Fr. James Martin Addresses Conference of Leaders in Catholic Higher Education

Fr. James Martin speaking at the 2018 World Meeting of Families in Dublin

Fr. James Martin, SJ, one of the leading popular voices for LGBT Catholic equality, presented a workshop at the annual conference of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) where he offered suggestion for making campuses welcoming for LGBT students and staff, including ending the firing of married gay and lesbian people and initiating new accommodations for transgender students. His talk was adapted for publication in America magazine. 

Martin begins his essay in America, an adaptation of his ACCU address, by telling the story of a young Muslim woman attending a U.S. Catholic college. In her senior year, the student attended a retreat for the first time, during which she came out as lesbian, sharing worries of her family’s reaction. Later that semester, the student faced serious mental health challenges and was able to find support through the campus ministry program she’d connected with on the retreat. Martin holds up this story of an example of how Catholic colleges can be a lifeline for LGBT students and pushes his audience to ensure that their schools are able to do as much, or more, on their campuses.

As many college and university presidents continue to grapple with their responsibility in serving the LGBT community among their students, staff, and faculty, Martin cuts to heart of their decisions, saying: 

“The primary question for Catholic higher education, therefore, is not primarily a legal one, an ecclestical [sic] one, a financial one, or even an academic one. It is a spiritual one: How to best care for people who have probably doubted they are loved by God, feared their parents will reject them, questioned whether they could find a place in the world, and, if they are Catholic, have certainly doubted or despaired about their place in the church, and who, because of all these things, may have contemplated suicide or self harm.”

Yet doubly important is Martin’s insistence that the story of LGBT college students and community members is not one solely of hardship, even while encouraging leaders to keep those too-common stories as a framework for beginning their discussions. He writes: “LGBT people should not be seen only as victims—they bring joy, energy, and life to our world and our campuses…they have unique blessings, talents, and graces to your community, precisely as LGBT people.”

You can read the adapted address in full, including Martin’s ten guidelines for Catholic campuses, which include:

  1. Begin with the God-given dignity of the human person.
  2. Never forget how much L.G.B.T. people have suffered.
  3. Welcome L.G.B.T. youth groups, programs and centers. 

Martin also called out the shameful practice of firing LGBT faculty and staff for marrying their partners or otherwise being public about their identities. He acknowledges that governing boards of colleges may face pressure from donors to enforce such discriminatory practices, and directly challenges the presidents to do better by their employees, writing: “So even if it costs, stand with them. Be prophetic. Be like Jesus. Because if we’re not trying to be like Jesus, what’s the point?” 

Martin also offered several steps to include transgender students, including gender-affirming housing and bathrooms, school health care that covers transition related expenses, as well as straightforward procedures for updating name changes on all official and informal school documents. 

ACCU president Rev. Dennis Holtschneider shared that Martin received a warm welcome from the audience, saying that “for a society that hasn’t made up its mind but is very divided, any university feels that division very personally, and is trying to care for the students in front of them, according to The Washington Post.

Says Jim Towey, a regular attendee at the conference and former president of two conservative Catholic colleges, “The ACCU leadership has avoided this subject in the past because it was a lightning rod with the bishops…it seems to me, there is a shift underway…Martin’s talk could signal the beginning of a larger debate.” 

We hope that the college and university presidents will take Fr. Martin’s message to heart, learn from those who are already caring for their communities fully, and implement the same in their own.

For New Ways Ministry’s listing of LGBTQ-Friendly Catholic Colleges and Universities, click here.

Looking to help make your Catholic educational institution more LGBTQ inclusive? New Ways Ministry offers the “Creating a Spirit of Welcome” workshop that is designed to help participants develop LGBTQ initiatives that fit the unique character of your school community. Participants will acquire and understanding of relevant church teachings, formulate an action plan for their school, develop a framework and language for discussing LGBTQ issues, and more. For more information, click here.

Catherine Buck, New Ways Ministry, February 13, 2020

1 reply
  1. Annette Magjuka
    Annette Magjuka says:

    Thank you so much, Fr. Martin. I am holding on by a thread. Your words are a balm. I remember when Catholic universities were at the forefront of civil rights thought, scholarship, and action. The Catholic Church led. I pray that this current civil rights challenge can have the same support. Because LGBTQ rights is the civil rights cause of our day.

    Reply

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