Building the Right Bridge Toward the Kingdom

Sexually active gays and lesbians — and all others who are engaging in ‘porneia’ — need conversion, not affirmation.

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Recently at daily Mass, the Church pondered St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, which succinctly and unambiguously states two of the most important truths for the faithful fulfillment of the mission of evangelization Christ has entrusted to the Church. These truths are particularly relevant for our day.

The first is the vocation God has given to each of us through baptism. “This is the will of God,” St. Paul writes: “your sanctification” (1 Thes 4:3). God calls us not to spiritual mediocrity but to the fullness of Christian life. He summons us to be holy as he is holy, to be perfect as he is perfect, to love as he loves (Lev 20:7, Mt 5:48, Jn 15:12). The universal call to holiness is the central teaching of the Second Vatican Council and, as St. John Paul II stressed, the goal of the Church’s pastoral plan in every age: after all, in the end, we either become holy — by freely and fully cooperating with God’s grace in this world or in Purgatory — or we go to hell, since nothing unclean can enter heaven (Rev 21:7).

The second truth follows immediately for St. Paul upon the first: “that you refrain from porneia,” the Greek word, used by Christ and St. Paul 26 times in the New Testament, which refers to the sexual sins of adultery, fornication, prostitution, same-sex relations, bestiality, and incest. (The English word “pornography” comes from this root and means the “writing” or depiction of sexual sins.)

In short, God, in calling us to holiness, summons us to the perfection of love, not the indulgence of lust. St. John Paul II taught in his famous five-year Catecheses on Human Love in the Divine Plan (popularly known as the Theology of the Body) that lust changes the “intentionality” of a human person from an unselfish lover made in the image and likeness of God who is Love (1 John 4:16) to an exploiter, from a self-giver to a consumer of others, from one who sacrifices for others’ good to one who sacrifices others for his or her own pleasure. The devil tries to corrupt our origin and destiny by corrupting that love, by tempting us toward porneia, because, as St. Paul indicates with crystal clarity, we can’t become holy while indulging in porneia, just as lucidly as Christ elsewhere said we cannot serve both God and mammon (Mt 6:24). “For God did not call us to impurity but to holiness,” St. Paul concludes. “Therefore, whoever disregards this, disregards not a human being but God” (1 Thes 4:7-8).

Today, in popular culture and in the Church, there are many who “disregard this” to their great spiritual detriment, and in so doing, they’re not merely ignoring the Doctor of the Gentiles, or the popes, or the Catechism, but God. There are many false prophets today who basically want to baptize porneia, to pretend as if sexual immorality is not only not a big deal but even quasi-sacramental. Many celebrate divorce and remarriage as if it’s not adulterous, as Jesus himself plainly indicates it is (Mt 19:9). Others casually endorse and engage in sex outside of marriage, pretending as if those who think it’s a serious sin are the ones with a problem. Others treat the use of pornography or masturbation as healthy rites of passage. Now we have the advent of “sexbots,” robots that people can use instead of prostitutes — and some of which can be programmed to simulate rape victims, others designed as children to indulge pedophiles — as an outgrowth of the ethically wanton wild west that has followed the sexual revolution.

What I’d like to consider is the particular pastoral and spiritual malpractice current today with regard to the porneia involved in same-sex relations. Some in the Church are working overtime to alter Sacred Scripture’s and the Church’s — God’s — clear condemnation of same-sex sexual activity in favor of ignoring, downplaying, normalizing or celebrating it. In some cases, the initial motivation is good: striving to reach out to gays and lesbians and others with same-sex attractions to make them feel welcome in the Church as God’s much loved sons and daughters. But when that outreach does not involve the generous, patient assistance to help them embrace the call to holiness through a life of chastity that refrains from porneia — the same assistance that the Church must give to all — then that very accompaniment can become a scandal that can confuse not only those being accompanied but the whole Church.

Father James Martin’s recent book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity unfortunately does not go far enough in its respect, compassion and sensitivity to gays, lesbians and others with same-sex attractions.

In this short work, which can be read in about an hour, the affable, accessible, and articulate Jesuit says he is trying both to help the “institutional Church” to accept those with homosexual tendencies with the “respect, compassion and sensitivity” that the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2358) demands and to assist the members of the LGBT Community to approach the Church hierarchy with those same virtues.

Father Martin does a good job in sympathetically detailing the sufferings that gays and lesbians have endured in the culture and from those within the Church. Some of the sound advice he gives corresponds to what I’ve learned in serving those with same-sex attractions as a spiritual director in Courage and through my apologetic work on college campuses and elsewhere. He’s absolutely right in saying we should not single out gays and lesbians by focusing on their call to chastity without similarly calling all Christians to a chaste life. I also think his controversial point about nomenclature — calling people what they prefer to be called — is pastorally prudent: even though there are good reasons why some hesitate to define people according to their sexual attractions or identify them primarily through a larger political movement or lifestyle, if the predominant desire of the Church is to encounter gays and lesbians and help accompany them toward conversion and holiness, then we must begin by not alienating them through using terminology they find grating.

The biggest problem with the book, however, is that it never engages the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, as if that’s not a crucial part of the infrastructure of a bridge between the Church and those gays and lesbians who feel alienated from it. Part of respect, compassion and sensitivity for gays and lesbians is to treat them as adults, capable of understanding and living the truth about the human person and human sexuality, and, to the extent that some are engaged in a sinful lifestyle, loving them enough to seek to help them grasp and live by the Gospel.

In various interviews, Father Martin said that the reason he didn’t engage in such a discussion of chastity or state the Church’s teachings on the immorality of same-sex relations is because Church teaching is clear and well known by gays and lesbians. “I don’t think there’s any ‘LGBT’ Catholic alive who doesn’t understand that teaching,” he said.

That’s not only untrue factually, but is an evasion pastorally. While most gays and lesbians, Catholic and non-Catholic, would know that the Church teaches that same-sex relations are immoral, many do not understand the why-behind-the-what. Most in the LGBT community, Martin himself admits, have not “received” the Church’s teaching, which is a euphemism for saying they’ve rejected what they believe it to be. Many, moreover, simply do not grasp the Church’s distinction between the person (ontologically good), his or her attractions (ordered or disordered), and his or her choices and actions (morally good or bad).

If there’s anyone who would be an effective evangelist in presenting to them how the Church’s teaching is part of the Good News, how it belongs to the truth that sets us free (Jn 8:32), and how the virtue of chastity is essential so that eros doesn’t corrode the love of friendship (philia) and Christ-like sacrificial love (agape), it would be Father Martin, with his gifts of communication and his knowledge of and evident concern for gays and lesbians. It’s truly a shame that he doesn’t even try.

In response to criticism, Father Martin has said in several interviews that he “would never contradict Church teaching.” That is obviously good, but also totally insufficient. Not denying Church doctrine is not the same thing as believing it, affirming it and preaching it as Good News.

By such a glaring and — as he describes it — “intentional” omission, he treats the Catholic sexual ethic, as one gay reviewer seeking to live by Church teaching has remarked, as if it’s an “embarrassing secret.” His assiduous avoidance of explicitly stating and affirming Church teaching has led many — both faithful Catholics and members of the LGBT community — to question aloud whether he actually agrees with that doctrine. And the consequences extend beyond the question of his personal fidelity: it easily could allow sexually active gays and lesbians to infer that if he doesn’t consider it important to try to convince them about the Church’s teachings on sexual morality, then they can just continue as they are, conscience uninformed and unperturbed.

True respect, compassion and sensitivity to the state of their souls demand much more. If the Church’s teaching is true, then sexually active gays and lesbians — and all others who are engaging in porneia — need conversion, not affirmation. And the stakes cannot be higher: holiness is incompatible with porneia, and those who unrepentantly engage in porneia, as St. Paul categorically states elsewhere, will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-11).

The bridge that the Church needs to build is to that kingdom and Fr. Martin in this work unfortunately does not live up to the task of a priestly pontifex.