Fr. James Martin Joins LWGRC to “Agitate the Charism” at MC

by Rose Brennan & C. Garrett Keidel, A&E Editor & Sports Editor

Fresh off of his trip to the Vatican to speak with Pope Francis regarding LGBTQ issues, Fr. James Martin stopped by Manhattan College for a Q and A with the community on Monday, Oct. 7 at 4:30 p.m.

The event, titled “A Conversation with Fr. James Martin on the LGBTQ+ Community and the Catholic Church,” was the second of the Lasallian Women and Gender Resource Center’s “Agitating the Charism” lecture series.  Along with the LWGRC, the event was co-sponsored by the Catholic studies program, the religious studies department, Campus Ministry and Social Action, and the LGBTQ student group.

Whether it was the buzz surrounding the topic or the anticipation to meet someone who had just met the Pope, people gathered en masse in Smith Auditorium, to the point where the event was standing room only.

Rather than a traditional lecture or panel style, the event was a discussion of sorts, facilitated by Natalia Imperatori-Lee, Ph.D., associate professor of religious studies and director of the Catholic studies program.  Throughout the program, Imperatori-Lee touched on every aspect of Martin’s vocation as a priest, whether about the position of LGBTQ+ people in the Church or about his specific identity as a “Philadelphia Catholic.”

Martin’s ministry began in 2016, following the aftermath of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.  Forty-nine people were killed, most of them members of the LGBTQ+ community.

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“I saw that the Church was doing very little in response [to the shooting] … in terms of sympathy or consolation or outreach.  And I thought, even in death, LGBT people seem invisible to the Church,” Martin said.  “I ended up writing this book, which I didn’t think would be a big deal, but it turned out to be a big deal.  And that led me into this ministry.”

This attitude towards LGBTQ+ people in the Catholic Church is, unfortunately, nothing new.  There is Scriptural evidence which condemns homosexuality and homosexual acts.  But, according to Martin, there is something else that Catholics must keep in mind when discussing Church teaching about the LGBTQ+ community.  It was therefore important for the discussion to be contextualized before it moved forward.

“Maybe we could contextualize this conversation,” said Imperatori-Lee. “Could we review what the church teaches about the LGBT community?”

Martin responded with what he believed was the most important teaching on the LGBTQ+ community.  Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, it was not any of the Bible verses that explicitly condemn homosexuality.

“When I start on Church teaching about LGBT people, the most fundamental Church teaching we have is the Gospels,” Martin said.  “It’s the example of Jesus. So when the first look at anybody, when we look at LGBT people, when you look at straight people, anybody … you lead with what Jesus taught which is love, mercy, and compassion.”

Furthermore, Martin stressed that in addition to the Bible and the Catechism, there are a number of other sources from which Catholics can discern how to interact with the LGBTQ+ community.

“We have the Gospels, we have the catechism, but we also have our conscience. Church teaching also includes our conscience … An informed conscience, according to the Second Vatican Council, is the final arbiter of moral decision making,” Martin said.

Martin was not shy about pointing out the outright condemnation of the LGBTQ+ community in the Church, stressing there are many other ways in which its parishioners are not living entirely by the message of the Gospels.  But, often, those sins are ignored or glossed over, spawning a hypocrisy in the Church when it comes to discussing sin.

“There are many people whose lives do not fully convey Church teaching. Many, many people like straight couples using birth control … Everyone who is not caring for the poor, everyone who is lying, all of the people who do not go to Mass on Sunday. All of these people do not follow Church teaching by the letter,” Martin said.

To Martin, perhaps the issue of the LGBTQ+ community in the Church might be better addressed if priests within the Church were allowed to come out.  During the discussion, Imperatori-Lee and Martin discussed a recent New York Times article by Elizabeth Diaz, which took an in-depth look at LGBTQ+ people in religious orders within the Catholic Church.

“Why do we not see more gay priests who are out? … [Diaz] investigated this and came upon a couple reasons. Number one, they are told to not come out by their bishops and their religious superiors … usually they are afraid for them. In this environment where homosexuality is conflated falsely with pedophilia. It perpetuates the idea that gay priests are pedophiles,” Martin said.

He continued.

“There have always been gay priests, and when I say gay priest I mean celibate, and who are homosexual, who take thier vows of celibacy seriously in thier vocation. There are lesbian nuns too, there always have and there always will be,” he said.

To Martin, there is much healing to be done in the relationship between the Catholic Church and the LGBTQ+ community.  Part of this process has to do with the idea of shame, specifically among LGBTQ+ Catholics.

“I would say be careful about what you think the Catholic viewpoint is, because fundamentally, it’s that God loves you and, as the saying goes, God doesn’t make junk,” he said.  “So to be guilty about the way God loves you is a way of not taking in God’s love.  And if you really don’t understand God, look at Jesus and how he treats people in the Gospels, and it should be pretty clear.”

But Martin also stresses the importance of allyship in the process of building the bridge between both communities.  The LGBTQ+ community needs allies in the Church, and vice versa.  This allyship could take several different forms, but at its core remains steadfast.

“To be an effective ally means, first of all, to listen to the person and listen to the people in the group,” Martin said.  “Second would be to try to come to understand them better through study and reading.  Third, I think the most important thing is to advocate for them … when it’s difficult, and even when it may be uncomfortable.  Again, the model of Jesus is very important.  Even when he was critiqued for reaching out to people in the margins, he didn’t stop.”

Perhaps the entire Catholic Church will not change in a day, or even a year.  But Martin believes that change can be enacted both on an individual level and on the level of smaller Catholic institutions such as MC.

“Drawing on its Lasallian spirituality of meeting people where they are, everyone at [Manhattan] can try to encounter and accompany LGBT people in their real lives: to listen to them, to accompany them and advocate for them,” Martin said. “Be friends with them, and love them as you would love [any] friends and love anyone.  The Christian message can be boiled down to many different things, and one of them is ‘Love one another.’ And that goes for this group, too.”