James Martin: Even though we disagree, we are still brothers in Christ

The American Jesuit became a worldwide known pastor of those who are feeling persecuted out of the Catholic church because of their sexual orientation. He is convinced that this is not only a “Western” topic.

– What are your reflections on the first session of this synod, how do you feel about the proceedings so far?
– I’m feeling very grateful for having been invited by the Holy Father to participate. It was really quite an honor. And the four weeks was both fascinating and exhausting! So mainly I’m filled with gratitude.

– Can you recall a particularly interesting detail of this 4-week-long meeting and did you miss something you had expected to happen or be discussed?
– Perhaps the most important facet of the Synod was how we were able to dialogue with one another at our tables, through the method of „conversations in the spirit,” which emphasized listening and discernment. In the first round at our tables, everyone was able to speak without any interruptions, which meant that everyone else had to listen. In the second round, everyone spoke about what moved them or challenged them, again without interruption. And, finally, in the third round we were able to have a more free-flowing dialogue. So there was a lot of listening involved. Then we summarized our conversations under the headings of „convergences,” „divergences,” „questions” and „tensions,” so there was not a move towards a false consensus, but on truly recounting what had happened at the tables. It was very fruitful.

– You are a well-known pastor of LBGT+ people. How did you come to terms with the fact that the expression ‘LGBT’ is missing from the Synthesis report – although all the 7 continental documents and even the Instrumentum Laboris contained it and, all in all, the topic is not excluded at all?
– This was not a surprise to me. Some of the delegates, from various places, objected to that term „LGBTQ” or „LGBT+.” So the drafters felt it would be better to leave it out. But still in the final document there is a strong call to accompany those who feel excluded because of „identity or sexuality” (in the Italian it is because of „gender identity and sexual orientation”) and to deepen our reflection and study of their situations, as well as of others who feel excluded. For me, I think it’s important to use that term, since that’s what most LGBTQ people use. But in the end it was more important for the idea of accompaniment of the group to be included. Also, I want to say that

I was happy throughout the Synod to speak to people who did not agree with me on LGBTQ issues in a cordial and open way: for example, Archbishop Péter Fülöp Kocsis,

the Metropolitan Archbishop of the Archeparchy of Hajdúdorog and the head of the Hungarian Greek Catholic Church. We had a good and honest discussion and afterwards took a photo together. It was a reminder that even though we disagree, we are still brothers in Christ. I was very grateful to him for our conversation.

– As I see it, the main aim of the synodal process is to change the form of discussion from the ‘judging from above’ style into a ‘listening beside you’ style. What does synodality mean for you, and do you believe that the dream of Pope Francis can actually be realised?
– Synodality is a confusing word–and concept–for many people. At heart, it means coming together to listen to one another, and it is a reminder that the Holy Spirit is at work in all of us, not just cardinals, archbishops and bishops. Of course this new way of „being a church” will take time for people to understand and to put into practice. It’s very ancient–after all, the Council of Jerusalem, in the Acts of the Apostles, was perhaps the earliest such gathering. But doing it in modern times–with priests, members of religious orders and lay men and women, and not just bishops, having voting rights–is brand new. Synods were revived after the Second Vatican Council, but only with Pope Francis do „non-bishops” have the right to attend and vote. So all this will take time.

– As the first session had ended, news about the 6 answers of the Discastery for Doctrine of the Faith arrived. As declared in them, being transgender or gay poses no problem to people to be godparents, witnesses of a marriage, being baptized, given the appropriate circumstances. What is your reaction to this statement?
– It was a very positive step in seeing transgender people not as categories or stereotypes, but as real people, and also as Catholics. I’m no expert in this area but, at the very least, these people need to know that they are part of the church, just like everyone else is. They need the church a great deal, given all the violence and hatred that they face. And of course the church needs everyone too, no matter who they are. I know the whole phenomenon may be confusing to some people, but I know many transgender people and they just want to be part of the community.

– I participated in almost every media briefing during the first sessions and clearly, the most frequent questions asked by journalists from all over the world focused on LGBT issues. How do you feel about this fact and can you share your opinion about what message it delivers?
– Well, some people might say it’s just a „media issue,” but I would say that the media covers it because people are obviously interested in it. And, more and more, the issue affects a greater number of people around the world, as more and more people have family members and friends who are LGBT. Also,

some people say it’s just a „Western issue,” but LGBT people are in every country. So while it’s not the most important issue discussed at the Synod, it was certainly an important one,

as the church continues to reflect on how to minister to this community, who are so often the victims of violence, harassment and bullying.

– What is your message to the LGBT people who expected a bigger step by the universal church towards them, and what would you tell to those who fear that the Catholic church may be too ‘liberal’, even ‘self-destructive’ if it becomes more open/inclusive regarding LGBT people?
– To LGBT people who were expecting more, I would say that the Synod is not juridical–that is, it does not make laws. It is consultative. But I’d also say that the concerns of LGBT people were discussed on a universal level for perhaps the first time in church history. Also, I would point to many positive steps forward that have happened for LGBTQ people under Pope Francis, the most recent one being, as you said, the openness to transgender people. As for people who fear that the church is being „self-destructive” by welcoming LGBTQ people, I would invite them to come to know LGBT people as human beings. Some of this fear, I believe, is from a certain lack of knowledge or from seeing these people simply as categories or stereotypes. And for people who are concerned that LGBTQ people may not be following church teaching in one or another area, I would say that no one’s life is in perfect conformity with church teaching. Consider, for example, straight married couples who use birth control, which is a large percentage of Catholics, at least in the US. This too is considered sinful by the church, yet no one is saying that they are „destroying” the church. Some of the animosity against LGBTQ people is seeing them primarily as a result of an „ideology,” which I think is inaccurate. Gays and lesbians–as most psychologists, biologists and scientists will tell you–are largely born that way. It’s a complicated topic, and while the media may influence some impressionable teenagers, in the end, a person does not become gay by reading a book or watching a video on YouTube. (There were gay people long before social media, after all.) Second, some of the opposition comes from seeing them as a result of „Western colonialism,” when in fact they exist, and have probably always existed, in every country. And, by the way, another form of colonialism comes from American media outlets and other wealthy political groups spreading anti-LGBTQ hatred overseas. We have to understand that kind of „colonialism” as well. But beyond these more intellectual arguments, the main thing is to see them as human beings.

Get to know them. Ask them what their lives are like, how they suffer, who God is for them.

Then you’ll see them as your brothers and sisters.

Written by István Gégény

Opening photo: László Német, archbishop of Beograd

You can reach the Hungarian translation here.