By: Jason Steidl
I read with great interest Kevin Ahern’s piece on Daily Theology calling Catholic theologians to publicly defend James Martin, SJ. I would seem to be Kevin’s intended audience. As a gay ecclesiologist and one deeply involved in LGBTQ pastoral ministry, I have closely followed the public reception of Building a Bridge. I have listened to both my queer and theological communities’ reactions to the book. I have watched the hell-fire responses of Catholic alt-right organizations such as Church Militant and traditionalist publications such as First Things. In my role as a public theologian and minister, I have also experienced the attacks of the Catholic right for my own work in theology and pastoral ministry.
Reading Kevin’s article made me think of my friends and mentors in the academy who have employed public theologies in books, articles, lectures, workshops, and conferences to affirm LGBTQ people for decades. They have paid a heavy price for their work yet choose to remain aloof from public engagement defending Building a Bridge. Why is this? It is important that we ask them.
I thought of organizations such as New Ways Ministry and Dignity, which have been doing public theology and queer ministry for generations. Many have also issued public statements in support of James Martin’s work. Do these count as public theologies? Who decides what counts as theology?
I thought of an LGBTQ-affirming friend and pastor of a Catholic parish who has endured assault after assault by the alt-right and his diocese, yet remains steadfast in his support of open LGBTQ ministry. His public theology has communicated spiritual life and reconciliation to hundreds of queer people. He has challenged and changed the local Church in visible and radical ways. He has no interest in engaging internet disputes.
I thought of my married LGBTQ Catholic friends, whose presence at a Catholic parish prophesies against systematic homophobia and institutional prejudice. The God they publicly serve has nothing to do with the far right’s condemnations. Their theology is public, too, and demands that the Church recognize the goodness of their love that comes from God.
I thought of my queer friends who wonder out loud about sexual experiences in light of their Catholic faith. What does it mean to be LGBTQ and Catholic? What gives spiritual life and what steals it away? Is Grindr acceptable? This is personal, and often public, theology. Queer communities are discerning these questions for the first time. Will theologians listen?
I thought of young queer people in CCD asking their religion teachers why the Catholic Church hates LGBTQ people. How can these teens join a religious community that excludes them and their friends? Many have challenged their bishops directly. The Jesus these young people know has nothing to do with homophobia and transphobia. These brave young prophets offer us public theology without apology.
I thought of my own calling as a theologian. Gustavo Gutierrez defines theology as a “reflection on praxis in light of the Word of God.” For Gutierrez, the proper locus theologicus is the experience of the poor and marginalized— in this case, the LGBTQ community. The last few years, I have been a part of Out at St. Paul, a ministry of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Manhattan. There I see God moving among the hurting people of God. There I want to do theology among those who suffer and see their liberation at hand.
When I do theology, I reflect on my community’s lived experience. We are fighting to survive in a tradition that formally denies the humanity, dignity, and sanctity of our God-given desire. We struggle to hold our spiritual lives together as we seek personal integration and contribute to our community’s reconciliation with God. Engaging Michael Voris on Twitter about political decency or arguing with Cardinal Robert Sarah in the pages of the Wall Street Journal about the dignity of my love is a secondary concern for my work as a theologian because it’s a secondary concern for the local queer Catholic community community of which I’m a part.
When I ask myself where God has been moving, it is not in public debates with Archbishop Charles Chaput or New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. It’s in families, parishes, and the lives of ordinary queer Catholics who are fighting to find a way of being in the Church. Their presence in the body of faith reflects God’s grace in their lives and God’s mercy toward the Church communities that still reject them. Their dignity isn’t up for debate on Twitter or Facebook. They find spiritual life in the local, in the intimate, and in the small but frequent and hard-fought battles that come with their existence in the Church. This is why James Martin’s Building a Bridge matters so much. It is having a powerful, positive effect on LGBTQ Catholics and their faith communities around the world. The revised edition of his work includes many more of their voices.
It is also why theologians need to pay attention to what is going on in queer Catholic communities. They need to listen closely and respect the long histories of struggle that continue inside and outside the academy and public debate. If they do listen, they will find that reflections on queer experiences call the Church to dialogue that goes far beyond the bounds of traditional Catholic teaching. The catechism’s theology of homosexuality hurts queer people. The Church’s prohibition against same-sex marriage denies the holiness of LGBTQ relationships. The Church’s refusal to listen and understand trans experiences contradicts the Gospel. As theology reflects on queer Catholic experience, it must break out of the closet that suffocates queer people with stale and death-dealing traditions. Ultimately, listening to queer voices will challenge theologians to move beyond Building a Bridge to the mountains and valleys of queer experience. There, theologies of the excluded community thrive on the margins of the Church. There, life-changing and life-giving ministry challenges far-right theologies that perpetuate the sinful and harmful status quo. There, God is working. Theologians must pay attention.
Jason Steidl is a sixth-year PhD candidate in theology at Fordham University. His research focuses on ritual, dialogue, activism, and the relationship between the Catholic hierarchy and marginalized communities. He is gay, Catholic, and deeply involved in Out at St. Paul, the LGBTQ ministry of St. Paul the Apostle in Manhattan.