Fr. James Martin, SJ, has received a variety of different responses to his recent book on LGBT issues in the Catholic church (Building A Bridge). One recent exchange on social media revealed just how harsh and childish some critics can be, and how well Martin is choosing to respond.
Austin Ruse, who writes for the alt-right website Breitbart and is president of a right-wing organization (which used to be identified as Catholic but has since become secular) that opposes LGBT equality, attacked Martin on Twitter recently. According to the National Catholic Reporter, Ruse used harsh anti-gay slurs, and said the priest was leading lesbian and gay people to hell.
Ruse’s comments were a response to another Twitter controversy during which the conservative website CatholicVote.org had tweeted, “And then this Dominican showed up and started beating @JamesMartinSJ like a rented mule. The crowd went wild.”
But against such vile language and even the implicit threat of violence, Fr. Martin has responded with integrity and solidarity. He explained his decision to respond on Facebook:
“I almost never engage with hateful social media comments. But this time was different. For me, it represented, in the first place, the crossing of a line by a prominent Catholic website (the encouragement of violence even in a joking way is beyond the pale); and in the second, a teachable moment brought about by a slur (‘pansy’), about homophobia in our church, even in high echelons.”
In another Facebook post, Martin acknowledged that LGBT people face “hatred and contempt” every day and he hoped that through the support of community he would try to”make them feel like beloved children of God.”
Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter defended Martin as a “gifted spiritual writer” and “gentle soul,” while calling Ruse a white nationalist “fire-eater.” He stated:
“To most American Catholics, Martin is one of the sons in whom we take the most pride, a churchman who helps others grow in their relationship with the church and with its head, Jesus, a priest who makes ancient traditions accessible to modern readers. And, to those of us who have known him as a colleague, the private Fr. Martin shines with the same wit and holiness and pastoral solicitude as the readers encounter in his writing. He is a treasure and his works will be read long after the fire-eaters have been forgotten.”
Winters’ defense of Martin is especially important since the columnist disagreed with parts of the priest’s book. Winters said Building a Bridge was “not my favorite book” on homosexuality, and like other reviewers quibbled with Martin’s decision to forgo any discussion of sexual ethics. Winters also said he thinks there are theological hurdles to the LGBT discussion and “some of those hurdles may prove insurmountable.”
A wide spectrum of reviewers have critiqued Building a Bridge, from Jamie Manson of the National Catholic Reporter to Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. But despite these critiques, Martin’s book is having an impact on the church. He has used it to breathe new life into the conversation on LGBT issues in the church, and has likely opened the eyes (and possibly hearts) of Catholics who might be less affirming of LGBT people. If nothing else, he is using his high profile platform to help eradicate in the church the kind of hate speech used by Ruse and those faithful like him. For his efforts, Winters is right: Martin will surely be remembered long after his vile critics are forgotten.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, September 14, 2017