Have Catholic Theologians Been Too Quiet About Fr. James Martin’s “Building a Bridge”?

The blog Daily Theology had an interesting back-and-forth about Fr. James Martin, SJ’s book, Building a Bridge. The conversation centered on whether academic theologians have sufficiently engaged a book that has been making sizable waves in the Church, as well as about who should be  doing public theology.

Kevin Ahern

Kevin  Ahern, an assistant professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, said Building a Bridge has revealed “a crisis or perhaps even a failure in our public theology.” Martin, Ahern acknowledged, is not the first theologian or minister to be attacked by the right-wing partisans on “Catholic Twitter.” But the vitriol the Jesuit priest receives has certainly been intense. Ahern wrote:

“In this new online space of  ‘Catholic Twitter,’ theology is operating at multiple levels–as everyone from the Pope and bishops to average Christians strive to understand their faith in the midst of a challenging world. But what about academic theologians?

“While a few prominent theologians voiced support for Fr. Martin, the absence of strong statements of support from academic theologians, including those who write on sexual ethics and ecclesiology, was notable. I was truly surprised by the relative silence by my colleagues even as speaking events at universities (including Theological College at Catholic University of America) were cancelled. There are many possible reasons for this, including lack of time, fear of being denied tenure, lack of engagement on social media, a feeling like Fr. Martin is not saying anything new, an academic distance from prayer, spirituality and pastoral issues, or a failure to really grasp the power of these hate groups on the Catholic community. It’s easier to look the other way and there is a legitimate concern that engaging online vilification will give the angry voices more power. . .

“Who is directing the narrative of public theology today? Have academic theologians ceded the public discourse on theology to a handful of academics, non-canonically recognized groups, journalists, and vocal individual with a lot of time on their hands?

Jason Steidl

Jason Steidl, a theology doctoral candidate at Fordham University, responded to Ahern’s criticism of academic theologians and their engagement or lack thereof in public theology. Steidl, who identified himself as “a gay ecclesiologist and one deeply involved in LGBTQ pastoral ministry” said he has followed closely the debate over Building a Bridge. He wrote:

“Reading Kevin’s article made me think of my friends and mentors in the academy who have employed public theologies in books, articles, lectures, workshops, and conferences to affirm LGBTQ people for decades. They have paid a heavy price for their work yet choose to remain aloof from public engagement defending Building a Bridge. Why is this? It is important that we ask them.

“I thought of organizations such as New Ways Ministry and Dignity, which have been doing public theology and queer ministry for generations. Many have also issued public statements in support of James Martin’s work. Do these count as public theologies? Who decides what counts as theology?

“I thought of an LGBTQ-affirming friend and pastor of a Catholic parish who has endured assault after assault by the alt-right and his diocese, yet remains steadfast in his support of open LGBTQ ministry. His public theology has communicated spiritual life and reconciliation to hundreds of queer people. He has challenged and changed the local Church in visible and radical ways. He has no interest in engaging internet disputes.

“I thought of my married LGBTQ Catholic friends, whose presence at a Catholic parish prophesies against systematic homophobia and institutional prejudice. The God they publicly serve has nothing to do with the far right’s condemnations. Their theology is public, too, and demands that the Church recognize the goodness of their love that comes from God.

“I thought of my queer friends who wonder out loud about sexual experiences in light of their Catholic faith. What does it mean to be LGBTQ and Catholic? What gives spiritual life and what steals it away? Is Grindr acceptable? This is personal, and often public, theology. Queer communities are discerning these questions for the first time. Will theologians listen?

“I thought of young queer people in CCD asking their religion teachers why the Catholic Church hates LGBTQ people. How can these teens join a religious community that excludes them and their friends? Many have challenged their bishops directly. The Jesus these young people know has nothing to do with homophobia and transphobia. These brave young prophets offer us public theology without apology.”

Steidl said, too, that he had done his own public theology from his experience in LGBTQ communities. And it is in these circles, the theologian claimed, where God was moving, and not in public debates. Building a Bridge, in his estimation, is doing much good. To conclude, Steidl suggested a corrective for academic theologians who believe it is their role to do public theology:

“. . . . [T]heologians need to pay attention to what is going on in queer Catholic communities. They need to listen closely and respect the long histories of struggle that continue inside and outside the academy and public debate. If they do listen, they will find that reflections on queer experiences call the Church to dialogue that goes far beyond the bounds of traditional Catholic teaching. . .Ultimately, listening to queer voices will challenge theologians to move beyond Building a Bridge to the mountains and valleys of queer experience. There, theologies of the excluded community thrive on the margins of the Church. There, life-changing and life-giving ministry challenges far-right theologies that perpetuate the sinful and harmful status quo. There, God is working. Theologians must pay attention.”

One interjection from the academy is that Building a Bridge was reviewed in a leading journal, Theological Studies, where the book is described as “gentle, gracious, an attractive.”

There is truth in both Ahern and Steidl’s arguments. There has been relative silence from the academy about Martin’s book and the discussions it has fostered. It is not surprising that many theologians have not critically engaged a work that has a pastoral, rather than a scholarly, focus. But there are many people, perhaps described as non-professional theologians, who are doing public theology around Martin’s book. And Steidl makes the key point that these contributions are important because the wisdom they offer the Church is profound. Catholic theology today has much listening to do.

Rather than engaging the book directly, the best witness Catholic theologians can offer is to do public theology about some of the related issues raised by Building a Bridge. Ahern and Steidl both acknowledged the criticisms, some quite hateful, Martin receives, and that his lectures  have been cancelled. Theologians can respond to such realities from their existing work, such as: how to move ecclesial discourse beyond seeming impasses and raise new questions; how to respond effectively and in a manner preserving university ethics when the online right-wing tries to stifle debate. Guidance from the academy could greatly benefit the Church on these matters.

Martin’s book picks up on the work of many people who have struggled for LGBT equality and then tries to point a way forward. It remains for others to describe what that way forward looks like and how, in concrete terms, to get there. The book is opening minds and healing wounds, for sure. But enacting Building a Bridge, finding and pursuing that way forward, is much harder work. Part of that work will require academic theologians to both listen more and to be much louder in their public theology.

To read Bondings 2.0’s interview with Fr. Martin about the revised and expanded edition of Building a Bridge that will be released this month, click here

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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 https://www.harperone.com/jamesmartin/ or check your local bookstore.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 5, 2018

4 replies
  1. Francis
    Francis says:

    There was good coverage in The Tablet about how Fr James’ book is being reflected upon in London. I am glad to see the message is being spread far and wide.

  2. Deacon Thomas Smith
    Deacon Thomas Smith says:

    Tommy’s Two Cents: The “bridge” Fr. Martin speaks of was built many decades ago by the courageous faithful prophets of Dignity and others. Especially when our Church officially shut us out in 1986, we refused to “burn the bridge”. It has been maintained and strengthened by years of difficult and enlightening dialogue, bravely challenging fear and exclusion. When our Mother experiences a “sickness” (homophobia), we don’t go looking for a new mother-figure. Rather, we stick with her and nurture her wounds with tough love as she has always done for us.

    Although this book greatly benefits and expands this ongoing connection, it is not being BUILT by Fr. Martin’s book. It is being recognized and reinforced. He is not the Bridge Bulder, maybe just the newest maintainence manager. For this we are grateful, but Let’s be clear. This Bridge is not new. It’s just Open for Business and more toll-free than ever.

  3. RV
    RV says:

    Fairly certain that Martin himself makes it clear that his book is not to be read as a commentary on the Theology of the issue. The consistent classification of any valid critique of the book as “hateful” or ‘alt-right’ is divisive at best. There are very fair questions about the approach Martin takes, some questions that he himself consitently refuses to answer. If we are sincerely discussing the theological impact of the position that Martin takes those questions ought to be addressed head on and not lumped into a category of “hate” or “bigotry” This article seems to demand that theologians accept the clouded perspective of Martin’s, but doesn’t that defeat the entire intention of theological debate?

  4. Rev Jim Mitulski
    Rev Jim Mitulski says:

    I appreciate the risks Fr. Martin has taken with his writing and public speaking. And I continue to remember the pioneering theologian Fr. John McNeill. McNeill, a Jesuit, wrote The Church and the Homosexual, which was published with an imprimi potest in 1976. It was revoked by the efforts of then Carindal Ratzinger and others a year later, and John was eventually silenced, then removed from the Jesuit order. DIGNITY was expelled from Catholic churches. No prelates, few academics, only a handful of Jesuits, very few church leaders spoke up then, not for John McNeill, or for the LGBT community in any meaningful way. Time will reveal how much has changed. I would like to see a greater acknowledgment of the way paved specifically by Fr. McNeill. And an apology by the Jesuits for their abandonment of him. I pray that Fr. Martin doesn’t meet the same fate. I will always love John for the comfort he brought my family when I came out as a gay man, becasuse of the book that he wrote and published as a Jesuit priest, and for his ministry to the community forsaken by the church, for his courage to speak up, and for being my dear friend. Rev. Jim Mitulski, Boston, MA


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