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- Jesuit priest and writer (1960)
Five years ago, on June 12, 2016, 49 people were massacred at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. It was, at the time, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, with an additional 53 patrons wounded. Pulse was a predominantly LGBT venue, an example of what’s always been true: For the marginalized LGBT community, the gay bar was a place of acceptance. A sanctuary. A church.
When a gunman entered that gay club in Orlando, he infiltrated a safe space. It was where a group of people cultivated their comradeship and identity, gathered in solidarity to be themselves freely, empowered, made change, and, yes, had fun. Like parishioners to a church, these people—to include this writer, we—gravitate to these venues as a natural-born survival mechanism. And there, in that safe space, 49 people were killed.
Father James Martin remembers his horror at the news of what happened at Pulse. And he remembers the pointed, unignorable silence afterward from the leaders of the Catholic Church.
With other gun tragedies, bishops delivered statements about standing with the victims, often specifying, if applicable, the church denomination or common affiliation of the community that was attacked. But after Pulse, the deadliest mass shooting the U.S. had ever suffered, only a handful of bishops said anything.
“They were silent,” Father Martin says in the new documentary, Building a Bridge, which premiered Tuesday at the Tribeca Film Festival. “I couldn’t believe it. It really angered me that, even in death, these people were largely invisible to the church.”
The church’s reaction to Pulse galvanized Father Martin, a Jesuit priest in New York City and editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine America. In 2017, he published the book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity.
His outreach has taken him on a speaking tour that included a private audience with Pope Francis. For many Catholics, his suggestion that the LGBT community could be embraced within the doctrine of the church has provided an almost inarticulable and profound hope. For many others, including church leaders, his ideas amount to a rejection of Catholic teachings. Rather than building a bridge, to them, he is tearing down one that leads to the true Catholic word.
His public profile has also made him a target of what he’s dubbed the “Catholic alt-right,” who organize social campaigns against him, protest his sermons, and amplify their own view that it is “homoheresy” to suggest that the church welcome LGBT members.
The Catholic Church seems to be at an existential crossroads when it comes to the LGBT issue.
In 2013, Pope Francis suggested a movement toward acceptance with his famous “Who am I to judge?” speech. But this March, the Vatican issued a decree stating that priests could not bless same-sex unions since God “cannot bless sin.”
Father Martin, then, is a lightning rod in a raging storm—and in a religion that takes such acts of God seriously.
Such thunderous tension is at the crux of Building a Bridge. Directed by Evan Mascagni and Shannon Post, the documentary is executive produced by Martin Scorsese, to give a sense of the weight the topic carries.
The film is about Father Martin’s mission, which he lays out early on: “I want to talk about a bridge. And it’s a bridge between the institutional church and the LGBT Catholic community. Helping LGBT Catholics feel like they are part of their church, and that they are welcomed and loved. Some Catholics object to this, just putting it mildly.” (He giggles after that last line.)
But more than that, it’s about the LGBT-identifying Catholics and families who have left the church because of its teachings. They are the people whose faith and ability to practice it, proudly and with a conscience, is affected by these conversations. For these people, this is a crisis as much as it is a discourse. It is the center of who they are and what they believe. It is their souls, their moral compass, and their idea of eternity.
The official Vatican stance is that homosexuality is “objectively disordered,” though the catechism preaches against violence.
Speaking from personal experience, when a person who grows up in the Catholic Church struggles with sexuality and coming out, it involves an intense confrontation with the religion that has been fundamental to your entire outlook on the world.
That entails considering what you deserve from your church community as a gay person. It’s weighing ideas like “morality” and “sin” just because you have the audacity to understand who it is that you love. It’s contemplating what your salvation may look like.
There are choices to make. You must grieve the loss of your faith and step away, or you must be so certain in your beliefs and your relationship with God that you can rationalize who you are with the church teachings. That’s a lot of faith to ask, yet many LGBT Catholics make that sacrifice. And still, there are many Catholics who will read about that traumatic journey and still conform to the traditional teachings.
That these complicated feelings and journeys are given a spotlight is the collateral impact of Building a Bridge’s focus on Father Martin’s work and the volatile reaction it’s received.
In the film, we watch as he sends a tweet that uses the catechism to bolster an argument for compassion towards the LGBT community, only to be immediately assaulted with vitriolic responses from Catholics who don’t want to hear it, accusing him of heresy.
There’s a large chunk of screen time spent with Michael Voris, a host and antagonizer for lay apostolate and news website Church Militant. In web videos that blast with all the extremism of a Fox News segment, Voris brands Father Martin as Catholic Enemy No. 1 for his “gaying of the church.”
Before his reversion to Catholicism, Voris engaged in homosexual activity. Now, he’s a leading voice in the orthodox interpretation of the LGBT community: It is not to be condoned or accepted.
“Christ never gives a burden or a cross that they aren’t capable of carrying,” Voris says. “I don’t know what the cross is if you’re Father Martin and the whole gay thing. You can just go have sex with whoever you want to? You can just get married and be gay and the church has to conform to you? Where is the suffering? Where is the sacrifice? No pain, no gain. If you do not carry that cross, you do not get into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Even those you might expect to be on Father Martin’s side lob some of the sharpest criticisms.
Out at St. Paul, a LGBT ministry in New York, held heated conversations with Father Martin after his book was first published. They took issue with the idea of “building a bridge from both sides” because that put an onus on the LGBT community to build their part of the bridge themselves. How are they supposed to build a two-way bridge when it’s the church that has the power? (Father Martin changed that part of the book for its second printing.)
There can be endless debate about what Father Martin is doing. But it’s the emotion behind that debate that emanates from the film.
Christine Leinonen is the mother of Christopher, one of the victims of the Pulse shooting. In one heartbreaking segment, she talks about how loved Christopher was, how proudly out he was as a gay man, and shows us the clothes he was wearing the night he was killed: a t-shirt and jeans with bullet holes through them. Her experience grieving him and the other queer people who were murdered that night, she says, gave her a new insight into the conversation surrounding homosexuality and the Catholic Church.
“I loved my son, but it broke my heart to know there was one kid whose family wouldn’t come to get him because he was gay, because they believed that was what Catholicism taught them,” she says. “Why is it that this church I belong to, why aren’t they comforting me?… They should be marching with us, talking with us, being with us while our kids were killed.”
We meet the Musselman family, whose three children all identify as LGBTQ. As practicing Catholics, reckoning with their faith and the rejection from their religious community is difficult.
“It’s heartbreaking—like gut-wrenching, soul-crushing sadness—to watch someone look at your child or your children with disgust in their eyes,” the mother says. “Then you feel like this loss. Like a real loss. Because you love your kids and what else were you supposed to do? And you want to keep them in the church.”
The family is among those who are spiritually helped and heartened by Father Martin’s work and his ideas. In fact, you see that everywhere Father Martin goes.
There are people, eyes wet with tears, sharing stories about how Building a Bridge and Martin’s talks have helped them come around to acceptance of their own gay relatives. There are queer-questioning people who confess their fears about coming out and how the book is helping them work through it. There are out gay Catholics who see a path back to the church because of it.
It’s deeply emotional because these feelings—that range from shame and hatred to desperation and even hope—have such deep roots. So deep that many never imagined that even the foundation to build a bridge might be possible.
Still, especially if you’re a gay person who came through the Catholic Church, there are other complications to grapple with. As inspiring as what Father Martin is doing may be, how much is he the great rainbow hope and how much is he delusional?
He’s such a kind, understanding, charming, and empathetic man. Some of us have had those Catholic leaders in our lives, the ones who are brave enough to be accepting publicly, not just implicitly, and implore that others be the same. Especially those who don’t want to hear it. But when these leaders are the exceptions—the beautiful, hopeful exceptions—we still may only be at base camp when it comes to scaling the mountain. The more time passes, the higher the summit seems to grow.
There’s an inspiring, feel-good element to the Building a Bridge documentary. Strangely, that may be why you can’t help but emerge from it feeling a bit dejected.
How do you make both fit: the optimism and desire for change with the cynicism of the church’s reality? Especially after the Vatican’s decree against homosexuality in March, it can feel impossible. But what is faith, if not certitude—maybe even hope—in the face of such impossibility?