Building Bridges, Opening Doors

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin
Posted:

Today a few thoughts about building bridges and opening doors, themes which have appeared in religious news stories in the last few weeks.

On a national, even international level, there’s been a rather intense debate about the recent book of Fr. James Martin, S.J., “Building a Bridge,” in which he advocates that the Catholic Church and the LGBT community “enter into a relationship of respect, compassion and sensitivity.”

Surely no one can object to that simple proposal, can they? However, while the book has generated admiration and support from one side of the bridge, it has also sparked fierce reaction and rejection from the other. Because of his unconventional approach, Fr. Martin has been criticized by church hierarchy, dis-invited from several high profile speaking engagements, and personally attacked on social media.

What’s all the fuss about? (For full disclosure, I admit that I haven’t read the book yet – I’ve read plenty about it, though, from various perspectives.)

Well the problem, as I understand it, is that in furthering his proposal for dialogue, Fr. Martin has neglected to present and explain the fundamental teaching of the Church about homosexuality, teaching that has to be the starting point of any really honest, comprehensive and fruitful dialogue.

In a recent “Wall Street Journal” article Vatican Cardinal Robert Sarah makes the same point. The Cardinal identifies Fr. Martin as “one of the most outspoken critics of the Church’s message with regard to sexuality,” and then goes on to summarize Catholic teaching on the subject: “Homosexual actions are gravely sinful and tremendously harmful to the well-being of those who partake in them.” He continues: “People who identify as members of the LGBT community are owed this truth in charity especially from clergy who speak on behalf of the Church.”

In reflecting on Fr. Martin’s desire to build bridges, I thought of the iconic “Bridge to Nowhere” in my hometown of Pittsburgh, constructed in the 1960s. It seems that after the bridge was started, because of poor planning and various construction snafus, it couldn’t be anchored on the opposite river bank; it couldn’t be completed and, thus, for several years dangled perilously over the waters of the Allegheny River.

I believe that Fr. Martin’s proposal to build a bridge between the Church and the LGBT community is sincere and well-founded. He has sparked a valuable discussion. Nonetheless, his hesitation to state clearly the Church’s teaching about homosexuality cripples his efforts. It means that his dialogue will be incomplete. He’s building a bridge to nowhere.

Fr. Martin could advance the dialogue, respond to the critics, and silence much of the vitriol if he would simply include in his presentation a clear exposition of what the Church teaches about homosexuality: that while individuals with same-sex attraction are welcomed and valued members of the Church, homosexual actions are immoral and same-sex marriage is unacceptable. Then, let the dialogue begin.

And what about those open doors?

According to local news reports, a neighborhood Protestant church, Woodridge Congregational United Church of Christ here in Cranston, RI, had recently displayed outside the church a set of rainbow-colored doors meant to proclaim that “God’s doors are open to all.” (I’ve seen similar displays at other Protestant churches.) According to the pastor the doors were a sign of inclusiveness, “with a particular focus on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.”

Very sadly, someone vandalized the doors at the church, shattering the slats of the red and purple doors of the display. Whether the destruction was a hate crime or a random act of vandalism apparently hasn’t been determined. Nonetheless, let’s be very clear – the vandalism of the church’s property is terribly wrong and unacceptable, and if it’s meant to send a message of bigotry or hatred, it’s even worse.

The Cranston church’s mission statement says, “We believe that no matter who you are and where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, age, mental status, family structure, physical or mental ability, sexual orientation, gender status or gender expression.”

The church should be applauded for its open doors, for its welcoming policy. Every Christian church, every Catholic church, should have an equally welcoming, inclusive message. But, remember, welcoming people isn’t the same as condoning behavior.

I hope that in hastening to welcome folks, Christian churches don’t succumb to the temptation of watering-down the faith; that they don’t fail to preach the truths of the Gospel or challenge the spiritually harmful behavior of those who enter their doors.

It’s absolutely true that Jesus welcomed people from the margins of society, accompanied them on their journey, and forgave their sins when they fell. But he also challenged them to do better, to grow in holiness and leave their sinful ways behind. “Go, and sin no more,” he told the woman caught in adultery. (Jn 8:11)

And what did He say about doors, gates and roads? “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.” (Mt 7:13-14)

So, what’s the message here? If we’re going to build bridges, let’s be sure that they’re anchored in truth. And if we’re going to open doors, let’s be sure that they lead to eternal life, and not to the path of destruction.