Fr. James Martin Responds to Vatican Official’s Critique of New Book on LGBT Issues

Fr. James Martin, SJ, has responded to a high-ranking Vatican official’s critique of his new book, Building a Bridge. Their exchange is another step in the conversation on LGBT issues in the church into which Martin has helped breathe new life.

y648Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation on Divine Worship, sharply criticized Martin’s book in an essay for the Wall Street Journal. Sarah said Martin was “one of the most outspoken critics of the church’s message with regard to sexuality,” followed by the cardinal’s vigorous defense of Magisterium’s teachings on homosexuality.

The cardinal suggested that celibate lesbian and gay Catholics as the real witnesses to how the church should approach homosexuality. He wrote:

“It is my prayer that the world will finally heed the voices of Christians who experience same-sex attractions and who have discovered peace and joy by living the truth of the Gospel. I have been blessed by my encounters with them, and their witness moves me deeply. . .Their example deserves respect and attention, because they have much to teach all of us about how to better welcome and accompany our brothers and sisters in authentic pastoral charity.”


Cardinal Robert Sarah

Sarah has a strong LGBT-negative record, and has frequently condemned what he describes as “gender ideology.” Last year at the U.S. National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, the cardinal said transgender rights are “demonic” and marriage equality is a “poison.” During the 2015 Synod on the Family, Sarah said the LGBT rights movement had “demonic origins” and compared it to Nazism and fascism.  Bondings 2.0‘s Francis DeBernardo, who was part of the press corps at the meeting in Rome, deemed Sarah’s comments the Synod’s “most homophobic remark”.

Martin offered his reply to Cardinal Sarah in America magzine (which summarized the cardinal’s column, as well). He pushed back against Sarah’s claim that the book challenges church teaching. Martin said Building a Bridge, which is based on an address he gave upon receiving New Ways Ministry’s Bridge-Building Award last fall, is “not a book of moral theology. . .It is an invitation to dialogue and to prayer. . .” America reported further:

“Father Martin called Cardinal Sarah’s column ‘a step forward,’ noting that the cardinal used the term ‘L.G.B.T.,’ which a few traditionalist Catholics reject.’ . . .But, Father Martin said, the essay ‘misses a few important points,’ including a failure to acknowledge ‘the immense suffering that L.G.B.T. Catholics have felt at the hands of their church.’

Building a Bridge has been well received by many church officials, including counterparts of Cardinal Sarah who endorsed the book. Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Discastery for Laity, Family, and Life, called the book “welcome and much-needed.” Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark said it was “brave, prophetic, and inspiring.” Other figures on the book’s dust jacket include Sr. Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, and theologian James Alison.

Martin’s book and the conversation it has sparked are already having an impact, which Bondings 2.0 has covered here. Some Catholics have been critical of Building a Bridge, including such diverse voices as lesbian writer Jamie Manson, theologian David Cloutier, and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia.

Martin has thoughtfully responded to these critics and others through his social media channels and an interview with America. He has continued to be outspoken on LGBT equality as well, offering his own set of  propositions which affirm  LGBT people when Evangelical leaders released their LGBT-negative “Nashville Statement” recently.

Interestingly, Sarah has not received much approval from Pope Francis.  The pontiff targeted Sarah specifically in recent comments when he said, “with magisterial authority,” that Vatican II’s liturgical reforms were “irreversible,” a response critiquing the cardinal who is a liturgical traditionalist.

Where once Sarah’s views might have been backed by the Vatican through publication in L’Osservatore Romano, he now shares his opinion in a secular news outlet. And where once Martin’s book would have been, at best, denied an imprimatur and, at worst, led to an investigation against him, Vatican officials are now publicly endorsing the need for dialogue on LGBT issues in the church. Subtle though this change may be, it is still quite significant for LGBT Catholics and allies to remember in our ongoing work for full equality.

Bondings 2.0 will continue to follow the conversation around Building a Bridge. You can subscribe for daily updates on Catholic LGBT issues by using the box in the upper righthand corner of this page. If you have read Martin’s book, what do you think of it? Leave your thoughts or even a brief review in the ‘Comments’ section below.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, September 7, 2017

5 replies
  1. Jeannie Kirkhope
    Jeannie Kirkhope says:

    I so appreciate, enjoy and look forward to Bondings 2.0 articles. Somehow, despite all the pain, marginalization, negative critiques, these writings always find a sliver of hope, a silver lining, a spirit of mercy, and a lot of love. This one is especially good.

  2. John Hilgeman
    John Hilgeman says:

    I will welcome the day when Church officials can challenge the official teachings of the Church on LGBTQI issues, and not be silenced or punished. It is long past time for the teachings to be challenged. They may fly with tradition and doctrine. But they cannot pass the test of truth and reality.

  3. Barry Blackburn
    Barry Blackburn says:

    My heart feels lighter having read this by Robert Shine AND Father Martin’s affirmations re The Nashville Statement. Although we “wait for the Lord” He’s starting to speed up….

  4. Richard Rosendall
    Richard Rosendall says:

    Thank you for this. I look forward to reading Father Martin’s book. While I have cautioned people against treating the pope’s admirable pastoral instincts as a sign of impending doctrinal reform, it is encouraging that he is not in sync with conservatives like Cardinal Sarah. Also encouraging has been his handling of Cardinals Raymond Burke and Gerhard Ludwig Müller. Warmth and respect toward the Church’s LGBT children are not substitutes for substantive movement, and His Holiness has shown a lack of understanding of the science of gender identity; but his outreach, coupled with his personal humility and his eagerness to engage the modern world rather than hide from it, are necessary precursors to reform.

    My own response to the Nashville Statement, as well as to Trump rescinding DACA, is here:

    As a reminder that one should never burn bridges, I had occasion yesterday to praise Cardinal Dolan for his strong statement in defense of DACA. I lambasted him in 2011 for his anti-gay statements during the run-up to New York’s enactment of marriage equality. But it is important to give credit where due, and to be mindful that one small patch of common ground may lead to another.

  5. Richard J McIvor
    Richard J McIvor says:


    I met you, Sr Jeannine and Frank Bernardino when Pope Francis was in Philadelphia. My daughter is a trans woman, Venyamina.

    Thank you for this column in the unfolding story around Building a Bridge.

    Yes, it is very telling that Fr. James Martins book is supported by cardinals and at the Vatican, in however small a way, and that Cardinal Sarah’s response is in the Wall St. Journal.

    In my Philadelphia support group PFLAG (Philadelphia Parents and Friends of LG (B and T)) I’m struck by how many people come in ostracised by their rejection due to their sexual orientation and also by their rejection through the churches (Archbishop Chaput affects our lives here).

    As Pope Francis has said “Jesus does not say go away because you are homosexual”. He also says Jesus reaches out to those most rejected by society.

    My God continue to bless your work,

    Richard McIvor


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