The following is a statement by Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director, New Ways Ministry, in response to the decision by a national Catholic seminary to disinvite Fr. James Martin, SJ, due to criticism of his new book on LGBT issues.
Theological College, a national seminary in Washington, D.C., has delivered a devastating blow to the Catholic Church, academic freedom, and pastoral outreach to LGBT people by canceling the speaking engagement of Jesuit Father James Martin because some social media sites have criticized his book, Building a Bridge, which encourages dialogue between the institutional church and the LGBT community.
The decision is an impotent one in which the seminary’s leaders reveal that they are powerless to stand up to commentators whose views are beyond the mainstream of Catholic thought. It reveals cowardice on the part of the seminary’s administrators who do not have integrity to withstand pressure from outside forces, and instead opt for censorship instead of discussion.
Unless it reverses its decision, Theological College’s renown as an academic institution is irreparably damaged. Worse yet, the decision does great damage to the tenuous relationship between the Catholic Church and the LGBT community which Fr. Martin’s book has already been strengthening. Scores of Catholic parishes and colleges have welcomed Fr. Martin to speak since the publication of Building a Bridge.
It is astonishing that the seminary leaders did not side with the two cardinals and a bishop who praised Fr. Martin’s book as it was being published. One of those cardinals, Kevin Farrell, is the head of Congregation for Laity, Family, and Life at the Vatican. Indeed, Fr. Martin himself is a Vatican consultor on communications. What could possibly motivate the seminary rector, Fr. Gerald McBrearity, to feel that he could not let a speaker with the impressive credentials and Vatican approval that Fr. Martin has to speak in an academic setting?
This decision is ludicrous for two other reasons. First, Fr. Martin was not scheduled to speak on the book in question or on the area of LGBT issues. He, instead, was speaking on his book about the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. Second, by his own acknowledgement, and the reviews of many scholars, Building a Bridge is a mild book, whose most strong claim is that Church leaders should treat LGBT people with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity”–ideals which are demanded by Catholic doctrine in the Catechism.
Theological College’s statement said that Fr. McBrearity made the decision “in the interest of avoiding distraction and controversy.” Based on those criteria, the decision is an epic failure as, in fact, it will attract more controversy than Fr. Martin’s speaking appearance would ever have done. It tarnishes the reputation of the school and of the Catholic Church in the U.S. It makes Catholic leaders look censorious and small-minded. Indeed, almost everyone in the Catholic Church has been discussing LGBT issues over the past decade. Why should a book whose aim is reconciliation on this topic be cause for barring a celebrated author from speaking?
Since its publication early this summer, Fr. Martin’s Building a Bridge was reaching a wide audience of church leaders, including many bishops. In my travels to several Catholic professional and ecclesial conferences these past few months, everyone said they had read, were reading, or intended to read the book. All who had read it spoke of its great value. Instead of being a danger to the church, all saw it as a great gift. Despite this setback, the conversation on LGBT issues in the church to which Building a Bridge has given new life will still continue.
Fr. Martin is experiencing the rejection of many who speak out prophetically. It is the same rejection experienced by millions of Jesus’ followers and, indeed, by Jesus Himself. For the sake of Fr. Martin, for Catholic academics, and for LGBT Catholics, we pray this sorry and shameful action by Theological College will soon be reversed.
To ask Theological College to reverse its decision disinviting Fr. Martin, write to:
Reverend Gerald McBrearity, Rector
401 Michigan Avenue, NE
Washington, DC 20017
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, September 16, 2017