INTERVIEW: Fr. James Martin on the Second Edition of “Building a Bridge”

Fr. James Martin, SJ, is releasing a revised and expanded edition of Building a Bridge, his book on the relationship between the LGBT community and  the Catholic Church. The main portion of the book is based on an address he gave upon receiving New Ways Ministry’s Bridge Building Award in October 2016. Since its publication last year, Bondings 2.0 has covered the conversation surrounding the book and you can find those posts by clicking here.

Today, Bondings 2.0 features Fr. Martin’s first interview about what has been added in the new edition, how he responds to critics, and why the book has both challenged and consoled him. The questions are in boldface italics.


Robert Shine (RS): You have added the stories of people you met when at speaking engagements and other events. Why is storytelling such an important part of this conversation?

James Martin (JM): First, because it’s essential to hear from LGBT Catholics themselves.  The first edition of the book was mainly my own thoughts on how the institutional church and LGBT Catholics could draw closer together.  Of course, those thoughts were based on my interactions with both groups, but in this edition, I really wanted to give voice to LGBT people themselves: to allow readers to hear their own stories.

Second, I think we learn best from stories.  When I was writing my book on Jesus a few years ago, I came upon a great quote from Walter Brueggemann, the Scripture scholar, who said that the deep places of our lives—places of “resistance and embrace,” as he termed them–are not reached by definitions as much as by stories.

This is one reason why Jesus taught so frequently with stories—parables.  When he’s asked about the reign of God he doesn’t give a definition, he tells a story.  A definition can sometimes close the mind down; a story can open it up. So I wanted to share stories from the lives of LGBT Catholics to help open up a few minds.


Father James Martin SJ

In the revised edition, you emphasize that it is the institutional church which has “the main responsibility” to initiate dialogue and reconciliation because of the harm it has caused. How can church leaders take up this responsibility today? Why are so many choosing to not do so?

JM: Primarily by listening to LGBT Catholics.  A few months ago, Cardinal Blase Cupich signaled his intention to have “listening sessions” with LGBT people in the Archdiocese of Chicago.  That’s a great step forward.  For how can we minister to people if we don’t listen to them?  Only then will we know to “accompany them,” as Pope Francis has said, and, more importantly, as Jesus would want. Beyond that, church leaders can take up this task by simply becoming friends with them. We have seriously underestimated the value of friendship in this sphere.  Nothing so changes a person’s understanding of a formerly marginalized, or hated group, as simply becoming friends with one of them.

Why are so many choosing not to do so?  That’s hard to say. For some, I would suspect, it’s fear.  You can’t underestimate the role of fear in all of this.  Fear of the LGBT person as the “other.”  Fear of the very idea of same-sex relations.  Fear that talking to them will be seen as “caving.”  Maybe even fear of their own complicated sexuality.  And perhaps an unconscious fear that they might learn something new, and that will force them to change their thinking.

But fear is rampant.  As the New Testament says, perfect love drives out fear. But I would add that perfect fear drives out love.  And that makes it harder to choose to listen.


RS: While supported by many LGBT people and institutional church leaders, the first edition of Building a Bridge was also criticized from both sides of the bridge. What were some of the more constructive ideas from critics that helped inform your revisions?

JM: There were many.  Certainly, the need to be clearer in a few areas.  Your second question highlights one area: a few readers told me that they felt I was unclear about where the burden for the work of reconciliation fell.  So now that’s explicit in the new edition: it falls primarily on the institutional church, because it’s the church that has made the LGBT Catholic feel marginalized, not the other way around.  Second, the need for more women’s voices in the book: several lesbian friends pointed that out, and so I’ve included many more.

Finally, an important point came up while speaking to an LGBT outreach group at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York.  While I still feel that respectful dialogue with church leaders is the most effective way of building bridges, they pointed out that most LGBT Catholics have no real access to bishops, archbishops and cardinals.  As a priest, I do have avenues open to me—more than many lay people do.  In other words, that “lane” of the bridge is closed to many LGBT Catholics. As Jason Steidl, an openly gay theologian and a member of the group pointed out, sometimes protest is the only way that LGBT Catholics can express themselves.  Sometimes that’s their “charism.”  So I made more room for that idea in the book.


RS: In both editions, you’ve noted that the LGBT community and Catholic leadership are too far apart on sexual ethics for them to be able to have a conversation about the topic.  Beyond pastoral matters, what are some theological or other issues about which LGBT Catholics and the institutional church could dialogue about more deeply?

JM: That’s a great question.  The second half of the book, as you know, is about prayer.  So I wonder if church leaders and LGBT Catholics could look anew at some of the Gospel passage that I include to meditate on how Jesus reached out to those on the margins. I’m convinced that certain Gospel stories—the woman at the well, the Roman centurion who asks for healing for his servant, and the story of Zacchaeus—can help disclose new meaning about LGBT people, if we let them.

Also, given the high number of LGBT suicides in this country, especially among youth, and the fact that simply being gay is punishable by death in several counties, I wonder if we might could start to consider the ways that LGBT issues are often “life issues.”

Finally, we need to reflect on how the official language of the Catechism—“objectively disordered,” “intrinsically disordered”—affects LGBT people, especially young people.  One mother of a gay son, whom I quote in the new edition, said that this kind of language could “destroy” a young person.  Her voice is an important part of the theological conversation around this issue.  Can we do theology with her and her child in mind?


RS: In the Scriptural reflections for the revised edition (a section often overlooked in reviews of the first edition), you have added the story from John’s Gospel of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman. Feminist readings have suggested this woman is actually the first disciple, and it is a story used to promote the inclusion of women in church leadership. Do you see the causes of LGBT inclusion and gender equality as linked? If so, how?

Definitely.  One of the New Testament scholars I quote in that chapter say that there are two reasons why Jesus “shouldn’t” be talking to her, at least according to the norms of his times: she’s a Samaritan and she’s a woman.  While my book is focused on the LGBT community, the larger message is one of full inclusion.  So the two are linked.

We need to meditate on how Jesus listens to the Samaritan woman, who was almost certainly a marginalized figure in her community.  (Many New Testament scholars suggest that the reason she goes to the well in the heat of the day is because of her embarrassment over her many marriages.)  It’s one of the longest interactions Jesus has with anyone in the Gospels—longer than with many of the disciples. (The scene of the Last Supper’s “Last Discourse,” for example, is more a speech, and not as much of a back and forth.)  Jesus is really engaging this person on the margins.  Can we do the same?  Can we listen?


In the revised edition, you highlight in greater detail the crisis of LGBT church workers being fired because of their sexuality and/or gender identity. These incidents highlight the power disparity between LGBT Catholics and the institutional church. Dialogue requires vulnerability. But why should LGBT Catholics make themselves vulnerable with the very church leaders who are ruining the lives of other LGBT people?

JM: First of all, I don’t want to minimize the pain that LGBT Catholics have experienced. Since the book was published, I’ve been overwhelmed by LGBT Catholics telling me the most appalling stories of how the church has mistreated them.  A young autistic man recently told me that after he came out to his family, his pastor told him that he could no longer receive Communion with the rest of his parish.  And by the way, this man was not in any sort of sexual relationship with anyone.  That’s just appalling.

But second, not every church leader is ruining the lives of LGBT people.  There are several cardinals, archbishops and bishops who are allies.  Just look at those who have endorsed or praised Building a Bridge.  Not to mention all the priests, deacons, brothers, sisters and lay leaders who are loving and welcoming.

Still, entering into dialogue with someone you feel is an enemy in this case is worth it. For several reasons.  To begin with, the person may need to meet LGBT people. If he or she doesn’t, how will he or she learn anything?  Forgiveness also has to enter the picture somehow: otherwise how is this a Christian approach?  Finally, it’s necessary if LGBT Catholics hope to effect change.  That is, it might be painful, but it’s essential.

Overall, my experience is that once most church leaders come to know LGBT people things really begin to change.  I had lunch with a bishop a few months ago and after a long conversation about the book he said, “By the way, I need to tell you something: my nephew is gay.” That relationship had really informed his understanding of LGBT issues.


RS: The revised edition includes discussion questions at the end. One of the final questions asks how the book challenged and consoled the reader. How has the experience of writing, sharing, and now revising the book challenged you? How has it consoled you? Where do you see the Holy Spirit moving you next?

JM: It’s challenged me a great deal.  As you know, the book stirred up incredibly strong reactions—both positive and negative.   The positive ones have far outweighed the negative.  But even the intensity of the positive reactions—tears, hugging, long letters and messages—has been something I’ve needed to take to prayer.  Over the past few weeks, hundreds of people have written to me asking advice and counsel.  So it’s been both gratifying and a challenge.

As for consolation, it’s come in prayer. I had a tremendously powerful experience in prayer, around this book, during my last retreat. But the consolation also comes when I meet LGBT Catholics who share their stories with me in person.  Whenever that happens, I am reminded that all the negative reactions pale next to a grateful person’s story.

As for the Holy Spirit, well, I felt moved to write this revised edition soon after the first edition as published.  That did feel like the work of the Spirit. And lately I’ve been feeling moved to advocate for people who are being fired because of their orientation.

Beyond that, on this topic, I’m willing to be led by the Spirit.  And in my experience the Spirit is hard to predict.  So we’ll see!

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Editor’s Note:  The revised and expanded edition of Building a Bridge will be released on March 6, 2018. It is available for pre-order on Amazon. For more information, visit or check your local bookstore.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 20, 2018

2 replies
  1. Barry Blackburn
    Barry Blackburn says:

    This is a magnificent interview because it is thoughtful and has depth. Fr. Martin is really on to something when he talks about the power of “story” re dialogue with the Church and the LGBTQ community (our communities!). As a teacher I would albeit rarely take an immediate dislike to a student that was almost visceral and intense. How to deal with this? I determined to go out of my way to be nice although everything in my gut rebelled against this. I tried to be pleasant and friendly in a simple and appropriate way. It worked every time. Both the student and I calmed right down and the issue of dislike and distance vanished. Perhaps this is a hopeful parable for dialogue between us and the Church!


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