Much has been said lately by Catholics more qualified than myself concerning Fr. James Martin, SJ’s new book, “Building Bridges,” an attempt at reaching out to the LGBT community. I want to say right from the start that I approve entirely of an outreach to that group that so often feels ostracized. They are human beings, beloved by God, and called to love Him in return. My concern has to do with the shape that outreach takes.
It seemed wise at first to keep my own mouth shut concerning the matter. As I said, there are many others more qualified than myself. Then again, Martin has (in)famously tried to insulate himself from criticism by claiming, “I’m not a theologian.” Why would a Jesuit do the disservice to his order of claiming not to be a theologian – if Martin isn’t, how few Jesuits really are? I’m looking at you, Fr. Thomas Reese – when the order itself is centered tightly around theology. We know the answer, of course. It’s akin to a rebellious teenager staying out all night partying and then, when he stumbles in at half past eight the next morning, his parents stopping him with arms crossed, excusing himself, “I’m just a kid. I’m not an adult. Why are you being so harsh?!” It’s disingenuous to do the work of a theologian, to push speculative theology and champion half-baked theories rather than time-tested doctrine and then, when you get caught doing a poor job, claim that you’re not really a theologian at all. If he is not, then he ought not to have written the book. So with all that in mind, I – also not a theologian – will chime in with impunity. After all, I’m only following his example.
When I was a youth minister, I was approached by an elderly parishioner who insisted I dispense with the doctrine and just try to make sure the kids had fun. “My daughter is no longer practicing the faith,” he sighed. “Make sure they just have lots of fun so they’ll stay Catholic.”
I responded that if all I gave the youth was fun, they would certainly leave the Catholic Church very quickly. He looked puzzled. “The Catholic Church,” I finally answered, “will never be able to compete with the world on the world’s terms. Young people must be approached initially on those terms. We must meet them where they are. But to leave them there is not to help them. We must transform them into saints. We must attract them to what the Church has to offer, we must compete on the Church’s terms, so that when their whole world is spinning around them, the Catholic Church is at the center of their lives – stable, still, a reference point upon which they may rely.”
We hear a lot about accompanying sinners. Good. That’s important. But we need to accompany them to a specific destination. Our Lord made followers. He went into their synagogues and into their homes. He truly accompanied them. But none of their worldly concerns would turn Him from His own journey toward Calvary. They could join Him or they could stay behind. “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead” (Mt 8:22). He did not linger, He did not obsess over making sure that they were following along. Another way of putting this is that He respected their freedom. Never in Jesus’ ministry did He attempt to avoid difficult topics or water down the truth in order to keep His followers when they otherwise might reject Him. In fact, John 6 shows us quite the opposite. Faced with His teaching on the Eucharist, many left Him, and the one disbeliever who did continue to follow Him did so in order to betray Him. It’s terrible that some left, but His approach respected them as persons.
Jesus’ journey to Calvary is a difficult one. It is fraught with peril and discomfort, pain and suffering. Yet He invites us to carry our crosses and follow Him. In fact, He says clearly, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few” (Mt. 7:13-14) We are invited to walk this path with Jesus, this road that leads to life, but it is a difficult journey.
There are many things we can do to make this an easier journey. We can pack enough of the spiritual food that truly nourishes, we can drink deeply of the Holy Spirit. We can uproot the vines and snares of sin and temptation that line the path. But there is one thing we cannot do: we cannot make the path any wider. None of us at all can force it open for more people to walk it. Each man, woman, and child must walk the path himself, single-file, rather than side by side. This is more than a difficulty, it is what makes the path effective. If we widen it, if we push the uneven ground and the weeds to far-off shoulders, it no longer makes us grow in virtue. It is no longer a saving path. Authentic outreach means meeting people where they are and leading them to Christ. What this outreach needs to be is a holy man walking the path and calling others to follow him, convincing them through genuine catechesis that this path is the one that leads to life, helping them to understand how it will make them happier and holier, even while it may bring some passing sadness and difficulty, and giving them hope in heaven and the resurrection, so that they know they will arrive at refreshment and renewal.
Martin has looked at this path and found it offensive. He’s off to the side offering a 5-lane commuter bridge. That is not – and can’t be – the way Christ wants us to approach Him.
Valid questions might arise: Has Martin’s approach to outreach made any converts? Has it made any saints? Or has it made people who claim the name “Catholic” while still choosing to live far from Christ? How many of his followers attempt to live a life of celibacy in accord with Church teaching?
My concern is that this spirit of “pride” in sinful lifestyles is a real problem. It stings a bit for most of us when we are called out for our sins, but we haven’t been taught to identify ourselves by them and take pride in them. We don’t go around holding “Adulterer Pride” parades. (To be clear: we’re all sinners, and some of us quite proudly so, but not as a movement.) The Tower of Babel was built by the descendants of Ham, cursed by Noah for their father’s sin, as an alternate way to reach heaven. The Bible tells us they wanted to “make a name for themselves.” In Hebrew, the word for “name” is “Shem,” the brother of Ham who had been blessed by Noah. The implication is clear: the Hammites, cursed in their sin, pridefully sought an alternate way to reach heaven in order to usurp the blessing of their cousins, the Shemites. How did it work out for them? The Tower of Babel was destroyed and they were put to great confusion.
How will Martin’s bridge do in its place?