When an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Boston asked the nearly 200 students in a high school confirmation class what questions they had for him earlier this month, two themes quickly emerged. First, they wrote him, why did you want to become a bishop? Second, why does the church hate gay people?
The first one was easy, Bishop Mark O’Connell told them, since very few priests set out to become bishops.
But the second question, which he said comes up frequently when he meets with young people, was more difficult for him to answer, not because church teaching is unclear to him, but because the language the church often uses fails to resonate with a generation that increasingly sees kindness as the highest virtue. An experience he had with a student following the listening session earlier this month led him to post a message on Twitter to encourage other bishops to listen to the concerns young Catholics have about fraught issues of gender and sexuality:
Did a Q&A with 190 High School students last night. Important questions about Catholics and gender identity. My message was that bishops need to hear their powerful voices for real dialog. I’m listening. #BishopHearMe
“I feel inspired by Pope Francis to find new language to express the beauty of our truth,” Bishop O’Connell told America in a recent interview. And to that end, the bishop, who also serves as pastor of a parish with 2,800 families, has held 22 listening sessions.
A canon lawyer by training, Bishop O’Connell said duringan address at his ordination as bishop last August that church leaders are called to reach out to the “many who feel the church doesn’t want them.” He said part of that ministry includes listening, including to “the many young adults who have nothing but skepticism and doubt when they think of the Catholic Church.”
Bishop O’Connell: “I feel inspired by Pope Francis to find new language to express the beauty of our truth.”
“By naming our own weaknesses, we can develop new language, new ways to explain the soundness of our teaching, new ways to show the beauty and authenticity of our faith to the world,” he said. “If we cannot find the new language, at least we can listen.”
In the interview with America, he made clear several times that he does not question church teaching on issues of gender and sexuality—he is simply searching for better ways to articulate those teachings during a particularly “critical moment” in the lives of young people.
“Giving them a bad explanation of the truth could cause them to lose their faith forever,” he said.
Many students tell him they see the church as “unkind” on L.G.B.T. issues, which he thinks is driven in part by media reports that tell them “we’re a bigoted church” and that Catholics are “bullies.”
“As a generation,” he said of today’s high school students, “they’re kind-hearted, and they don’t like people being put down, bullied.”
“Giving [young people] a bad explanation of the truth could cause them to lose their faith forever.”
He said that after reflecting on their questions he told them, “We’re not against gay people, we have lots of gay members in our church.” He noted that there are priests who are gay and who live chastely. He tries to impress upon young people that the church is “not prejudiced” against gay people but does not shy away from the church’s teaching on marriage.
Attitudes about L.G.B.T. issues among Catholics in the United States have changed in recent years. Catholics as a cohort are accepting of same-sex marriage and believe that businesses should not be allowed to discriminate against L.G.B.T. people in the marketplace. But officially, the church still bans gay men from entering seminaries, though how that rule is enforced varies from diocese to diocese, and sexual relations between people of the same gender are considered sinful. Since gay marriage was legalized nationwide in 2015, there has been a rash of firings of church workers because of issues related to sexuality.
Then there is the issue of language itself, which has caused turmoil between some L.G.B.T. Catholics and church leaders.
Bishop O’Connell said the search for acceptable language is ongoing, noting that even in the L.G.B.T. community language continues to evolve.
James Martin, S.J., an editor at America, published a book last year in which he calls church leaders to use the terms “gay” and “lesbian” when talking about L.G.B.T. people, rather than the more clinical sounding “same-sex attracted people” preferred by many church leaders. Many high-profile church leaders have backed Father Martin on this, though others continue to resist the labels.
For his part, Bishop O’Connell said the search for acceptable language is ongoing, noting that even in the L.G.B.T. community, language continues to evolve. “We need to work on language that we can all agree on,” he said.
The dizzying pace of progress for L.G.B.T. people has also presented the church with new challenges, he said. “These are not old issues,” he said, pointing specifically to the challenges over rights for transgender issues. “Jesus did not say, ‘In 2018, when we speak about transgender people, this is the answer.’”
“Jesus did not say, ‘In 2018, when we speak about transgender people, this is the answer.’”
Bishops, he said, are “struggling” with the issue and are considering, “How do we really be kind?” when formulating policies about bathrooms and locker rooms in church-affiliated institutions.
Young people see the church as a scold, the bishop said, and urged pastors to act like good parents when confronted with parishioners who are unsure about their gender or sexuality. If a child told a mom or dad that she or he is struggling with sexual identity, “a good parent would take that as a real cry for a conversation and not just say, ‘Stop it,’” he said.
In some of the other listening sessions Bishop O’Connell has hosted, he said there are usually two types of participants: “people confused because the church has too many rules” and “people confused because the church ‘took away’ all of our rules.”
“We are losing three generations of people, and we need to hear why.”
While many people have thanked the bishop for holding the listening sessions, he says not everyone agrees with the premise. One person told him that bishops should teach, not listen. But he says he takes seriously the goal of listening to the faithful, adding, “We’re not a church that should be afraid of questions, but I think a lot of people are afraid of these questions.”
When asked how church leaders might better address questions from young people about L.G.B.T. people, he said that first, “We have to stop avoiding it.” He said it is “rare” for bishops to listen to the concerns of young people about these issues, adding, “every bishop should be able to answer these questions adequately.”
But what if the young people are unimpressed with the answers they hear? Well, Bishop O’Connell said, they need to use their voice. “When I was first ordained 27 years ago, our high school students were upset that there weren’t girl altar servers,” he said. Today, it is common to see young girls serving in that role.
“We are losing three generations of people, and we need to hear why,” he said. “So I would encourage my brother bishops to listen, listen to what they’re saying.”
From Bishop McElroy, San Diego
Father James Martin is a distinguished Jesuit author who has spent his life building bridges within the Catholic Church and between the church and the wider world. He has been particularly effective in bringing the Gospel message to the millennial generation. When we survey the vast gulf that exists between young adults and the church in the United States, it is clear that there could be no more compelling missionary outreach for the future of Catholicism than the terrain that Father Martin has passionately and eloquently pursued over the past two decades. There are few evangelizers who have engaged that terrain with more heart and skill and devotion.
Last year Father Martin undertook a particularly perilous project in this work of evangelization: building bridges between the church and the L.G.B.T. community in the United States. He entered it knowing that the theological issues pertaining to homosexuality constituted perhaps the most volatile element of ecclesial life in U.S. culture.
It was this very volatility that spurred Father Martin to write his new book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the L.G.B.T. Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity. Using a methodology that is fully consonant with Catholic teaching, employing Scripture, the rich pastoral heritage of the church and an unadulterated realism that makes clear both the difficulty and the imperative for establishing deeper dialogue, Father Martin opens 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.
Jesus Christ and his church seek to embrace fully and immediately men and women in the L.G.B.T. community.
Building a Bridge is a serious book, and any such work invites substantive criticism and dialogue. This is particularly true with a complex subject like the relationship of the L.G.B.T. community and the church. Many analyses of Father Martin’s arguments have pointed to important problems that do not have easy answers and to the reality that dialogue must always proceed both in respect and in truth.
But alongside this legitimate and substantive criticism of Father Martin’s book, there has arisen both in Catholic journals and on social media a campaign to vilify Father Martin, to distort his work, to label him heterodox, to assassinate his personal character and to annihilate both the ideas and the dialogue that he has initiated.
This campaign of distortion must be challenged and exposed for what it is—not primarily for Father Martin’s sake but because this cancer of vilification is seeping into the institutional life of the church. Already, several major institutions have canceled Father Martin as a speaker. Faced with intense external pressures, these institutions have bought peace, but in doing so they have acceded to and reinforced a tactic and objectives that are deeply injurious to Catholic culture in the United States and to the church’s pastoral care for members of the L.G.B.T. communities.
There has arisen both in Catholic journals and on social media a campaign to vilify Father Martin.
The concerted attack on Father Martin’s work has been driven by three impulses: homophobia, a distortion of fundamental Catholic moral theology and a veiled attack on Pope Francis and his campaign against judgmentalism in the church.
The attacks on Building a Bridge tap into long-standing bigotry within the church and U.S. culture against members of the L.G.B.T. community. The persons launching these attacks portray the reconciliation of the church and the L.G.B.T. community not as a worthy goal but as a grave cultural, religious and familial threat. Gay sexual activity is seen not as one sin among others but as uniquely debased to the point that L.G.B.T. persons are to be effectively excluded from the family of the church. Pejorative language and labels are deployed regularly and strategically. The complex issues of sexual orientation and its discernment in the life of the individual are dismissed and ridiculed.
[Related: Cardinal Sarah offers critique of L.G.B.T. book, Father James Martin responds]
The coordinated attack on Building a Bridge must be a wake-up call for the Catholic community to look inward and purge itself of bigotry against the L.G.B.T. community. If we do not, we will build a gulf between the church and L.G.B.T. men and women and their families. Even more important, we will build an increasing gulf between the church and our God.
The attacks on ‘Building a Bridge’ tap into long-standing bigotry within the church and U.S. culture against members of the L.G.B.T. community.
The second corrosive impulse of the campaign against Building a Bridge flows from a distortion of Catholic moral theology. The goal of the Catholic moral life is to pattern our lives after that of Jesus Christ. We must model our interior and exterior selves on the virtues of faith, love, hope, mercy, compassion, integrity, sacrifice, prayerfulness, humility, prudence and more. One of these virtues is chastity. Chastity is a very important virtue of the Christian moral life. The disciple is obligated to confine genital sexual activity to marriage.
But 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.
Our discussions in the life of the church suggest that chastity has a singularly powerful role in determining our relationship with God. It does not.
This distortion of our faith cripples many of our discussions of sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular. The overwhelming prism through which we should look at our moral lives is that we are all called to live out the virtues of Christ; we all succeed magnificently at some and fail at others. Those who emphasize the incompatibility of gay men or lesbian women living meaningfully within the church are ignoring the multidimensional nature of the Christian life of virtue or the sinfulness of us all or both.
The third impulse behind the campaign against Building a Bridge arises from a rejection of the pastoral theology that Pope Francis has brought into the heart of the church. Regarding the issue of homosexuality, in particular, many of those attacking Father Martin simply cannot forgive the Holy Father for uttering that historic phrase on the plane: “Who am I to judge?” The controversy over Building a Bridge is really a debate about whether we are willing to banish judgmentalism from the life of the church. Pope Francis continually reminds us that the Lord unceasingly called the disciples to reject the temptation to judge others, precisely because it is a sin so easy for us all to fall into and one so injurious to the life of the church.
The gulf between the L.G.B.T. community and the church is not primarily based on orientation; it is a gulf created by judgmentalism on both sides. That is the real starting point for a dialogue between the Catholic Church and the L.G.B.T. community in the United States today. Father Martin should be thanked for pointing to this reality, not shunned.