At the Quest annual conference “A Time to Build”, one of the most useful insights for me came at the end of Fr James Martin’s video presentation, in which he presented a short reflection on the familiar story of Zacchaeus, who had climbed into a sycamore tree to catch sight of Jesus passing through. The key point here is the reaction of the crowd, in the final line of the story:
Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” 6And he hurried and came down and received Him gladly. 7When they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”
Today, it is commonly accepted that a key part of Jesus’ ministry included reaching out to all kinds of people that “polite society” rejected: tax collectors, but also prostitutes, lepers, menstruating women, Roman soldiers, the Samaritan woman, and the physically disabled (among others). But as the above text shows, even among the crowd who were supposedly following him, there were grumbles. Is it surprising then, that in our own day, those who attempt to follow Christ’s example in reaching out to people whom some see as beyond the pale, should likewise be met by grumbling, from some who claim to be Christ’s followers?
The central message of Fr Martin’s book, “Building a Bridge”, is a simple restatement of a core part of entirely orthodox Catholic teaching on homosexuality: that gay and lesbian people should be treated with “respect, compassion and sensitivity”. This simple message was entirely uncontroversial among the bishops at their 2014 synod on marriage and family, where a clear majority approved a resolution that the church should extend a clearer welcome to gay Catholics. Nor is it problematic for ordinary lay Catholics, who in many parts of the world even approve the principle of either full marriage equality, or at least same-sex civil unions. Nor, in my experience, is it a problem for most Catholic priests, or consecrated religious. However, it is problematic for a tiny minority, who in their vociferous objections tend to capture the headlines with their loud grumbling.
It is important to stress, here, that it is indeed a tiny minority. There have been a handful of instances, widely reported, that pressure from hardline Catholic conservatives have led to some Catholic institutions withdrawing invitations to Fr Martin to speak – even where these planned events were on topics entirely unrelated to LGBT issues. What these headlines overlook, is the far greater number of institutions where similar invitations have not been withdrawn, and where he has instead been greeted with rapt attention. These have been so many, that he is in fact close to exhaustion, and cannot possibly accept all the invitations he has received (For example, he has had to cancel what had been a planned visit to the UK, and to downgrade what had been intended to be a live video link to the Quest conference, to a pre-recorded video message).
Similarly, in accepting an invitation from Quest to join a panel discussion on Fr Martin’s message of builing a bridge, in the spirit ot “respect, compassion and sensitivity”, Bishop Doyle too was doing no more than following an important element in Catholic teaching, and in a recommendation from the bishops’ synod on marriage and family.Yet once again, there has been an outcry from some so-called followers of Christ, who are incapable of seeing that this is a clear attempt to follow in Christ’s consistent example of outreach to social outcasts of all kinds. And so, “the people grumbled”.
This reaction is even more ridiculous, when we consider the grounds for the objection – the claim that Quest is somehow attempting to change Church teaching. It is true, that the organisation is critical of some details of Vatican doctrine: so are many other Catholics. However, there is far more in Catholic teaching, of far greater importance, that Quest would unequivocally endorse. It is not Catholic teaching, though, that primarily concerns Quest – it is the critical need for effective pastoral support. So it is, that the heart of Quest activities, nationally and in the regions, is the provision of spiritual resources, opportunities for worship, retreats and days of recollection, and safe spaces for LGBT Catholics to meet and engage in basic Christian fellowship and faith sharing.
There is great irony, furthermore, that those who so loudly complain that Quest does not adhere fully to Catholic teaching, are themselves ignoring two key elements in the teaching on homosexuality: the need described above and strongly promoted by Fr Martin, to treat gay men and lesbians with “respect, compassion and sensitivity”; and another element, which Fr Martin does not discuss, which is to strongly oppose all forms of violence or malice, in speech or in action, against homosexual people.
(The opinions in this piece are Terry’s own, and not necessarily those of Quest as an organisation)