A Fraternal Invitation to Bishop McElroy and Father Martin

As a deacon, only once have I had the privilege of sitting around a table with one priest and one bishop, effectively forming a trio representing the three degrees of Holy Orders during a stimulating conversation about the Catholic faith.

I have such an exchange in mind as I write this essay—I see what follows as a possible opening monologue in what could be a beautiful, charitable, and game-changing “trialogue” with San Diego bishop Robert McElroy, Jesuit Fr. James Martin, and myself—bishop, priest, and deacon—focusing on Fr. Martin’s project to build a bridge between Church and “LGBT community” and moving past the escalation of emotion and incivility that has begun to surround that project.

Bishop McElroy recently wrote in defense of Fr. Martin’s work after it became known that Martin was disinvited from several Catholic speaking engagements, in large part due to backlash from multiple Catholic sources expressing concern over Martin’s writing and speaking on homosexuality and the Church. There is a bit of a media firestorm now associated with the disinvitations.

While my imagined fraternal chat with my fellow clerics will likely never occur, I want to focus again on a few of the problem areas of Fr. Martin’s project. In doing so, we can return to the substantive criticism and dialogue that Bishop McElroy himself says Fr. Martin’s project deserves.

The same values—respect, compassion, and sensitivity—that Fr. Martin rightly notes should be shown to people with same-sex attraction will also be the hallmarks for anyone interested in engaging the facts surrounding Fr. Martin’s writing and speaking on homosexuality.

Bishop McElroy says, correctly, that writing on homosexuality can be a volatile and perilous thing. This is precisely why extraordinary care and clarity are needed when seeking to express the realities connected with same-sex attraction, particularly in the face of the rejection of those realities by what culture calls the “LGBT community.”

Bishop McElroy says that Fr. Martin is seeking to open “a door for proclaiming that Jesus Christ and his church seek to embrace fully and immediately men and women in the L.G.B.T. community.” Yet, I’d observe that the Church has had that door open for decades. The door, like the bridge, is also two-way. Indeed, a genuine “embrace” also takes two. For the Church to fully embrace a person with same-sex attraction, that person must also want to receive that embrace and must want to return it. How? By embracing the truth about the homosexual inclination that is at the heart of our Church’s teaching.

The Courage apostolate has been doing this work since 1980, and we truly know what successful pastoral outreach to those with same-sex attraction really looks like. Not only that, but the Courage apostolate recently achieved status as a public association of the faithful. It now officially teaches in the name of the Catholic Church and is the only such same-sex attraction apostolate to do so. Fr. Martin seems to have intentionally chosen to align himself not with Courage, nor point people to this mature effort to give pastoral care to people with SSA. Instead, he intentionally aligns with New Ways Ministry, a group the US Bishops and the Vatican condemn as not being faithful to the truth about homosexuality. Fr. Martin claims that, since other clergy (including a bishop) have spoken at New Ways Ministry events, that means they must now be “rehabilitated” and thus approved by the Church. But there is no evidence to support such a claim. Even at this basic level, it should be clear why people are genuinely concerned about the scope and purpose of Fr. Martin’s bridge building.

While Bishop McElroy is right to assert that personal attack and distortion should have no place in real dialogue, we see how easily things can shift away from attacking ideas to attacking persons. For example, Fr. Martin perceived a personal attack and a call to physical violence against him in one group’s reference to a Twitter exchange in which a priest was said to have beaten Fr. Martin “like a rented mule.” Fr. Martin also interpreted a reference to his response to that exchange as being “pansified” as him really being personally called a “pansy.” In his defense of Fr. Martin, Bishop McElroy states that “this cancer of vilification is seeping into the institutional life of the church.” After that, many are stating that Bishop McElroy is personally calling others “cancer.”

However, if we shouldn’t conclude that Bishop McElroy’s reference to cancer is an attack on persons, then we also shouldn’t conclude that the references made regarding Fr. Martin’s words and actions automatically are attacks on him as a person. It seems that everyone should agree that all Christians are called to assume the best possible interpretation of another’s words, not the worst.

Let’s now consider “homophobia,” which Bishop McElroy says is one of the reasons for the “attacks” on Fr. Martin. It’s true that fear, and perhaps even hate, might motivate some who employ unwelcome rhetoric and display discriminatory attitudes towards those with SSA. But, Fr. Martin has also stated that some people’s “rage” is a result of not properly dealing with their own “complex sexualities” that result from sexuality being all along a spectrum or “continuum.” That is a troubling assertion because the Church does not align herself with the faddish “orientation ideology” of contemporary culture and psychological science. Fr. Martin is also on record as unequivocally stating that God creates people “gay” for some “mysterious reason.” But this claim directly contradicts Church teaching and causes great confusion among the faithful.

In Bishop McElroy’s defense of Fr. Martin, he observes that, while chastity is a “very important virtue”:

…chastity is not the central virtue in the Christian moral life. Our central call is to love the Lord our God with all our heart and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Many times, our discussions in the life of the church suggest that chastity has a singularly powerful role in determining our moral character or our relationship with God. It does not.

I find this very confusing, given that the homosexual inclination itself is a persistent temptation to choose against chastity. How does it help people with same-sex attraction to draw closer to the Church and grow in the virtues if we do not acknowledge the “singularly powerful role” that chastity clearly has in determining the moral character of someone experiencing significant temptations against chastity because of an objectively disordered homosexual inclination?

The Beatitudes tell us: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The Catechism tells us (CCC 2532): “Purification of the heart demands prayer, the practice of chastity, purity of intention and of vision.”

Without a commitment to pursue chastity, without avoiding deliberately and intentionally sinning against chastity, we will not see God. The stakes could not be higher, in my view. This is why seeking chastity is one of the hallmarks of the Courage apostolate and of any truly pastoral attempt to bridge the gap between the Church and the “LGBT community”—a community that Fr. Martin says has not “received” this teaching as “authoritative.” He says both sides are too far apart to address that issue. Yet, setting aside this fundamental issue gives me great and grave concern for souls. We will have to answer, eventually, for any deliberately missed opportunities to proclaim these truths in their fullness to those who are most in need of them.

We have to have enough respect, compassion, and sensitivity for the “LGBT community” to extol the virtue of chastity even when that virtue is not “received” by that community. This is precisely why I am befuddled and saddened by the lack of support for the Courage apostolate in certain dioceses and in Fr. Martin’s own “informal” ministry to this community. Why not promote the formal ministry that has existed for 30 years and is now mandated by the Church to teach in its name, rather than promoting pro-same-sex “marriage” New Ways Ministry?

One other vital point to make: the response to Fr. Martin’s project has not been unanimously favorable. It is not just homophobic, sexually “complex,” rage-filled, name-calling attackers who are influencing public opinion on Fr. Martin’s outreach to the “LGBT community”—other lay persons, deacons, priests, bishops, and cardinals have avoided such things while still expressing serious concerns about Fr. Martin’s thought and speech in this area.

So, even while it may be unlikely that Bishop McElroy, Fr. Martin, and I will ever sit around a table, throw back a beer or two, and fraternally reflect on these matters respectfully, compassionately, sensitively, in person, I’ve got a request.

I would invite both Bishop McElroy and Fr. Martin to consider conversing, brothers to brothers, with Cardinal Sarah, Archbishop Chaput, Bishop Paprocki, and many other good and holy Catholics who have their own concerns about Fr. Martin’s approach to homosexuality.

Such a sincere attempt at genuine dialogue would do so many other faithful Catholics—and everyone with same-sex attraction—a world of good.

Deacon Jim Russell

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Deacon Jim Russell serves the Archdiocese of St. Louis and writes on topics of marriage, family, and sexuality from a Catholic perspective. He can be reached via e-mail at DeaconJimRussellSTL@gmail.com.

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