Review: 'Building A Bridge' Shares a Jesuit Priest's Good News for LGBTQ+ Catholics

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday April 1, 2022

'Building a Bridge'
'Building a Bridge'  (Source:OUTShine)

Directors Evan Mascagnia and Shannon Post detail the work of New York-based Jesuit priest Fr. James Martin, an advocate for LGBTQ+ Catholics who was prompted to write a book — "Building a Bridge," the same title as this documentary — in the wake of the Pulse Nightclub massacre.

Martin details here that he felt he needed to speak out when Catholic bishops in the U.S., who usually have something to say when mass shootings occur, fell almost completely silent after the Pulse gunman killed 49 people — "at that time that largest mass shooting in U.S. history," Fr.Martin notes — because, evidently, the 49 fatalities claimed by the gunman on the night of June 12, 2016 were mostly, if not all, LGBTQ+ people.

Fr. Martin wasn't the only one left stunned by the reaction of right-wing Catholics. Christine Leinonen, whose son was shot to death on the Pulse nightclub dance floor, recalls how, after her prayers were not answered and she found out her son was one of the dead, she heard about the family of another young man who had been killed — a Catholic family that refused to collect his body, rejecting him even in death because of his sexuality.

"Is that what we're doing in the Catholic church — are we teaching people that they are allowed to judge, and they are allowed to hate?" Leinonen wonders aloud.

It depends, of course, on who you talk to. The filmmakers spend a good deal of time with Fr. Martin, hearing his views and reasoning, and taking note that while he argues passionately for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people of the faith, he never questions church teachings. It's a fine line that Fr. Martin walks, and it's drawn criticism from liberal Catholics and the LGBTQ+ community.

There's a reason for it, though. As Fr. Bryan Massingale tells the camera, Fr. Martin is not a theologian, like Fr. Massingale is. But Fr. Massingale doesn't hesitate to say, on the record and in his role as a theologian, that the vitriolic characterization of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope XVI) of LGTBQ+ people as being "intrinsically disordered" is something that "not only needs to be revisited, it needs to be dropped from official church teachings."

What Fr. Martin stresses — fearlessly and continuously — is the other part of the church's somewhat confusing mixed message: That LGBTQ+ people "must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity." Or, as Fr. Martin himself summarizes his views: "It's not a question of making them Catholic; they already are."

That distinction, along with Fr. Martin's true teachings, are lost on some, including at least one bishop who falsely claims — whether out of inattention or mendacity — that Fr. Martin is spreading a gospel that runs contrary to the church's orthodoxy. Another voice hammering on an anti-Fr. Martin message (obsessively, to judge from this doc) is Michael Voris, the man behind a publication (and broadcast) called Church Militant. The title is all too apt. Voris' commentary is bellicose, accusatory, and inaccurate. It also trucks in the kind of playground insults, as well as the wild conspiracy theories, that the fringe right seems to love: Voris insists that Fr. Martin is a "twisted pervert" who's preaching "homosexual lust," and is seen at one point insisting to an audience of like-minded Catholics that Fr. Martin's message is part and parcel with a plot to drive the faithful out of the church.

A gay man himself — he freely admits having once been part of the LGBTQ community, and is not seen here claiming to be an "ex-gay" — Voris repeats the standard homophobic slurs that the extreme right continually hurls. While Fr. Martin calls for respect and inclusion, Voris lands hard, again and again, on a single theme: Sex. One clip shows Voris and a guest on Church Militant agreeing that the very word "gay" can only mean one thing, and that is "sodomy" (by which they seem to be referring to anal intercourse).

That same myopic message is on display when protestors line the sidewalk in front of a church where Fr. Martin is scheduled to speak, their placards declaring that "sodomy" should be a matter of "shame" rather than pride. (They must have missed the memo about lifelong commitment and enduring love that went along with the legalization of marriage equality.)

While Fr. Martin's self-proclaimed enemies are busy obsessing over sex acts (and conservative cancel culture flourishes among the trolls who attack him on social media), the man himself focuses, with continual good cheer, on his simple message of including those who are already, by the church's own lights, part of the church membership. His celebrations of the mass fill the pews, and his words touch deeply injured souls searching for a home for their faith. Even Leinonen, who had stopped attending mass after the death of her son, attends a mass after speaking with Fr. Martin. "They're going back to Jesus," Leinonen says of the faithful who flock to churches to hear Fr. Martin speak.

Not bad for someone who, according to anti-LGTBQ+ conspiracy theories, is in league with a shadowy conspiracy to hollow out and destroy the faith.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.