The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I called for Christians to love gay people. Now the Catholic alt-right is taking revenge.

When I set out to build a bridge between Catholics and gay people, I had one thing in mind: Jesus Christ. (Cade Martin/The Washington Post)

After a gunman killed 49 people at Pulse, a predominantly gay nightclub in Orlando in 2016, I found myself disappointed that more Catholic leaders did not offer support to the LGBT community. And that the few who did found it difficult to acknowledge that LGBT people specifically had been targeted for murder.

For me, that silence highlighted a certain failure to be compassionate to the LGBT community even in a moment of tragedy. It also revealed that the LGBT community was still largely invisible to some church authorities. In response, I recorded a brief video that was posted on Facebook. It offered some support for the LGBT community during a terribly difficult few weeks.

Not long afterwards, New Ways Ministry, an organization that ministers to and advocates for LGBT Catholics, invited me to accept their Bridge Building Award. Until then, I had never done what you might call formal ministry with LGBT Catholics, besides the counseling that almost every church worker does in his or her ministry. But the Catholic Church’s response to the events in Orlando encouraged me to do so in a more public way. So, with my Jesuit superiors’ permission, I accepted the award and offered a lecture on how to build a “two-way bridge” between LGBT Catholics and the institutional church — that is, the church’s hierarchy and decision-makers. From that talk came the first half of my book, “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity.”

Is it really possible for the Catholic Church to accept the LGBT community?

Now, in the past few weeks, three lectures I was invited to have been canceled, and I have been targeted by some far-right groups whose actions betray a level of homophobia that is hard to fathom. These groups, a kind of Catholic alt-right, are increasingly attempting to substitute themselves for legitimate Church authority by passing judgments on which Catholics are orthodox and which are not. “Heresy” is a word they use as frequently as “and” and “the.”

As I was writing the book, I knew that it would be a somewhat controversial topic, even though I was careful to stay well within the bounds of Church teaching.  My reflections, which can be summarized as a call for respect on both sides, were based on the gospel, and on the Catechism’s call for the Church to treat “homosexual persons” with “respect, compassion and sensitivity.” As with all my books, I sought the formal ecclesial approval of my Jesuit superiors, who vetted my what would become “Building a Bridge.” Perhaps to the disappointment of some critics, it is about dialogue and prayer, not about sexual morality or the sexual practices of LGBT people. On sexual matters, the LGBT community and the institutional church are simply too far apart at this moment. So, I decided to focus, intentionally, on possible areas of commonality, to help encourage dialogue.

What I didn’t know was that, in a few quarters, the pushback would be hysterical, vicious and immediate.

The vast majority of people have responded positively, both in person and online. To take just two examples, a talk at St. Cecelia’s Church in Boston drew a crowd of about 700 people; the same number appeared at a talk at Villanova University. Two cardinals, including a high-ranking Vatican official, as well as an archbishop and three bishops have endorsed the book. And people in the pews, especially LGBT Catholics and their parents, have told me that they are grateful that a priest is raising this topic. Many of these conversations have transpired through tears. Just this week, a young woman started crying and, before she could tell me about her gay brother, threw her arms around me. This makes any backlash worth it.

But the backlash from the far right is more intense than anticipated. I’ve been accused of heresy, ridiculously, by some critics (I’m not contradicting any revealed truths); there have been over-the-top condemnations (I should be removed from the priesthood) and name-calling that I thought was confined to 1950s playgrounds (faggot, fairy, pansy and worse.) Here’s a quote from a letter received just this week: “You’re leading souls to hell where you will surely reside in a few years.” Interestingly, that the entire second half of the book is a reflection on various biblical passages and an invitation to prayer seems to be of no interest to them; perhaps they feel that LGBT people do not, and should not, have access to the Holy Spirit.

The long, lonely challenge of being both gay and Catholic

The far-right backlash has led, perhaps inevitably, to the cancellation (or rescheduling) of several speaking events: First, at Cafod, the overseas aid agency of the bishops of England and Wales. Second, the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher, a Catholic group that had invited me to speak at its fall investiture dinner. And, finally, the Theological College at the Catholic University of America, the university’s seminary, which had invited me to speak to its alumni. Each of these talks was not about LGBT issues, but about Jesus. And in each of the cities in which the talk was scheduled, the local bishop (in each case a cardinal) had no qualms about the upcoming lecture.

Everyone who communicated their decisions did so with great anguish. In the case of the last two — the Order of the Holy Sepulchre and Theological College — the organizers admitted that they were responding to people who had been persuaded by online campaigns of far-right sites designed to lead people to view me as a heretic, even though I am what Catholics call a “priest in good standing” and the book had been vetted and endorsed by legitimate Church authorities. Theological College told me that people had been phoning in and “screaming” at the receptionists there.

In his classic text, “The Spiritual Exercises,” St. Ignatius of Loyola says what he calls the “Evil Spirit” does not want to be revealed and will try to conceal its work. But it has been revealed here, and I am glad it has been revealed. There is such widespread homophobia in some dark corners of the Church that it causes people to become enraged by a book that they have never read. These individuals and sites trafficking in such obvious homophobia operate through means of vicious social media campaigns, relentless personal attacks, gross misrepresentations, as well as simple lies and deceit. They end up trying to be so Catholic that they are barely Christian.

Popular priest disinvited from Catholic University’s seminary after protests over his LGBT book

Ironically, these groups, like the website Church Militant, which tout their desire for “traditional” Catholic practices consistently set themselves against bishops and religious superiors. Thus, groups that have zero legitimacy in the Church (and which have often been criticized by Church leadership) are setting themselves up against legitimate authorities. Pope Francis himself, for example, is a frequent target. In this way, such supposedly “traditional” Catholic websites are subverting tradition. As a result of their hateful content, they cause confusion, frustration and contempt. Such campaigns can never lead to the kind of results that St. Ignatius calls indicative of the “Good Spirit”: consolation, calm and peace. You can judge these unofficial inquisitions by their fruits.

Navigating through this backlash hasn’t been easy. But I am at peace with the book and with the mission to love and advocate for LGBT Catholics. After all, Francis asked the Jesuits to go to the “peripheries” where people feel the Church isn’t serving them, or where they feel unloved. And I am trying to do what Jesus did, in reaching out to people on the margins and telling them that God created them, God loves them and God welcomes them. And that is the truth.