In the summer of 2016, a gunman stormed into a nightclub popular among the gay community in Orlando and killed 49 people in the largest mass shooting in U.S. history.
In response, millions in this country grieved and voiced their support for the LGBT community. But I was concerned about what I did not hear. Although many church leaders expressed sorrow and horror, only a handful of the more than 250 Catholic bishops used the words gay or LGBT.
Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago; Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla; Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh; Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego; and Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky., all spoke out strongly in support of the LGBT community and against homophobia.
Many others, however, remained silent.
I found this revelatory. The fact that only a few Catholic bishops acknowledged the LGBT community or even used the word gay at such a time showed that the LGBT community is still invisible in many quarters of the church. Even in tragedy its members are invisible.
This event helped me recognize something in a new way: The work of the Gospel cannot be accomplished if one part of the church is essentially separated from any other part. Between the two groups, the LGBT community and the institutional church, a chasm has formed, a separation for which a bridge needs to be built.
For many years, I’ve ministered to and worked with LGBT people, most of them Catholics. My ministry has not been primarily through classes or seminars, but through more informal channels. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, as well as their families and friends, have come to me for advice, counsel, confession and spiritual direction. After Masses, lectures and retreats, they will ask advice on spiritual and religious matters, pose questions about church-related issues, or simply share their experiences.
During these times, I’ve listened to their joys and hopes, their griefs and anxieties, sometimes accompanied by tears, sometimes by laughter. In the process, I’ve become friends with many of them. Most priests, deacons, sisters, brothers and lay pastoral workers in the church could probably say the same thing.
I’ve also worked with and come to know many cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and other church officials and leaders. After 30 years as a Jesuit and 20 years working for a Catholic media ministry, I’ve come to know members of the hierarchy through a variety of ways, from speaking events to dinner-table conversations. I’ve become friends with many church leaders, and I rely on their wise counsel and pastoral support.
Over the years, then, I’ve discovered a great divide. I lament that there isn’t more understanding and conversation between LGBT Catholics and the institutional church. I would rather not refer to two “sides,” because everyone is part of the church. But many LGBT Catholics have told me that they have felt hurt by the institutional church — unwelcomed, excluded and insulted. At the same time, many in the institutional church want to reach out to this community, but seem somewhat confused about how to do so. Yes, I know it seems that some don’t seem to want to reach out, but all the bishops I know are sincere in their desire for true pastoral outreach.
For the past three decades I’ve been a Jesuit, part of my ministry has been, informally, trying to build bridges between these groups. But after the shooting in Orlando, my desire to do so intensified.
So when New Ways Ministry, a group that ministers to and advocates for LGBT Catholics, asked just a few weeks after the Orlando tragedy if I would accept its “Bridge Building Award” and give a talk at the time of the award ceremony, I agreed. The name of the award, as it turned out, inspired me to sketch out an idea for a “two-way bridge” that might help bring together the institutional church and the LGBT community.
My aim is to urge the church to treat the LGBT community with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” (a phrase from the Catechism of the Catholic Church) and encourage the LGBT community to reciprocate, reflecting those virtues in its own relationship with the institutional church.
I understand the difficulties that many LGBT people have faced in the church. They have shared stories with me about being insulted, slandered, excluded, rejected and even fired. I don’t want to minimize that pain. Still, I believe it’s important for the LGBT community — for everyone, in fact — to treat others with respect, even when their own church at times feels like an enemy. That is part of being a Christian, hard as it is.
This does not mean that one cannot critique and challenge the church when it needs to be critiqued and challenged. But all of that can be done with “respect, compassion and sensitivity.”
In fact, respect, compassion and sensitivity are undervalued gifts for dealing with conflict and disagreement in general, gifts that can be shared with the wider culture. These virtues can help not only Catholics and Christians, but all people of goodwill who seek unity.
Not too long ago, in the larger world, opposing factions would often interact with one another politely and work together for the common good. Certainly there were tensions, but a kind of quiet courtesy and tacit respect prevailed. Now all one seems to find is contempt. As a result, many people feel powerless to prevent the continued fraying of the social fabric as well as the name-calling, personal attacks and violence that such division gives rise to.
For me, the “echo chambers” created by social media in which one’s worldview is barely challenged, news channels specializing in simplistic and sometimes false analyses of complicated political situations and civic leaders seemingly unconcerned about the division that their words and actions might cause are all developments that contribute to this disunity, as well as to the feelings of hopelessness that arise in the face of this disunity.
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.
Because, in the end, for Jesus there is no us and them. For Jesus there is only an us.
Adapted from “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity” by James Martin, SJ. Copyright ©2017 by James Martin, SJ, published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.