Pope Francis met privately Monday with an American Jesuit who has been attacked by conservative U.S. Catholics for reaching out to gays, the latest evidence of Francis’ willingness to shrug off right-wing criticism for the sake of his pastoral priorities.
The Vatican listed the audience with the Rev. James Martin among the pope’s daily activities, in a sign that Francis wanted it publicized. Since only some of Francis’ private meetings are announced, the implicit message was a public vote of confidence in Martin’s ministry.
Martin, author of “Building a Bridge,” a book about how the Catholic Church should reach out more to the LGBTQ community, has had several talks canceled in the United States because of pressure from conservative groups who oppose his advocacy. The Vatican under Francis has welcomed him, however, appointing him as a communications consultant, giving him a speaking slot at a 2018 Vatican-sponsored family rally and now a private papal audience.
In a tweet, Martin said during the 30-minute meeting, he shared with Francis “the joys and hopes, and the griefs and anxieties, of LGBT Catholics and LGBT people worldwide.”
In a telephone interview, Martin said Francis listened intently to his presentation, delivered in Spanish, about the struggles of LGBTQ Catholics “and how many of them still feel marginalized” by the church.
“I felt encouraged, consoled and inspired by our meeting,” he said. “It was like talking to the most compassionate parish priest you can imagine.”
Official church teaching calls for gay men and lesbians to be respected and loved, but considers homosexual activity “intrinsically disordered.” Francis, though, has sought to make the church more welcoming to gays, most famously with his 2013 comment “Who am I to judge?”
The Argentine Jesuit also has spoken of his own ministry to gay and transgender people, insisting they are children of God, loved by God and deserving of accompaniment by the church.
Some conservative Catholics, especially in the U.S., have accused Martin of blasphemy and of spreading a “homosexualist” agenda. Many of them belong to the small but loud Francis opposition — a wing that the pope recently acknowledged when he told reporters that he was “honored” to be attacked by Americans and wasn’t afraid of schism by conservatives in the U.S. church.
In a tweet, Rorate Caeli, a traditionalist blog that has been critical of Francis, noted that Martin’s audience was listed alongside that of an entire bishops’ conference. “If that’s not an endorsement, nothing is,” read the tweet.
Damian Thompson, associate editor at Britain’s The Spectator, a conservative newsmagazine, said Francis’ aim in meeting with Martin was “intended to taunt the U.S. conservatives that he demonizes.”
Many of Francis’ critics argue he has confused the faithful with his mercy-over-morals priorities and flexibility on doctrinal issues such as sacraments for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
New Ways Ministry, a Catholic ministry for the LGBTQ community, praised the audience and said it showed that Martin’s ministry was being recognized and valued at the highest levels of the church.
“It is a clear signal that Pope Francis is calling the church to conversion away from the negative messages it has sent in the past about LGBTQ people,” said the head of New Ways Ministry, Francis DeBernardo. “It is a day of celebration for LGBTQ Catholics who have longed for an outstretched hand of welcome from the church that they love.”
Martin was in Rome for the plenary meeting of the Vatican’s communications department, as well as for the consistory Saturday to name 13 new cardinals.