Beyond Bashing Fr. Martin (and Courage and Spiritual Friendship)

Beyond Bashing Fr. Martin (and Courage and Spiritual Friendship) February 28, 2020

So Fr. James Martin SJ recently publicized that Fordham University will be hosting a conference for LGBTQ+ Catholics, to be called “Outreach 2020.”…And cue the polemical Catholic blog fanfare…

To no one’s surprise, sites like LifesiteNews are up in arms, while the National Catholic Reporter is jumping for joy. So much for thinking outside the box…

The conference is set to feature a variety of speakers, several of whom publicly dissent from Church teaching. It’s webpage seems not to clearly articulate its stance in regard to the Church’s moral teachings. This apparent claim to neutrality is in keeping with Fr. Martin’s conviction that in order for one to come to know the Truth, they must begin by encountering Christ’s unconditional love. The adherence to the Church’s teachings would be a secondary consequence of going deeper in one’s relationship with Christ. 

As much as this ought to be true—that one’s keeping of the Churches teachings should flow out of one’s relationship with Christ—the hush hush attitude toward Church teaching has obviously raised doubts among many of Fr. Martin’s critics. One does not witness to Christ by lecturing people on Catholic sexual ethics. But does keeping largely silent on the moral implications of a life in Christ help one to understand what it means to allow Christ’s love to “take flesh” in the concrete details of one’s daily life…which includes one’s affective, erotic, and sexual desires? 

While I would never start to share my faith with someone by giving them a lecture on moral theology, I personally find it a bit confusing for someone whose ministry is explicitly directed toward gay people to be so ambiguous when it comes to sexual ethics. 

Furthermore, does the uncritical usage of “LGBTQ” terminology help one to make sense of the extent to which certain inclinations run contrary to their identity as implicated by a Christian anthropology? While indeed, telling people who call themselves gay that they are “not really gay, their true identity is that they are a child of God who happens to experience same sex attraction” is not exactly helpful, or comprehensible, readily and uncritically using such language would seem to obscure one’s understanding and experience of the Christian notion of personhood. 

At the end of the day, I know Fr. Martin loves Christ, the Church, and takes his vocation as a Jesuit seriously. Bashing him and his mission will do little to generate fruit in the lives of gay/SSA people. His approach generally takes fidelity to the Church more seriously than ministries that forthrightly dissent from Church teaching like Dignity USA and New Ways Ministries. And I’m sure this conference will prove helpful to people who identify as LGBTQ+ who grew up in a Catholic environment, especially those who were mistreated in the name of God or who lack a nuanced catechetical/theological formation.  

But this approach, with its lack of attention given to matters of morality, chastity, and anthropology, would only give LGBTQ Catholics a preliminary/partial aid in their walk with Christ. As much as there are many Catholics whose relationship and trust in Christ and the Church have been damaged by the experience of abuse and marginalization, and as much as they may need to take their time in experiencing healing from that pain, there are other people with SSA who desire to understand what Christ has to do with their homoerotic desires. The affirmation of one’s supposed identity is a nice sentiment, but some thirst for Christ to enter into and redeem the messy fleshiness of human desire. 

This may come in the form of healing from psychological wounds that have played a role in one’s development of same sex attractions and a gay identity. This could also take the form of learning the sublimate one’s homoerotic desire by means of practices of penance, prayer, and the works of mercy. The Church’s rich and imaginative liturgy and contributions to art and spiritual literature have and can continue to play a role in helping those who experience SSA to understand how Christ can reorder and use said desires for His glory.

As much as Fr. Martin’s efforts have value, his writings and mission rarely draw upon the experiences of people with SSA who live faithfully to Christ and His Church. Ideally, ministries like Spiritual Friendship and the Courage Apostolate, and their respective annual Revoice and Courage Conferences, can fill in the gaps left behind here. 

What would be even more ideal, and fascinating, is if these ministries could move away from critiquing the nuances in each other’s approaches, and move instead toward dialogue with each other and enriching each other’s approaches.

Spiritual Friendship, Courage, Fr. Martin’s ministry each have their own strengths—their respective emphases on the redemption of homoerotic desire, healing of obstacles to chastity, and affirmation of one’s being unconditionally loved by Christ, as well as their weak points—perhaps SF’s ambiguity when it comes to questions of identity and the fallenness of nature, Courage’s lack of engagement with the changing understandings of the psychology of homosexuality and of identity, and everything above I said about Fr. Martin. 

And each of these ministries tend to draw in particular types of gay/SSA people, while repelling others. SF seems to be more for those who converted to Christianity and/or chose to adhere to a traditional Christian sexual ethic by their own volition, and are of a more intellectual/culturally-savvy bent (very few of whom have lived an “actively gay lifestyle”). Courage attracts 50+ boomers who had a wild old time during the sexual revolution and then had a dramatic come-to-Jesus moment once the reality of AIDS—or Jesus—set in. And Fr. Martin seems to be doing well with those who had to hide their homosexuality for fear of being rejected (or actually being rejected) by their conservative Christian parents. (Those are broad generalizations…please don’t take them 100% seriously).

Imagine the kinds of support they could offer if they they sought to learn from each other, while correcting each other’s errors/flaws when necessary. 

One can dare to dream…or pray!

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