Book Review: Building A Bridge by Fr James Martin, SJ

Open book on shelves in industrial-style interior

This review has been a long time coming, and a lot has happened since its release. I approached the book with an open mind: unless the black ink on white paper (or in my case, iPad screen) said something, I didn’t take the book to say it, and most of the accusations that he receives from some quarters of the church do not apply to the book.
The title is a perfect summary of the content of the book, built on the premise that the Church and the LGBT community need to make a conscious decision to meet each other in the middle, and that those who happen to belong to both communities are to lead the way.

The first part of the book addresses, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Church, and it does so on two levels: the Church as the people of God and the Church as the institutional church. What he is asking is that we approach the LGBT community with respect, sensitivity and compassion. He encourages the church to be a minister to such communities, as recognition is the beginning of making people feel loved. He answers the common objection that LGBT ministries imply agreement with “what these people do”, because it isn’t usually raised with other group of people who have specific ministries, which betrays a possible further agenda. The only purpose of a ministry is to connect people to their church, and what the Church tells LGBT Catholics reaches the hear of those who aren’t, and that we as Catholics want to become part of the Church (especially if you are the kind of Catholic who tend to most oppose these kinds of outreach, and take 100% seriously the concept of extra ecclesiam nulla salus).
Part of recognition is to acknowledge that the language we use matters. While there are people in the Church who are fine with being told they are intrinsically disordered, the fact itself we are having this conversation, and the experience of people beyond Fr Martin himself (including myself), show that saying the same thing in a different way can make a significant difference about the perception of goodwill on behalf of the Church in the eyes of the LGBT community. Not everybody advocating for the LGBT community (and definitely not this book) is advocating that the Church suddenly tells people that they can use poppers on a Saturday night and take communion on a Sunday, as it seems to be the constant nightmare of some Catholics. Fr Martin praised the chaste LGBT members of the church and thanked them for the gifts they bring to Her. And when I say chaste, I’m quoting verbatim. He also warns us against using “unjust discrimination” (to quote the Catechism) in the way we address the circumstances of people who don’t live by Church teachings, implying that we need to get our house in order before we single out just a section of people, not that we can let things pass. He recognises a “tremendous zest for the faith” in younger LGBT Catholics, and encourages us to listen, ask questions and stand in solidarity with LGBT Catholics and their families. This needs to be done with sensitivity, with awareness of the feelings of others, in an encounter on a personal level (they are not a species we’re studied, even though the book talks of the community in the third person). While Fr Martin encourages us to stand against discrimination and oppression he does not, as many liberals probably would like, encourage us to think that the Church could ever consider a same-sex union as regular, but reminds us that this does not mean she should not accompany people in these circumstances. Jesus gives us an example in the way He treated people in the Gospels: while people often say that Jesus told people to stop sinning, what He truly did was first bring them into an encounter with Him; He first welcomed them, and then took it from there.

The second part of the book addresses the LGBT community, beginning with LGBT Catholics. Highlighting the human tendency not to see fault on both sides, Fr Martin encourages the community to set aside the “us” and “them” mentality in spite of the hurt that makes many want to get an eye for an eye. He encourages to listen to authoritative teachings even when one disagrees with them, and consider the why behind them. He also asks to treat the person saying so with respect, rather than mocking: “Forgiveness not only is the Christian thing to do, but also earns trust, which then changes things”. After forgiveness, comes compassion, seeing the life of bishops in all their challenges in their humanity, praying for everyone who they still see as an enemy, and giving the Church the gift of time even when it is a burden. Most of all, Fr Martin warns us not to take what mainstream media says about Church teachings at face value, and I would add Catholic media to that too. One of the things he stresses is that the Church is universal, and what sounds like not enough in the West (like for example the call to treat people with dignity in Amoris Letitia) is groundbreaking in many parts of the world. In the conclusion, Fr Martin tells us what to do together on the bridge: trust that God wants unity and reconciliation. Every baptised person has a right to be in the Church, and we are all sinners on the way, doing our best, journeying imperfectly with God. This applies to all of us, and nobody gets an out of jail free card.

It’s a book full of practical advice, which I encourage people to pick up for themselves even after I have done such an extensive summary. All the criticism I have read seems to miss the point of the book, or actually not even have read it. The book is not about theology or morality, but communication, and understanding why people often reject Church teachings and how to accompany them to embracing them. One of the books critics, Cardinal Sarah, said that we are to tell people the truth in charity. Reading the book without prejudice will show you a way to do exactly that: there is nothing in it that promotes telling anything other than the truth. In fact, one of the points in the second part of the book is about knowing the sources of authority and only listening to authentic Church teachings not twisted by people with their own agenda (and the only change to Church teachings promoted is to use more charitable language in expressing them, so that people would not reject them out of offence and misunderstanding). It is a much needed book, and everybody who wants the church to grow and thrive and be relevant should read it as it is an important aid to mission in the modern world.

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