Does a Martyr's Sexual Orientation Matter? James Martin, SJ, says "Yes!"

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer a gay man? This question about the famed theologian and martyr’s private life will likely never be answered conclusively, but evidence points to ‘yes’ — and this ‘yes’ has major implications according to Jesuit Fr. James Martin.

Martin published a Facebook post (and Twitter) last Wednesday taking up the question of Bonhoeffer’s sexuality after reading a new biography of the German theologian , Strange Glory by Charles Marsh. After offering high praise for Marsh’s work, Martin writes:

“But the biggest surprise for me was his intense, even romantic, relationship with his friend Eberhard Bethge. It was something that I don’t remember reading before. Was Bonhoeffer gay? It would seem so, particularly based on his letters to Bethge. Yes, I know that times were different and men often wrote passionate letters to one another, but Marsh’s book, without sensationalizing the matter all (and underlining the fact that the relationship was not physical), makes it hard for the reader to draw any other conclusion. It’s one of the most striking aspects of the book: Bonhoeffer seemed first infatuated and then in love with Bethge.”

Linked to Martin’s post is an interview with Marsh from Religion and Politics. He explains why one can comfortably conclude Bonhoeffer was a gay man:

“Over the years, I’ve gone to many Bonhoeffer conferences. This subject has been discussed often over meals and drinks and beers, but it’s never been discussed in an academic session or a lecture. But there’s been conversation among scholars for as long as I can remember. What I had that scholars didn’t have, and do now, is the body of letters that Bonhoeffer and Eberhard exchanged…

“The challenge for trying to narrate this complicated relationship is, on the one hand, it was a chaste relationship. It was a relationship that was centered on their shared love of Jesus and shared devotional practices and it had a kind of liturgical shape to it…Even so, in a curious letter—I think it’s kind of a humorous letter—after Bonhoeffer had matched Eberhard’s engagement with his own engagement, he wrote to say, ‘Now, we can resume our partnership, and we can travel together in those places where we found so much joy, and we can leave our wives back in Germany, in Berlin, or some place.’…

“[T]his is not my own attempt to sensationalize a relationship. If anything, I tried to capture it and respect it in its uniqueness, and not politicize it or insinuate. It was understood as a unique relationship, a different kind of relationship, in 1935 and 1936. The letters that we have now between Bonhoeffer and Eberhard are love letters, at least Bonhoeffer’s letters to Eberhard.”

Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and theologian when he died in 1945, executed by the Nazis for his involvement in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler. In life and in death, Bonhoeffer has inspired Christians to be engaged in the historical events of this world and has helped Christians do theology from the perspective of suffering and marginalized peoples. So what to make of these letters and Bonhoeffer’s sexuality in general? Martin concludes:

“Does it matter if Dietrich Bonhoeffer was gay or not? Yes it does. Very much. It matters because it reminds us that people with homosexual orientations can be holy–very holy, even martyrs.”

Rev. James Martin, SJ

Rev. James Martin, SJ

This is not the first time that James Martin, who is editor-at-large for America magazine, has highlighted LGBT issues in a positive light. Last year, he called on Catholic leaders to #SaySomethingPositive about lesbian and gay people — or at the very least not include critiques each time they made a statement on LGBT issues. Martin also applauded NBA player Jason Collins for coming out and commemorated PFLAG founder Jeanne Manford on his Facebook page. Most recently, he explored the reasons why LGBT people feel the Catholic Church hates them and offered suggestions for improving this dynamic.

Highlighting the reality that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals are not only members of Christ’s body, but frequently in the ranks of saints and martyrs.  They make important contributions to a church that is not yet fully inclusive. To help create respect for the positive contributions LGBT church workers and ministers are making in our world today, it is sometimes helpful to look to the past and see all that LGBT and ally people have done.

Bonhoeffer’s life is but one example, but it is a most powerful one. Let us pray that more Catholic leaders will acknowledge this reality.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

6 replies
  1. Terence
    Terence says:

    From the earliest years of the church, through to modern times, the ranks of saints and martyrs have included men and women whom modern language would describe as “gay” (and also trans). Sergius and Bacchus are the best known, but there are many more. Some are formally canonized by the Catholic Church, some acknowledged by acclamation, some Protestants like Bonhoffer are honoured by their own denominations but not the Vatican. It’s good to see Fr Martin drawing attention to the importance of this.

  2. frtoddscull
    frtoddscull says:

    Thank you for your posting, and for asking the Church via its leadership to acknowledge queer spiritual leaders (I prefer this term to LGBTIQ; its more inclusive). As a gay priest, I also want to honor those faithful who consummate their love through a sexual relationship, and especially those who martyr themselves by losing jobs and ministerial positions within the Church for giving that God-given gift of sexual orientation to each other in a committed relationship, and marriage. Creed must always be held accountable for a living faith, otherwise it is another, more insidious form of idolatry. If Jesus praised the faith of the Canaanite woman, the Church should honor the faith of queer Christians and celebrate the expression of this by standing witness to their marriage vows.

  3. Artemae Anderson
    Artemae Anderson says:

    I have difficulty with Marsh’s statement that they had a “chaste relationship”, tying this to their seeming celibacy. We are all called to chastity, whether celibate or not. Even the Catechism does not use them as synonyms (#2348, 2349) until homosexuality is discussed (2359).

  4. shoofoolatte
    shoofoolatte says:

    I thought that Bonhoeffer was in fact “engaged” and that there are also “romantic” letters between him and his fiancé (who was quite a few years younger than him, if I remember correctly). I will check back in the bio that I read of him a few years ago.


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  1. […] own stories of being an LGBT Catholic or having a loved one who is.  This post was similar to Martin’s 2014 post when he said the sexual orientation of theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who some have […]

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