'You are in a church that is still learning how to love you,' Jesuit priest tells LGBTQ Catholics

Father James Martin is a noted advocate for the LGBTQ community. He says there is much the Catholic church can do now to offer its support, even without changing church doctrine. Martin explains the difference between sadness and despair, and what The Lord of the Rings can teach us about morality.

Father James Martin disapproves of schools banning transgender kids from using their chosen pronouns

Father James Martin (Submitted by Father James Martin)

Father James Martin says there is a lot the Catholic Church can do to support the LGBTQ community. His work as a leading advocate got the attention of Pope Francis, who has been in correspondence with him on this issue.

Martin is a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America Magazine, and the author of several titles including his most recent book, Learning to Pray. He also made regular appearances on Stephen Colbert's The Colbert Report.

Martin Scorsese produced a documentary film about Father James Martin's work based on his book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. The documentary, titled Building a Bridge, was selected to be part of the Tribeca Film Festival in June 2021.

Martin spoke with Tapestry host Mary Hynes about the difference between sadness and despair, the Jesuit teaching of finding God in the everyday, and what The Lord of the Rings can teach us about morality. 

Here is part of their conversation.

So much of your work over the last few years has been in the LGBTQ realm. And as a Catholic priest, you have a really interesting vantage point on all of this. As I'm talking to you, we're at the start of a new school year in many places around the world.

And there are Catholic school boards where using a student's preferred pronouns is banned. Teachers aren't allowed to grant that request. What's your message to the people in charge at those Catholic schools?

I think one of the most important things is to remember how at risk transgender kids are and how vulnerable they are, how much they are sort of at risk for suicide, how persecuted they are, how bullied they are, beaten they are, and how excluded they are. And I think that Catholic schools should bend over backwards to try to take care of people who are in any way on the margins.

This is what Jesus does. And I think transgender youth are amongst the most marginalized and persecuted of people. And so something small, seemingly small, which is using preferred pronouns, can be a great help to them. 

One of the things I've learned from transgender people is how important that is in their own self-identity and in feeling safe in an environment. And so I think it's a fairly simple thing to do to make someone feel safe. And this idea that we're banning them somehow just seems really at odds with what a Catholic school should be — which is [to be] a welcoming place for everybody, particularly a kid who might feel marginalized or excluded or rejected. And so, frankly, I don't understand the opposition to it. 

What would you say to the students at those schools, transgender students, who are perhaps being told, "Look, you'll use the pronouns we give you?"

I would say you are in a church that is still learning how to love you. I would quote a Jesuit priest named Howard Greg who often told LGBTQ kids: "God loves you, and your church is learning to love you."

I think that Catholic schools should bend over backwards to try to take care of people who are in any way on the margin.- Father James Martin

You've written a number of books. One of the more recent ones is called Building a Bridge.... And you write about an us-versus-them mentality that seems to have taken hold in pockets of the church and how that really needs to be dissolved. What's that about, do you think? Where does that mindset come from?

It's primarily fear. The New Testament says perfect love drives out fear, which is a beautiful sentiment. Well, I think perfect fear drives out love. And so what you have is fear of the LGBTQ person as the other. As different, as strange, as a threat. You have certain people in the church who themselves are struggling with their own sexuality.

When someone is doing that, there's a need to kind of impose order on one's self, to clamp down. And therefore, one also imposes order on the outside. And so it's very much black-and-white, us-versus-them.

Ignatian spirituality also teaches that everything in life is part of the spiritual path, whether it's work or money or sex or depression or sickness or ambition. What was your response when you learned that that's all part of your spiritual life?

It was very freeing. So the idea is that every moment is an opportunity to encounter God. Now, I think it's only the saints that can really be aware of that all the time. But your encounter with God is not confined to within the walls of the church or a temple or a mosque. It's not confined just to Sundays or the times when you're doing spiritual reading or even listening to a podcast like this. It's really all moments in your life.

It's interactions with your family, with people at work, with friends. It's looking at the sun and being happy. It's looking at flowers along the side of the road or in your garden and seeing, sort of, God's hand in that. Every moment is an opportunity to encounter God. 

That's one of the great summaries of Ignatian spirituality, is finding God in all things. It's very freeing because it really explodes your ideas of where God can be found, because God can be found everywhere.

WATCH | Martin Scorsese talks to Father James Martin about his faith

I'm very curious about this idea that, if you're in a tough situation, say, at work or at home, be the leaven! You can add light and air to your surroundings. You can do what leavening does in actual dough. Tell me about that. 

I have to say that's not original to me, that's from a gospel passage. You know, Jesus calls us to be yeast or leaven. And he's using that as an example of the reign of God — how it starts from something small. 

If you're the only one that's in a situation where, let's say people are being mean to each other or sarcastic or nasty, you don't have to participate in that. And you can be the one that is the leaven of good feelings and positivity and hopefulness, for example. 

I think in the middle of the pandemic, one of the surest ways of seeing where God is and where God isn't, is God is not in despair. But God is in hope. And so if you, for example, in your family or amongst your friends, can be the person who is still hopeful, I think that's a real service. 

I'm going to be very candid at this point. I'm not sure I even remember how to be anything other than despairing. I'm really sad right now. I'm thinking of the state of the planet, I'm thinking of the pandemic, I'm thinking of all kinds of environmental moments and wildfires and air quality and icebergs melting. And I hear what you're saying about, it's better to be hopeful than despair. But I've kind of reached the point where despair is the thing that makes sense.

I would draw a good Jesuit distinction between being sad and being upset, and despairing. So for me, despair is basically saying nothing will ever or can ever change. There is no hope left anywhere and God cannot use this in any way to change things. 

You'd be a robot if you weren't sad. But this despair of utter hopelessness, that's simply not Christian. It's the sort of reaction of the disciples after the crucifixion: "That's it, everything is over." And we see in so many different ways in our world ... that despair is really not accurate.

I was a little surprised, a lot delighted, to hear you describe The Lord of the Rings to people on a spiritual path, the books or the film masterpiece, as a way of understanding what's at stake in the world. As a way of thinking about good and evil as real presences in real life. Tell me what you're thinking on that front.

[J.R.R.] Tolkien was a believer, and I think one of the things that is being played out there is this battle between good and evil. And we can look around and just see signs of that in the world. And I'm not labelling anyone good or evil, but we can see signs of selfishness and greed and hatred and anger in the world — even if you don't believe in it as a personified force like Satan. And then we can look at ourselves and we can see the forces of selfishness and selflessness. 

Ignatius uses the image of a battle and he says: "You have to pick what standard you want to choose." The standard of Christ, or God, or the standard of Satan.

One of my favourite lines is: "Original sin is the only provable theological argument." What does that mean? Well, because we all can look at ourselves and say: "I'm kind of sinful. I can be a jerk sometimes or mean or selfish." So you don't have to go really far to see original sin. And you don't have to go too far in the outside world to see how it plays out, to see how real hatred and cruelty play out. We see that all the time. So it is a battle. It's a battle within and it's a battle without.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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