Writing an essay in America, Fr. James Martin, S.J., called out the selective application of the saying “Hate the sin, love the sinner” to LGBTQ people.
Martin, a well-known advocate for LGBTQ people in the church, unpacked the meaning and use of this common phrase, challenging his readers to think more deeply about when and why the saying is used.
He explained that in some ways, “Hate the sin, love the sinner,” makes sense—it fits in with the Christian calls both to love everyone and to avoid sin. It also “promotes a healthy demarcation between the person and the act,” as Martin put it. He gave the example of Sister Helen Prejean, who ministers to people incarcerated on death row and who says, “A person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”
But can you really hate the sin and love the sinner? Perhaps not, as Martin broke it down.
“The problem with this seemingly compassionate dictum is that today it is applied almost exclusively to one group: L.G.B.T.Q. people,” Martin wrote. “The thinking is that we can love L.G.B.T.Q. people so long as we condemn their actions—including same-sex relations and same-sex marriage—and label them all as ‘sinners.’”
Martin pointed out that, essentially, “the saying is used as a weapon against L.G.B.T.Q. people, because it effectively reduces L.G.B.T.Q. people to ‘sinners,’ first and foremost.” This is an important insight. While all of us are sinners in some way, Martin said that it is cruel to view LGBTQ people solely in this way. “[T]here is no other group to which this term is applied so regularly, so reflexively, so relentlessly,” he wrote.
He argued that plenty of other people are not in conformity with church teaching, such as sexually active college students or married couples who use contraception, but no other group is so swiftly dismissed as a group of “sinners.”
“So about whom is this statement most used?” Martin asked. “Who is most regularly labeled “sinful” in a world of immorality of all sorts—greed, cruelty, lying, selfishness, racism, warmongering, callousness to the poor, and so on? L.G.B.T.Q. people.”
Martin said not only that the saying is unevenly applied, but also that the nature of the attack against LGBTQ people is particularly harmful, because “the ‘sin’ that people focus on is the way that [ LGBTQ people] love one another.”
He cited the Jesuit psychologist William A. Barry, who said that condemning the way people love as a “sin” is deeply damaging. “[T]he way we love influences almost every aspect of our emotional, mental and spiritual lives,” Martin wrote. “Saying ‘Your love is a sin’ is an attack on part of a person’s deepest self. Our selves are a mixture of mind, body and heart. Saying ‘Your love is a sin’ strikes at each part of the human person.”
Fr. Martin’s essay calls on readers to stop and think about the ways that familiar language can be deeply hurtful to others. He invites the church to consider LGBTQ people in ways more expansive and loving than reducing them to “sinners.” His advocacy for Catholics to treat LGBTQ people with greater compassion continues to shape the church for the better.
—Grace Doerfler (she/her), New Ways Ministry, March 23, 2022