Fr. James Martin Criticizes Catholics’ Selective Use of “Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner”

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

4 replies
  1. Loras J Michel
    Loras J Michel says:

    “Hate the sin, love the sinner” has continuously been a disturbing concept to me as it gives the impression that it is somewhat OK to judge other people’s transgressions while not spotless oneself. Being GLBTQ is not a transgression, but a celebration. And if one were spotless, one would not even notice as one would be totally involved in loving, caring, and only seeing the good in everyone around us. There is left no capacity to be a busybody toward anyone else, and especially in regard to what is another’s unique manifestation of God’s creation. And let’s be honest, even if someone actually is programmed to feel that who a LGBTQ naturally loves is immoral, do you really believe that they would naturally have the inner resources to “love” the party’s involved. I have always found that nearly impossible myself as love itself cannot be divided. Stopping the judgments is the first step toward self-awareness and knowing that as children of the most high God, we all deserve better. Simple gratitude to God for all the wonderful facets of our own life produces joy and dissolves time for all the other idle chatter.

    Thank you, Fr. Martin for publicly bringing this injustice toward one group of people to the light as that also has been my feeling for as long as I can remember.

  2. Lindsey Pasquale
    Lindsey Pasquale says:

    I love Father Martin. Let’s start with that. And I love this sentiment.

    That said, his words are often hard on me. Because not unlike many in the Church, LGBTQ = Gay/Lesbian/Sexuality when taken in context. LGBTQ also = Transgender/Non-Binary/Gender.

    If/when the Church finally gets around to recognizing what scientists and sociologists have known for a long time – that God has made us all exactly the way we are, and it is a perfectly normal part of the human condition, changes will be made for sexuality and gender variant people will still be on the outside, wondering what we did wrong to be treated like that.

  3. Doug Roach
    Doug Roach says:

    Thank you Fr. Martin for your leadership in advocating for the LBGTQUI community. Since God made all humans in God’s image and likeness, let us love the entire person. We are all sinners (personally and systemically). We are taught to love ourselves as God loves us. God does not separate the sinner from the whole person. God loves what God creates. The phrase “hate the sin, love the sinner” is dualistic thinking. As Christians we are called to love everyone in their own totality.

    DON E SIEGAL says:

    Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner

    The harm in this trite saying is that it tells the listener that there is something wrong with the way God created queer persons. Although, I tend to give most people a pass who use this clichéd expression because most people are unaware of the deeper harmful meaning of its words. If someone I know well repeatedly use these words, I kindly explain to them the hidden harm they cause and ask them to refrain from using them.

    As for the sinner, I theologically understand that I am hopelessly bound to sin; however, through my baptism I have become a redeemed sinner which is a happy state of being through grace in the kingdom of God.


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