Cool your jets about ‘Building a Bridge’

After I shoe shopped yesterday, I stopped at the mall’s Barnes & Noble to do what I always do: browse the Christian books. This time I bought one — Building a Bridge by Fr. James Martin.

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And I’d been warned. Catholic Twitter had sounded the alarm, had said to read reviews of it instead, to steer clear of it (and, in fact, to steer clear of Fr. Martin himself, who, by the way, I met once and is quite cordial).

Now that I’ve read it (excluding its second half, which is for meditation and reflection — I’ll read that later), I’d like to invite Catholic Twitter to do a new thing: cool your dang jets.

The book’s first half is an expanded version of a speech that Fr. Martin delivered at an awards ceremony hosted by a ministry that ministers to the LGBT community. It points out the Catholic catechism’s call for all Catholics to treat people who are LGBT with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”

Fr. Martin suggests that doing so can bridge the gap between practicing Catholics and a lot of people who’ve been alienated by them. But the Catholics who warned me not to read it warned me because of what isn’t in it, such as exactly what the Church teaches about homosexuality.

In her review of Building a Bridge, Janet Smith calls the absence of that an “egregious flaw.” She also calls out Fr. Martin for not acknowledging a handful of ministries that long have worked to build bridges between the Church and the LGBT community.

It is as a Roman Catholic, a chastity speaker, and an author that I say this: I don’t think that’s a problem.

Fr. Martin’s publisher is a Harper Collins imprint. Which means Fr. Martin had an editor. Which means that if he missed the mark regarding the book’s intended purpose, the editor would have caught it and sent it back for revisions.

It is true that he — a Jesuit priest who himself has vowed to live a perpetually chaste life — didn’t explicitly state that the Church asks gay people to live chastely, too. It is also true that he didn’t mention ministries like Courage, Encourage or Living Waters.

Consider: the reason these things and any other things that didn’t show up in the book did not, in fact, show up in the book is because the book isn’t a book about those things. Accept it.

But the Catholics who warned me not to read it were disappointed, too, by some of what did show up in it.

Fr. Martin requests that out of respect, we refer to gay people as the LGBT community (and not as same-sex-attracted or homosexuals, for example) if “the LGBT community” is what the community would like to be called. I don’t disagree.

He also suggests that a lot of people are fired from church jobs for being gay — but not, say, for using contraception or heterosexually cohabitating. Is that accurate? No idea. But if it’s what he’s actually observed, he reserves the right to put it in a book that he wrote.

This is frankly stuff that doesn’t rile me up. If that disappoints you, I don’t know what to tell ya. But I can tell you what does grate on me: how people on the Internet have handled this.

By bullying Fr. Martin. By calling the book flawed because it’s not the book they wish it was. By acting like they’ll be ready to have friendships with people who are LGBT after they’ve aligned their choices with Church teaching.

Which is like saying “we’ll accompany you when — independent of our love — you discover that the Church has what you need; we, the body of Christ, will welcome you after you’ve had a conversion experience.”

Which is why in the book Fr. Martin reminds us of Jesus’s response to Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector “and therefore … the chief sinner.”

…he doesn’t point to him and shout, “Sinner!” Instead, Jesus says that he will dine at Zacchaeus’s house, a public sign of openness and welcome, before Zacchaeus has said or done anything. Only after Jesus offers him welcome is Zacchaeus moved to conversion…

And I think Fr. Martin is right when he implies: we’re a lot more likely to see conversion when our respect, compassion, and sensitivity are authentic and unconditional.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Catholic Jonas

    Anecdotes about parishes firing openly gay people from ministerial positions aside, the sense I’ve gotten from people with SSA isn’t that they are made to feel unwelcome because of particular people in the parish. The unwelcomeness comes from the Church’s teaching on their actions and their unwillingness to convert. In that regard, Fr. Martin does in fact miss the mark.

    I’m sure you’ll agree that there are many, MANY people who flout the Church’s teaching on sexual morality and cite that as the reason for their leaving the Church. These folks are no different.

    There’s already a bridge; Fr. Martin should do more to encourage people to actually use it rather than pretend it doesn’t exist.

  • Laura

    Thank you for explaining, Arleen. I still disagree with a lot of what you’re saying about this. I am absolutely not okay with people bashing Fr. Martin as a person or being rude. But there ARE serious problems with his approach. We should accept people and welcome them into our church, but we cannot leave out the truth of what Jesus taught. He told the sinful woman “neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more” – he did more than just eat with sinners. We all are sinners, and people experiencing same sex attraction are no different. We all need to be called to conversion through encounter with Jesus Christ and Fr. Martin fails to do that. So please do no discount the critiques made of his work in charity.

    And since you are interested in reading different sides, please read Dan Mattson’s Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay ( As a person who experiences same sex attraction and had sexual relationships with men in the past, he strongly believes we should NOT use the LGBTQ labels. So please consider that too.

  • Chris

    I think people that have a problem with Fr.’s approach are more comfortable with teaching/catechizing than entering into relationship(and that is totally ok). I know those people. The ones that don’t realize that their approach (rules before relationship) is not helpful chase people away from the church. But the things in life that we love and want to take part in do not work that way. Bishop Barron even speaks about how you don’t teach the rules of baseball first, you allow kids to play, catch the ball, go batting. Then you teach the rules so they can play.

    If you really get to know people who are gay and Catholic and want to live out the church’s teachings you’ll find it isn’t the teaching. It’s the behavior or people in the church. I have a friend who is also in youth ministry who has two of his female teen leaders who have come out to him. He met with one of them and her parents last night. Her father wasn’t there and telling him was her biggest fear. She also does self harm and has had suicidal thoughts. WHY? Because she feels she deserves it. She has experienced her father, family, and people in the church talking disgustingly about gay people so she feels like she deserves the punishment.

    You don’t show people that they are fearfully and wonderfully made by throwing the catechism in their face. You show them that by loving them first.

    I had a teen who brought her boyfriend to youth group. She then told me that she didn’t find out “he” was really a she until after they started dating (she really looked like a boy). She swears she’s not gay but figured they were so good for each other why break up. I already had a great relationship with her so we were able to talk about how just because they are such good compliments to each other doesn’t mean they should be/stay in relationship. I told her this changes nothing and they I still loved here and that both of them are still welcome. Her mother though on the other hand told her she’s going to hell.

    I have a brother in law who is gay. But, he’s had to hear his family talk about gays his whole life. Now that he has a b/f he does not come home anymore. His b/f’s family loves him and treats him with love and respect. Why in the world would he come home? And honestly, out of all of the teaching about homosexuality he’s heard he is more open to the Catholic Church’s (he’s not Catholic).

    You do not throw out the church’s teaching. But it’s also not the best place to start. Start with “Hey lets grab a beer.” Build a genuine relationship because you are interested in relationship not because you are looking for a project. Then when the conversation comes up, “You are fearfully and wonderfully made and God loves you.” And then, “Well here’s the joy our church calls you to.”

    • Arleen Spenceley


      • Catholic Jonas

        I agree with this approach in principle. Treating people with love, dignity, and respect is the first thing a Catholic should do for anyone. I’m still loathe to find widespread data regarding individuals with SSA being treated poorly by parishes and parishioners.

        The fruit of the dialogue with that community so far has been one of unwillingness to convert because, “it’s how God made me.” These aren’t people who are blind to the beauty of the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexual morality; the Church has been clear and they know full well what the Church teaches. They reject the Church’s teaching by continuing in sin and screaming for “dialogue” when the dialogue is just to tell us we’re backwards and hateful.

        Maybe I’m naive; maybe I’m fortunate. I’ve never seen a parish community show hatred toward a person with SSA. I’ve never seen them vilified or treated with anything but respect and dignity. I have seen, however, faithful, orthodox Catholics be called hateful because we won’t accept their lifestyle as valid and keeping with God’s plan.

  • Bob Lever

    I have yet to read the book. I did read Fr. Martin’s article of the same title in America Magazine and I agree with your comments. One thing I wonder about however, is the correlation of the Zacchaeus story. Jesus’ move to dine with the ‘chief sinner’ was a radical gesture. What is the radical gesture Christians are to make to the LGBT community? I have friends in that community I dine with them, treat them as any other friend of mine. Is this radical? It doesn’t feel that way. In today’s culture the LGBT community in nearly another ‘norm’. Again, what is the radical gesture that Catholics and the Church make to ‘build a bridge’?