about one of the points I am going to make, the other I am less confident of; but I will put it out there and see whether or not someone with a same sex orientation can corroborate the point I make, or falsify it. Allow me to articulate these concerns.

The first point that concerns me has to do with what is deepest in the human person. Father Martin calls attention to the language employed by the magisterium when referring to the homosexual orientation as "objectively disordered". And of course, from a pastoral point of view, he is right, the language is problematic because most people have a difficult time making distinctions and hear something else entirely, such as "you, the person, are a disorder, a flaw". The problem is what comes after Father Martin makes this point; he writes: "Saying that one of the deepest parts of a person, the part that gives and receives love, is disordered, is itself needlessly cruel."

I might be splitting hairs - and keeping in mind that he did say "one of the deepest parts" - , the deepest and most significant part of the human person is not one's sexual proclivities, but rather the will (the heart), and it is through acts of the will that we determine our moral identity, that is, the kind of person that we are. A person is not what he feels, nor what he thinks; rather, a person is what he wills (chooses).

I remember listening to a mental health patient one day tell me how disgusted he feels about himself as a result of the thoughts that go through his head. He has no control over these thoughts, and he can't seem to shake the feelings he has about himself, feelings spawned by those very thoughts. I remember saying to him: "You know, I was just talking to my students about this earlier today; we were discussing Aristotle, who said you are not what you think (the opinions you hold), nor are you what you feel (feelings are fickle), but you are what you will. We determine who we are, the kind of person we are, that is, our moral identity (character), by the moral choices that we make. So despite the thoughts that go through your head, and despite the feelings these thoughts generate in you, that is not you. You are what you will to be, what you are trying to be, what you are choosing and struggling to be; that's what defines your deepest identity."

I didn't realize saying this would turn out to be a real epiphany for him. His eyes opened wide with hope, and this was the first and last time I received a beautiful "Thank You" card from a patient a few months after being discharged.

"Objectively disordered" is inappropriate vocabulary for a number of reasons that Father Martin understands very well, but suggesting that one's sexual orientation is one of the deepest parts of a person, the part that gives and receives love, might be equally vulnerable to misunderstanding, and the possible consequences of such a misconception might go well beyond hurt feelings; misunderstanding some of the fundamentals of the human person will likely have serious moral repercussions down the road, not to mention psychological repercussions - what was tormenting my mental health patient was a belief rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding about himself: he believed that he is what he thought and felt, two elements of himself that he had little control over. He was delighted to have discovered that what he really is is defined by what is indeed within his control and cannot be compelled, namely his own will. He really willed to be good, to choose the good, and he loved the good, which is why he was disturbed by the thoughts going through his head and the feelings he had about himself, which were contrary to what he willed to be. It is that will, however, that defines him.

But the most important factor that stood out for me in Building a Bridge was Father Martin's use of the label "LGBTQ community". On the one hand, he rightly laments what he sees as a great divide that exists between the "LGBTQ community" and "the Church", an "us and them" mentality that has arisen in part as a result of certain attitudes and actions on the part of some Catholic clergy; on the other hand, it seems to me that to embrace that very label - "LGBTQ community" - only perpetuates and crystallizes that divide. Father Martin is right, "for Jesus, there is no us and them, only us". As St. Paul says: "But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a slave looking after us; every one of you that has been baptised has been clothed in Christ. There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor freeman, there can be neither male nor female - for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Gal 3, 25-28).

Consider a person with a homosexual orientation who discovers Christ, that is, who has been "converted". I use the expression "converted to Christ" because the etymology of convert suggests a turning around, that is, one turns and proceeds in an entirely different direction. When a person, homosexual or otherwise, discovers Christ, it is very much like finding treasure in a field: "The kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field which someone has found; he hides it again, goes off in his joy, sells everything he owns and buys the field" (Mt 13, 44). That is a conversion, a break with one's past and the adoption of a new direction; one has a new love, and it is a total love - for he sells everything he owns and buys the field so that the treasure is entirely his.

Such a person wants to know Christ more fully, to clothe himself in Christ more completely. If we are converted to Christ, we want to share more deeply in his life. Indeed, we lack integrity, and we know it, but we want a greater integrity; we lack humility, but we want a deeper humility, a deeper emptying of self, a deeper dying to self, for we know that in dying in him, we rise in him. The cross has an entirely new significance for us, and to some degree we have developed a taste for it, so to speak. We are cowardly, but we want to be more courageous in him; we have sinful hearts, but we want his heart.

Humility involves a loss of self, and chastity is rooted in humility. The humble person recognizes his "material nature"; he realizes that he is dust and ashes (humus: soil/matter), and he believes that matter has been raised by Christ (by the Incarnation). Matter has been made holy (Pere Teilhard). The convert wants to enter into that holiness. He wants his own body, his own matter, to radiate that holiness. He may not even recognize how much he is lacking in holiness, but there is no denying he wants to enter into that holiness more and more deeply. When he discovers that his humility is only skin deep, he is saddened; he thought his own humility and likeness to Christ was deeper than that. But that sadness is itself a grace; it manifests that indeed he wants to enter more deeply into Christ's humility. The point is that his eyes are forward looking, outward looking, that is, they look to Christ. Occasionally he gets a glimpse of himself. In fact, the more he chooses to look at himself, the less is he really "there" at that place spoken of in the parable, that place at which he sells everything he owns for that field. To the degree that he is lacking in the holiness of Christ, he delights in what he sees when he sees himself; but when he sees himself with the eyes of Christ, he does not delight in what he sees, but turns his gaze from his life as it was before Christ, with his pride, his envy, his lust, anger, greed, etc. He is delighted instead by Christ. We are what we love, and the thought that he can increasingly become Christ is the hope that drives the convert. The result is he is looking less at himself; for he does not like what he sees in himself; he does not like his tendency to sin, his tendency to inordinate praise, or inordinate love of money and security, or his tendency to anger, or his tendency to lust, etc. All these tendencies are ordered to the self, they are remnants of the slavery from which he has been delivered; but there is a competing tendency within him, one that moves towards Canaan.

This person has become a "new creation", as St. Paul says. And so he sees in himself a new identity. Christ is that identity. His new identity is that of priest, prophet and king. LGBTQ is not that identity any more than "member of the Conservative Party", or "member of the Liberal Party", or "Canadian", "Olympic medalist", or "Class Valedictorian" etc., is his identity. He might very well still be Canadian, or still a member of a certain political party, and he cannot change the fact that he was class valedictorian, but that is not who he is anymore, that is not his primary identity. His life has taken on an entirely different trajectory, and he is not to look back: "But formerly when you did not know God, you were kept in slavery to things which are not really gods at all, whereas now that you have come to recognise God - or rather, be recognised by God - how can you now turn back again to those powerless and bankrupt elements whose slaves you now want to be all over again?" (Gal 4, 8-9).

It is this new identity in Christ, as priest, prophet, and king, through which he begins to resonate with certain others of the same identity; these others resonate with him because they too have put on Christ - and that might very well include non-Christians (Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, etc.) who at some level possess the heart of Christ. We all know this experience, of "clicking" or resonating with someone. The one who has found this new treasure, who has purchased that field, who has discovered the cross of salvation as his salvation, "clicks" with those who have the same heart, and it is irrelevant whether that person is male, female, Greek, Jew, gay or straight, etc. Such are secondary; what matters is the heart that resonates. I am drawn to you because you love the same thing (Christ), and you think about the same thing (Christ), and you strive to be him more fully, which is why we recognize something in one another, that we operate on the same wavelength, so to speak. Hence, we see with the same eyes. It is all about Christ, in whom there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor freeman, neither male nor female. If male/female, or slave/freeman, etc., become irrelevant, how much more so our own sexual preferences? We typically don't make our sexual orientation public - we don't announce it, because it is not central to who we are (our own identity); male/female, Jew/Greek, slave/freeman are public, but a person's sexual orientation is typically not on public record. How much more so does the latter become irrelevant when we stand within the shadow of the cross? Our own proclivities do not matter anymore, they belong to the old, not the new; what matters most now is that I enter into his humility more completely.

Father Martin's manner of speaking is inviting and deeply pastoral, but I worry that the vocabulary, the whole-hearted embrace and use of the LGBTQ label, can have the effect of holding a convert back from this exit of self into Christ, which is the newest and most important proclivity in the convert who has died in Christ and has tasted his risen life. The LGBTQ identity is secondary, but to insist, as Father Martin does, that it be brought to the forefront is contrary to the very movement of the new life of grace that has taken over his life, imparting a new identity more accurately designated as priest, prophet, and king. Such a person wants to enter more deeply into that priesthood, more deeply into Christ's sacrifice, and because he wants the identity of prophet more fully and completely, he pursues what other great saints have come to know about Christ so that he can know and proclaim him truthfully, and he wants to participate more fully in Christ's kingship, his governance over - first and foremost - the various elements within himself that are, in a variety of ways, at war with one another (not at peace with one another). This is a war he wants to be involved in - despite its difficulties - because he knows that the more he advances on the enemy, which is himself, the greater is his share in the life of Christ, whom he has found. All that which characterizes his "old self" mean very little to him now; for he has sold everything; he has put his hand to the plough and does not wish to look back, for if he does, he is not fit for service in the Kingdom of God (Lk 9, 62). These "old identities" are perishable and are destined to perish. He wants to leave all that behind him as his life takes a new direction, for death will require that he leave all that behind him, and his new life is a preparation for that moment, the final act of humility, the final letting go. To talk about such people as "the LGBTQ community" is unfitting, for the blood that runs through this person's veins is the same blood that runs through mine, which is the blood of Christ. He is my brother, my sister, for he is part of the community of Christ's Mystical Body, for we belong to one another. He or she might very well continue to have the same sexual orientation, but that proclivity no longer defines him; that's not who he is, and he knows it.

Father Martin takes note of the relationship between name and identity. He points out that calling a person by the name he wishes to be called is respectful, and generally speaking, that is true. Thus, he argues that we should adopt the LGBTQ label as a sign of respect for those with a homosexual or bisexual or questioning identity. In support of this insight, Father Martin points to biblical instances of name change that signify a new identity: Abram to Abraham, Simon to Peter, Saul to Paul, etc. But it is God who changes the name Abram to Abraham, because it is God who has given Abraham this new direction, this new meaning to his life; it is Jesus who changes Simon's name to Peter, because it is Jesus who gives Peter a new identity. So too, Paul is no longer Saul - that person has died, and Paul is a "new creation" with an entirely new direction to his life.

Finally, it is true that we are fearfully and wonderfully made: "You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother's womb. I praise you, because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are your works!" (Ps 139, 14). God is pre-eminently creator, but we are co-creators, and making us co-creators was risky, because although we have the capacity to create something good in others, and we have the capacity to create something not so good in others. Not every proclivity in us is created by God. My decision to drive well over the speed limit while intoxicated could result in a serious collision, which in turn could result in post-traumatic stress disorder in the victim. Those psychological scars will stay with the victim for the rest of his life, and if so, that would be my creation. So too, the way I choose to relate to my children will have lasting effects on the development of their personalities, either positive or negative, often a mixture. It is outside my competence to speculate on the origins of the homosexual and heterosexual orientation, for this is a scientific question that is complex and too easy for people to oversimplify. But there is so much of us, so much that has become a part of us, that has been created not by God, but by the sins, neglect, indifference, recklessness and selfishness of others. Working through that towards acceptance and forgiveness is an essential part of living our life in Christ towards his final victory. Without these distinctions, it is easy to believe that "God alone made me the way I am", and if that is so, why bother working through anything?