Opinion

Opinion | Margery Eagan

Priest is building a bridge between church and LGBT community

Pope Francis during the Vatican Curia in December 2013.
Claudio Peri/Associated Press/File
Pope Francis during the Vatican Curia in December 2013.

You’d never have seen this in a Catholic Church 10 or five years ago, even in Boston.

Last week, nearly 1,000 Catholics gave a standing ovation to a priest who’d spent an hour criticizing the church for discriminating against gays.

And nobody shouted him down.

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The priest was Jesuit James Martin, author of “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity.” The church was St. Ignatius of Loyola, across Commonwealth Avenue from the Brighton mansion where Cardinal Law once lived and police set up crime-scene tape during the sex abuse crisis.

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Among the congregation were giddy 90-year-old nuns; 20-year-olds from Boston College like Matt Stubeck, who waited in a long line for Martin to autograph a book for his gay cousin; devout lay Catholics; daily communicants; and eucharistic ministers who give out communion every Sunday. There was also an elderly couple who had driven up from Fall River. Speaking through his tracheotomy, the husband cried as he told Martin and St. Ignatius pastor Joseph Constantino how his gay son was vilified in a church that instructs its faithful, first and foremost, to love one another.

Martin, in his book and in his talk, asked why the church singles out gays for harshness, enforcing its rules selectively. Why it fires gays and lesbians from church jobs but not couples who live together. Or divorced and remarried Catholics without annulments. Or those of other faiths or no faiths at all.

He asked why church leaders so often call gays, derisively, homosexuals “afflicted with a same-sex attraction” instead of just “gay” or part of the LGBT or LGBTQ community.

He asked why, even after last year’s mass shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub, so few bishops would acknowledge that the massacre targeted the LGBT community and say, simply: We stand with that community.

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“Sin is a failure to bother to love,” said Martin. “In Orlando, we failed to bother.”

And why, still, so much cruelty?

He mentioned a hospice worker who messaged him for help when the local priest refused to anoint a dying gay patient. Weeks ago, a Wisconsin bishop told priests to consider graveside services instead of funeral Masses for same-sex couples — with no mention of the surviving partner allowed, not even in the burial prayers.

Martin also said something I’d never heard a priest publicly admit: About 30 percent of his fellow priests are probably gay.

“Some Catholics object to hearing all this,” Martin said, smiling, conceding a massive understatement.

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You go online and there it is, vitriol from conservative Catholics. Petition campaigns against him. The speaking invitation rescinded from Catholic University. He’s also been criticized from the left for championing mutual respect when the Catholic catechism still calls “homosexual” acts “intrinsically disordered.” And what about all those closeted, gay-bashing priests?

In a church known for shipping provocative priests to a figurative gulag, James Martin has willingly stuck his neck out. Yet his welcome in Boston, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C. — and the slew of bishops publicly praising his book — are signs that such daring is less risky now.

It’s the “Pope Francis effect,” said Martin. Before Francis — who famously said of gays, “Who am I to judge?” — Martin said he never could have published this book at all.

And Marcella Maldonado, 52, at St. Ignatius with her partner and mother-in-law, could not have experienced a “phenomenal” evening. To Maldonado, Martin said nothing radical; instead he asked the church to abandon a radically disordered disdain for gay people like her. “This was a call to arms to be true Catholics,” she said. “Good Catholics.”

Margery Eagan is cohost of “Boston Public Radio” on WGBH. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.