Reviewing Fr. Martin’s Reviewers: The LGBT Community and the Catholic Church

Most book reviews boil down to: he didn’t write the book I would have written. Such is the case for reviewers of 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.” His reviewers dwell in hopeless predictability, with the expected publications publishing reviews which you swore you read in its pages the week before. Reviewers and critics tend to have one-track minds that tell same story over and over again, only trading out names of antagonists. Eve Tushnet provides an exception to the rule in the Washington Post. But otherwise the reviewers write stale and predictable critiques. 

Fr. Martin did not write the book I would have written. Like Eve, I think Fr. Martin’s avoidance of the Church’s teachings on sexual activity is philosophically and pastorally awkward, though understandable given the book’s purpose and intended audience. Eve writes:

“‘Building a Bridge’ doesn’t raise the question of why LGBT people and the Catholic Church so often seem like two separate, hostile camps. The Catholic sexual ethic is this book’s embarrassing secret. It’s never mentioned, and so the difficulties the teaching itself poses for gay Catholics in our culture are never addressed.

I’m deeply sympathetic to the attempt to have a conversation about gay people and the church that never mentions sex or chastity; too often even the most “respectful” statements from the Catholic Church hierarchy have a strong flavor of ‘Jesus loves you, but here’s how you’ve got to behave.’ But I’m not sure it’s wise to write as if all the church is asking is for gay people simply to be nicer.”

But Fr. Martin hopes to open a conversation, rather than to complete it. He doesn’t mark its boundaries or dictate its prerogatives. He merely gives some conditions under which he believes it can begin.

y450-293Even so, I didn’t find the book to be very remarkable. It’s brief, only 160 pages in a small hardcover with wide margins. It reads more as a reflection than anything else. Fr. Martin disclaims any authority as a theologian. He speaks merely as an invested participant in hard conversations, and he writes as someone privy to such conversations over many years.

This, I think, is where the book lacks. I would have liked to hear more about Father Martin’s actual encounters with people, to fill out his advice for such encounters. The book needs more flesh and blood, and I’d be interested in another book with more real life encounters. I’d like to know more about Fr. Martin’s unique experiences, like his exchange with the woman with a transgender grandchild. I can reflect on the Bible with my KJV, but I can’t hear about Fr. Martin’s life unless he discloses it to me. And I suspect he’s led a rather interesting one, especially when it comes to pastoral relationships with LGBT persons. Rather than emphasizing the need for compassion, respect, and sensitivity, I would like to see more stories of what they look like in his life.

All in all, I didn’t find the book particularly groundbreaking in its ideas. Fr. Martin exhorts us to practice respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Don’t be an ass. LGBT persons have experienced real discrimination in the Church. We need to listen to each other, etc. I would recommend this book to someone interested in spiritual reflections related to these issues, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a book for serious engagement, or even for an introduction to Catholicism and the LGBT community.

The book is significant. But its significance comes not in what’s said, but who’s saying it. I suspect that many LGBT people were able to breathe a sigh of relief with the publication, finally seeing someone of high standing in the Church acknowledging us without proselytizing, without ramming down the “hard teachings” of the Church, of which we’re all already aware (the reviews which criticize Mr. Martin for not “teaching us” these teachings in the book are comical, as if we’ve somehow missed them and are just blissfully unaware of CCC 2357). What is remarkable is that a Catholic priest of significant standing in the Church just wants to talk to us, is interested in learning how to listen, and doesn’t just repeat over and over, “take it or leave it.”

Fr. Martin may not be the best voice on these questions. But as far as Church leaders in good standing publicly interested in talking with, rather than just at, the LGBT community, he’s one of the only voices. So maybe the book is significant in that it paves the way for more.

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