At the height of the AIDS crisis in the early 1980’s, when countless deaths as a result of this dreaded disease were occurring across our country and world, I remember vividly receiving an emergency call in the middle of the night. It was from an AIDS Hospice here in Orange County. The voice on the other end was agitated as he spoke quickly, “Is this a priest? I need a priest as quickly as possible. One of our guests is actively dying.” I responded that I was a priest and aware that the facility was some distance from the rectory, I inquired if, perhaps, they had contacted the parish much closer. The agitated voice said, “Father, I never want to call that place again. The priest that came before, stood at the door and the first thing he asked our delirious friend was if he was sorry for the sins that got him into this situation? He then mumbled a quick blessing and ran out!” I, of course, said that I would come as quickly as possible.
That very painful situation seared into my memory not only this painful chapter in the history of AIDS in our country, but more specifically, how the Catholic Church that I love and to whom I have given 43 years in priestly ministry, has so often failed to be there in respect, compassion and sensitivity for our LGBT sisters and brothers.
It is with this personal experience in mind that I welcomed Fr. James Martin’s most recent book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT community can enter into a relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity. As narrated in the preface of this small yet insightful work, what prompted Fr. Martin to prepare these reflections was the tragic shooting in Orlando, Florida, on June 12, 2016 at the Pulse nightclub, in which 49 people were killed and 58 others were wounded in one of worst terrorist attacks since 9/11 in our country. It was clear that virtually all the victims were from the LGBT community. What was so unsettling for Fr. Martin and many sincere and concerned Catholics across our land, was the relatively few Bishops who named this unspeakable evil for what it truly was, the targeting of gay men and women. Save for a few eloquent and candid statements by a handful of Bishops, the overall response was alarmingly tepid.
It was certainly not the author’s intention to present a detailed and exhaustive treatise on the moral dimensions of homosexuality as viewed from the Catholic Church’s perspective. That perspective and teaching is clearly, if not painfully, known by the vast majority of the LGBT community. Rather, focusing on three critical words that are found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding homosexual persons, his reflections center on how the Church and LGBT persons can mutually build a relationship – a bridge to each other – on the foundation of ‘respect, compassion and sensitivity.’ Fr. Martin is far more concerned with the pastoral exigencies of what we encounter in the present moment, where not an insignificant number of the Catholic LGBT community have either left the Catholic Church or, struggle to not only remain while tragically, at times, experiencing unjust discrimination at her hands. Additionally, he poses the challenging question of how it might be possible for the Church, both clergy and laity, to be that ‘Field Hospital’ as Pope Francis speaks of, reaching out to those who, for whatever reason, are in need of hearing again the reconciling compassion of a loving Father and Shepherd. So often it begins with the simple process of listening to one another.
We are all familiar with the ‘teaching’ dimension of the Church, classically framed as the ecclesia docens. Rare, however, is it that we hear the corresponding importance of the ‘listening’ church, or the ecclesia discens. Yet, this dimension of our church beautifully mirrors an essential element within any community and certainly within the Body of Christ. Blessed Paul VI, in his first Encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam, spoke eloquently of the central dynamism of ‘dialogue’ within the household of believers. From our own experience, I think it would be safe to say that successful dialogue always entails both speaking and listening, respectfully, compassionately and with sensitivity.
Dialogue, of course, presupposes language that itself is respectful, compassionate and sensitive. In one of the highly negative reviews of Martin’s book that appeared in First Things, the author begins with this sentence: Is sodomy a sin? I wonder how effective I would be in speaking to a group of divorced and remarried folks inquiring about the annulment process, if I were to begin, 'Is adultery and fornication a sin?' The critic goes on and rather dismissively makes reference to, what our Holy Father has referred to countless times as the importance of the ministry of ‘accompaniment.’ By this is understood ‘to be there for others,’ in a supportive and loving manner, wherever one might be on the continuum of conversion toward greater virtue and Christian maturity.
The teaching of the Church is unambiguous when it calls all to complete chastity outside of the marriage covenant. The challenge for our gay sisters and brothers is that to be true to the Church’s teaching, they must remain celibate for the entirety of their lives. While with God’s heroic grace, this is not an impossibility, and for those who embrace this heroic discipline, they indeed deserve our support and encouragement. However, based upon 43 years of pastoral and confessional experience, this way of life is extremely difficult. And, for those who find this teaching difficult or impossible to embrace and experience failure, what are we to do? Do we turn our backs, close the doors of our churches and tear down any bridges of outreach until they arrive at perfection? Or do we accept our brothers and sisters ‘on the way,’ as we continue to welcome, provide compassionate hospitality and encouragement toward growth in virtue for all of us. For, in the end, truth be told, we are all ‘on the way.’