LGBT Saints: Response to Fr James Martin

A brief  observation in a Facebook comments thread by Fr James attracted widespread media attention. In a follow up post this week, Fr Martin writes that he is surprised by this attention, and expanded on his argument. For LGBT Catholics, there are several points in this expanded observation that deserve comment.

It’s important to note, as Martin acknowledges, that the terms “gay”, “lesbian” “transgender” and “LGBT” are anachronistic when applied to the saints of history. Even the words “homosexual” and “heterosexual” are relatively modern terms, and would have been incomprehensible to people of earlier periods. “Gay” and its associated terms are of even more recent introduction. Nevertheless, it’s possible to accept that when viewed through a modern prism, a certain proportion of the saints could be described with modern terminology – i.e., part of the LGBT spectrum.

The qualification though, is to recognise that “gay” describes an orientation, not necessarily sexual conduct, just as “transgender” is used to refer to a range of non-cisgender variations, not necessarily to surgical transitioning.

It’s also important to note that the two specific examples he quotes, Mychal Judge and Henry Nouwens, are people from the late twentieth century, who have not been formally canonised. The saints of heaven are emphatically not limited to those who have been recognised by formal processes in Vatican offices. Indeed, the complexity (and cost) of the processes required for formal canonization in effect means that a disproportionate number of those approved will be priests (and a smaller number of religious sisters). It is not a co-incidence that Mychal Judge and Henry Nouwens were both priests.  However, there will be many more unrecognized saints who were not clergy – including some who might reasonably describe as lesbian, gay or trans.

Finally, a quibble. In his insistence that accepting that some of the saints will have been attracted to the same sex, does not imply that they necessarily acted on it, Fr Martin is suggesting that any such sexual activity would disqualify them from sainthood. Many respected theologians would disagree. Just as sainthood is not reserved to the priesthood, it is also not reserved to the Catholic faith. Both the Episcopal and Lutheran denominations have their own declared saints recognised in their liturgical calendars. Both now include amongst their clergy, openly gay or lesbian and partnered priests and bishops. These and other denominations will surely accept that loving, sexual partnerships are no barrier to holiness – or to sainthood.

I’m surprised that a comment I made a few days ago on this FB page was deemed news. (Google it if you doubt me.) In response to another comment, I noted that most likely some of the saints were probably LGBT. Yes, I know that the term “LGBT” wasn’t used until very recently, and that even the concept of homosexuality is a relatively late cultural construct, but if a certain (small) percentage of human beings are gay, then it stands to reason that a certain (small) percentage of the thousands of saints were, because they are, of course, human beings. And holiness makes it home in humanity.

In other words, among the saints there were probably some who were attracted to people of the same sex. That’s not to say that they acted on it, but if you consider, to take one example, all the priests, monks, brothers and sisters who were ordained or entered religious orders, it’s certainly conceivable that some of them, even as they lived celibacy and chastity, experienced attractions to people of the same sex. In fact, the priesthood and religious orders have always been places for people who have felt those inclinations to live chaste and holy lives.

Which ones? Hard to say. Really impossible to say, given how little homosexuality would have been understood, admitted and discussed in the past. To my mind, though, there are some saints who, at least based on their writings, seem to have been what we would today call gay. But again, it’s hard to know for sure.

This shouldn’t be surprising. In fact the Catechism says, in a rather overlooked passage, that LGBT people can, through a variety of means, including through prayer and the sacraments, “approach Christian perfection,” that is, become holy men and women (#2359).

In our own time, we can look to holy persons who were gay. I’ve certainly known many holy LGBT people in my own life. Or, to be more specific, think of someone like Mychal Judge, OFM, the Franciscan fire chaplain and hero of 9/11, who was also a gay man. Or Henri Nouwen, the Dutch spiritual writer, who fell in love quite suddenly, and turbulently, with a man towards the end of his life. Were these men saints? Also hard to say, but I’d argue that they were certainly holy and, therefore, they can show us how one can be an LGBT person and saintly.

As I said, I was surprised that this would surprise people. A few people were even offended. But those who were offended may be surprised to be greeted in heaven by more than a few LGBT saints, who will surely forgive them for being offended by their holiness.

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