If you’re on social media and follow any Catholic pages, you may have heard of a priest by the name of Fr. James Martin. A Jesuit based in New York, he is probably best known for his most recent book, “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity.” His social media accounts (Twitter and Facebook) have hundreds of thousands of followers, and he’s appeared on the Colbert Report numerous times. He’s also a consultor to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications.
All in all, he seems to be a very popular priest with a message that resonates with a lot of people, both Catholic and non-Catholic.
Read any of the comments on his Facebook posts or tweets on his Twitter account, though, and you’ll notice that not everyone is a fan. A large number of people take issue not so much with Fr. Martin’s message–that those who identify as gay, lesbian, etc. should be treated with respect, compassion and sensitivity–but how he presents this message.
I, personally, am part of this group that takes issue with Fr. Martin’s presentation. So I’m not writing this post to critique his book (Robert Cardinal Sarah’s done a sufficient job of that) nor am I going to bash Fr. Martin for his social media conduct (others have done that sufficiently as well, both here and here).
Rather, I think it needs to be brought to the attention of many Catholics that the problem with ministries like that of Fr. James Martin is that it leaves a crucial, integral, and invaluable topic out of any conversation about sexuality and the Church: chastity.
Fr. Martin prides himself on being the “builder of a bridge” between the gay, lesbian, transgender, and queer community and the Church. He says that this group has been marginalized, poorly treated, discriminated, and disrespected both by the institutional Church, the hierarchy, and the laity; and by his ministry, his books, and his very influential voice, he’s trying to draw attention to the fact that both sides need to respect each other.
I think we can all agree that, of course, all people are deserving of the dignity and respect that comes with being made in the image of God. Of course we shouldn’t treat others differently or poorly because of the particular sins they commit, either intentionally or not. Definitely no argument there.
But Fr. Martin is doing a disservice to the laity–both hetero- and homosexual–when he praises priests that “come out” to their parishioners during Mass and approves of gay couples kissing during the sign of peace, but completely ignores the virtue of chastity.
I’ve literally scoured the Internet, poring over articles written by and about Fr. Martin, as well as both of his social media accounts to try to find any discussion of chastity and the LGBT community. To my knowledge, no strong examples exist–and this is a big problem.
The best that can be found is consistently something like Fr. Martin saying, “sexual relations between people of the same sex are impermissible, as is same-sex marriage, but…” followed by some reason this teaching of the Catechism is not worth discussing further or isn’t relevant.
To be charitable for a moment, perhaps he does talk to those close to him about the importance of chastity in the community to which he ministers; but it’s not apparent on social media or in Catholic media in general, where his largest following resides.
It is both sad and frustrating that he shrugs off this virtue as non-essential to the conversation. Fr. Martin is ministering to a group of people that identify themselves by their sexual attraction; in leaving out any discussion of chastity, he’s leaving out an integral part of sexual understanding for this entire community.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines chastity as “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man, in his bodily and spiritual being.” It goes on to say:
“Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy.”
Chastity is temperance; it is love, rather than use. It is seeing the human person for all that they are, not just parts that can be used for some end. The Catechism itself notes that it is not an easy virtue (“self-mastery is a long and exacting work”) but it is a “moral virtue… a gift from God, a grace, a fruit of spiritual effort.”
Chastity heals. It teaches us how to see ourselves in light of our sexuality; it teaches us how to see others, as well–how to acknowledge the whole person rather than parts of them. It shows us how to integrate our sexuality into our entire person, rather than defining ourselves, using others, or seeing others solely in light of their sexuality. This, it seems, would be absolutely crucial for any community that identifies themselves by their sexual attractions.
Real love is self-sacrificial. Sex was created to be unitive and procreative between a man and woman in marriage. It was created to mirror the love of Christ for the Church–one of complete self-gift. Portraying love and sex as anything less–or simply leaving out this truth entirely so as not to offend–is counterfeit.
I’m not just hitting Fr. Martin, here; a serious discussion and teaching of chastity should be incorporated into any ministry in the Church because it isn’t just for one group. Chastity is for the straight and the gay, the priest and the nun, the mom and the dad, the married and the single–everyone. There is no group that is not called to live chastely.
Fr. Martin often says in interviews he doesn’t talk about chastity because, “…Church teaching is clear on that matter, and it’s well-known in the LGBT community. I don’t think theres any LGBT Catholic alive who doesn’t understand that teaching. By the same token, there seem to be few LGBT Catholics who have accepted that teaching.” This equates to, “everyone knows it and they don’t like it and don’t listen to it, so I’m not going to talk about it.”
Perhaps he’s onto a little something here–perhaps the problem is the way chastity has been portrayed up to this point. It’s not a mandate. It’s not shaking a finger at the fornicating couple or the young person living a gay lifestyle and proclaiming you’re going to hell if you don’t change your ways.
It’s an invitation to something higher. It’s a calling to living life truly loving, rather than using. A calling we don’t always want to hear and one that often isn’t easy to live up to, but a divine calling nonetheless. This is why the Catechism says we all have a vocation (from the Latin “vocare,” to call) to chastity.
Fr. Martin’s ministry is so sadly lacking because its depriving the LGBT community of a healing virtue, of a truth of the Church that makes the Church and the way of life Jesus calls us to through her so beautiful.
Would people like Fr. Martin less if he talked about chastity in regards to the LGBT community–if he affirmed their personhood but not the sin(s) of acting on homosexual desires? Would his followers listen to him less readily; would they even hate him? Absolutely. Yes. Definitely. He’d lose a LOT of fans. But there is no credit in gaining followers and fans and listeners if you’re preaching to them a bucket of words that are half truths, or flat out lies by omission.
Not only is there no credit, but this creates a sort of spiritual deficit that harms the listeners as well as the Church. In doing so, his ministry is dishonest and a faulty misrepresentation of the wedding feast of the Lamb, of the heights of holiness that ALL people are called to.
During Mass yesterday I was thinking about why more people don’t talk about chastity. It must be because its hard. Sometimes it’s unpleasant. It’s unpopular. It places demands upon us that are uncomfortable and sometimes painful to meet. But it teaches us how to live and how to love. That’s why it’s important.
Though disordered, being attracted to the same sex isn’t a sin; acting on it is. Instead of pointing this out and discussing chastity in a positive light–what it brings to a person’s soul, rather than what it tells you not to do–Fr. Martin gives interviews where he completely dodges the issue of chastity and instead advocates for rewording the Catechism to avoid calling homosexuality “intrinsically disordered.”
Because this is what the world wants to hear–affirmation no matter the cost, a watering down of right and wrong in the name of compassion, rather than calling out sin for what it is, which would be the truly loving and merciful thing to do.
Raise your hand if you think every single thing the Catechism (read: Jesus Christ, through His Church) demands of us is easy and fun. Nope. He didn’t come to make us feel warm and fuzzy. He came to save us from our sins. What I think Fr. Martin is intentionally leaving out is the part of his ministry that could truly save souls–showing people how Jesus calls them to a life much more beautiful and fulfilling than anything a homosexual lifestyle could give them.
I pray that we all consider the virtue of chastity and how God is calling us to live in real self-sacrificial love, rather than the use of people for our own gain in any context. I also pray that Fr. James Martin will of course talk to the world about treating each other with dignity and respect–but also that he will become a lot more honest in his message about what the Church teaches about homosexuality and how Christ is calling us all–including those with same-sex attractions–to live in chastity.