The filmmaker and Father James Martin discuss “Building a Bridge” and the Church they both grew up in.
By Paul Elie
In the nineteen-fifties, Ravenhall, a salt-water swimming pool in Brooklyn’s Coney Island, was a destination for summer day trippers from the sweltering city, including Martin Scorsese’s family and friends, who often went there from Little Italy. On one such outing, Scorsese, in his early teens, was told that there was something he had to see. “Ravenhall was the neighborhood bathtub, so to speak, a big pool where everybody would go, and it was packed,” Scorsese recalled last week. “Some old wiseguys would be there, in cabana sets, playing cards. And there was a steam room. And one day we were there, and we heard, ‘Hey, hey, come here, they got some fag in the steam room, they beat him up. Come see the blood! You can’t miss this!’ I never saw the guy, but I saw the blood. We’re talking the mid-fifties, the Red Scare period. The aliens are coming to destroy America and the Catholic Church, and they’re Communists, and, for all we know, gay.”
This summer, Scorsese, who is now seventy-nine, is working at his town house on the Upper East Side with his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, on his next film, “Killers of the Flower Moon.” (Based on the book by David Grann, it tells the story of a plot to murder members of the Osage Nation who were thriving in the Oklahoma oil boom of the nineteen-twenties.) Meanwhile, a different Scorsese production is available on AMC+, Sundance TV, and various on-demand platforms: “Building a Bridge,” a documentary about James Martin, a Jesuit priest and popular author, who is based at America, the Jesuit magazine, in New York, and who in recent years has devoted himself to Catholic outreach to the L.G.B.T.Q. community. Scorsese told me about the incident at Ravenhall during a conversation at his home, which Martin joined by Zoom. I had asked Scorsese how homosexuality was spoken about in the Italian American Catholic enclave of his childhood.
“It was never mentioned by priests, never mentioned in the pulpit, never mentioned in the house, never talked about at all,” Scorsese said. “Anything out of what would be considered the norm was to be ostracized, humiliated, made fun of.” But then Scorsese, who had a large extended family, learned that an older cousin with whom he was very close was gay. “There was this ‘raging bull’ kind of masculinity” at that time, so “it was an extraordinary trauma for all the uncles, my father, everyone.” He added, “They even had one of my uncles ‘talk to him,’ so to speak: ‘And if this doesn’t work, I’ll break his legs.’ ” It never went that far, Scorsese said, but, “at one family event, everyone was arguing, it became tense—‘highly charged,’ as they say. After that, things calmed down, but I’ll never forget those nights.”
The cousin, though, also confided in Scorsese, who, because he had asthma, did not engage in many neighborhood exploits. “One night, as we were walking, he said, ‘I hang out with these guys, and I’m like them.’ I was stunned.”
“That’s pretty extraordinary,” Martin said, “that someone in the fifties would say something, not knowing whether you would reveal it to your friends or your family. That takes a lot of guts.”
“Yeah, it did,” Scorsese said. “But he knew what he felt, he knew who he was, and he trusted me. He knew that I was an outsider, too. He knew I didn’t belong with the street toughs.”
Martin, who is sixty-one, is a grandson of Sicilian immigrants on his mother’s side. He grew up near Philadelphia, graduated from the Wharton School of Business, and worked for General Electric, in Connecticut, before entering the Society of Jesus, in 1988. Through his articles for America, and then a series of books, he became involved in arts projects with a Catholic dimension. He acted as an adviser to the Off Broadway production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” (and later presided at the funeral Mass for Philip Seymour Hoffman, who directed it); served as “official chaplain” to “The Colbert Report” (Stephen Colbert is Catholic); was an adviser on Scorsese’s 2017 film “Silence” (which is about Jesuit missionaries in Japan in the seventeenth century); and played a cameo role in “The Irishman,” as a priest performing baptisms. His Facebook page is widely read as a bulletin board of events in the Catholic and Jesuit world, and his Twitter account has more than three hundred thousand followers. “Terrible news from the Jesuit Curia: Two Jesuits murdered in Mexico,” a recent post reported. “May they rest in peace.”
“Building a Bridge” was made by Evan Mascagni and Shannon Post. (Their previous documentary, “Circle of Poison,” examines the devastating effects of selling pesticides abroad that are banned for use in the United States.) It’s based on a short book that Martin wrote after the mass shooting in 2016 at Pulse, a gay night club in Orlando, in which forty-nine people were killed. He noticed that the Catholic hierarchy had made scant reference to gays or homosexuality in its response, and it prompted him to try to “build a bridge” between the Church and L.G.B.T.Q. people. “Father Martin’s message resonated with us both personally, with me as a Catholic and Shannon as a queer person,” Mascagni told me. The filmmakers followed Martin for several weeks in 2018 and 2019, as he met with gay people and the parents of gay people in Catholic schools and parishes. In one scene, at a book-signing event, he is approached by a young person in tears, who tells him, “I’m not out to my family,” because “they talk so badly” about homosexuality. He says to give them time.
Martin has said that he doesn’t seek for the Church to change its teachings on homosexuality; he merely wants it to treat gay people with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity”—a position stated in the Catechism. The film sets his efforts in counterpoint with those of Michael Voris, of the traditionalist outlet Church Militant, who hosts a video, shown in the film, decrying “homo heresy” in the Church. “Martin is a twisted pervert,” Voris says in another clip. “There isn’t a doctrine or teaching of the Church that he wouldn’t twist and pervert with his sick mind so as to excuse his acceptance of homosexual lust.” Scorsese signed on as executive producer of the film during post-production after Martin told him about it—and he sent Mascagni and Post suggestions to reëdit some sections. “Evan got a call from Marty, and he says it was the highlight of his life,” Martin said. “ ‘Guess who I got a call from?’ ”
Scorsese told another story: around the time that his cousin confided in him, he had a revelation about a young man everyone knew in the neighborhood. He “looked like Tony Curtis in ‘City Across the River,’ ” Scorsese recalled. “He was a rock—tough, but not belligerent.” He had a car that he drove to make deliveries in the area, and Scorsese and his friends once asked to go along “because we liked to go riding in cars and nobody had a car.” When the deliveries were done, the young man said he had to make one more stop, and drove to Washington Square Park, where a group of “clean-cut young men,” with “button-down collars, chinos, blond hair,” called him by name. He got out of the car, and a “flamboyant” man joined them, and, Scorsese said, “Next thing we know, he’s bringing him in the car,” saying, “ ‘I’m just gonna drop him at the subway station at Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue.’ And we’re in the back, looking at this guy, who is sort of exotic, and also sort of threatening, because we had never experienced it, and we start giggling.” The young man said, “ ‘Don’t pay any attention. They don’t understand.’ And we stopped. ‘They don’t understand.’ We never said a word about it, but it was an extraordinary moment,” Scorsese said.
Scorsese had two more cousins who were also “that way,” as it was said in the family. One cousin was in a relationship for twenty-odd years, and eventually got married. The other, Scorsese said, “was younger than me. I saw him take his first steps. Then I lost touch with him. The last time I spoke to him, he was in the hospital.” This was in the early nineties. He had AIDS, and died soon afterward.
Even in a very traditional Italian American family, then, ways were found to address homosexuality obliquely. But, in the public world of Catholicism, in Scorsese’s account, gay people were excluded and shunned. “The exclusion is what got me,” he said. “I loved my cousins. They were good people, and I saw the suffering they went through, and the suffering of the people who cared about them.” He added, “Catholicism is supposed to be about inclusion. If the outsider is out there—is my naïve way of thinking—that’s what you have to embrace. The outsider is not to be excluded: that’s a human soul. It’s who the person is. It seemed very clear to me that this was a shortcoming of the Church.”
That shortcoming became particularly vexing to him during the nineteen-eighties. Protestant fundamentalists railed against homosexuality—the Reverend Jerry Falwell characterized AIDS as divine retribution (“A man reaps what he sows”)—and were joined by some traditionalist Catholics. (Fundamentalists also protested Scorsese’s 1988 film “The Last Temptation of Christ.”) The Catholic archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor, reaffirmed the Church’s position that homosexuality is “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil,” as the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared in a 1986 document, “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” He spoke out against violence directed toward gay people, but denounced gay sexual activity and relationships. He lauded AIDS hospices in Catholic hospitals, but fought gay-rights legislation, and opposed condom use and sex education. And, at St. Francis Xavier, a Jesuit parish on West Sixteenth Street, his archdiocese ended the practice of holding masses that served as gatherings for Dignity, a movement of gay Catholics, which had become rituals of grieving for a community ravaged by AIDS. It “was a painful moment for L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics in New York,” Martin told me. “Many people saw it as a sign of exclusion not only from that parish but from the Church as a whole.”
Scorsese saw the tensions expressed in dramatic fashion in 1991. “I was in a taxi going down Fifth Avenue, Rockefeller Center on my right, St. Patrick’s Cathedral on my left,” he recalled. “All of a sudden, I hear, ‘Fuck you! Fuck! You!’ I turned around, because Fifth Avenue is a place where you don’t expect to hear that. And I see a guy—glasses, blazer, well dressed—screaming at St. Patrick’s from across the avenue. ‘Fuck you, O’Connor! You’re nobody’s father!’ I’ve never heard such anger. It came from deep in his soul.” Scorsese noted, “He may have just lost his partner, or his brother. And that brought it all home.”
Three decades later, it’s unclear how much the situation for gay people in the Catholic Church has improved. Certainly, there are signs of change. The present archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, celebrated Mass at St. Francis Xavier, and “mentioned the L.G.B.T.Q. ministries as one of the many signs of welcome in the parish,” Martin told me. In July, 2021, Pope Francis sent Martin a handwritten letter, in Spanish, supporting his work with L.G.B.T.Q. people. “God’s ‘style’ has three elements: closeness, compassion, and tenderness,” Francis wrote. “Thinking about your pastoral work, I see that you continually try to imitate this ‘style of God.’ ” This past weekend, Fordham University, a Jesuit institution, hosted Outreach, a conference, organized by Martin, on the place of L.G.B.T.Q. people in the Church, featuring the mix of workshops, listening sessions, and liturgies that makes up his ministry these days.
And yet, this past spring, the Nativity School of Worcester, in Massachusetts, a Jesuit school for low-income students, got an open letter from the local bishop, Robert J. McManus, directing it to stop flying the rainbow and Black Lives Matter flags—or else to cease calling itself Catholic. (McManus said that the Church “stands unequivocally behind” the phrase “black lives matter,” but not what he called the movement’s view on the “role of the nuclear family.”) The school’s leaders refused to take down the flags, and, this month, the bishop signed a decree stripping the school of its Catholic affiliation. And, Pope Francis’s expressions of support notwithstanding, Catholic teaching is still set firmly against homosexual activity: in March, 2021, Francis signed off on a “responsum” to questions about same-sex relationships, declaring that even their “positive elements,” such as stability, “cannot justify these relationships,” and that God “does not and cannot bless sin.” Francis is eighty-five and in declining health, and there are rumors that he will retire, and the next Pope, possibly a more conservative figure, could well bolster the existing declaration that homosexuality is an “objective disorder,” in effect undoing the symbolic gestures that Francis has made. And now that the U.S. Supreme Court—which has five conservative Catholics among its nine Justices—has ruled that, as the Catholic bishops have long maintained, a woman’s right to abort a fetus is not protected by the Constitution, it’s possible that the right to same-sex marriage (which the bishops also oppose) will be challenged next.
For Scorsese, the new documentary is not so much evidence of social change as an agent of it. Recalling his own coming of age, he said that motion pictures had a major role in opening up the culture of the fifties, when the arts were regulated by an interlocking directorate of law, press, clergy, and business figures, and the candid depiction of sex of any kind was discouraged. In doing so, they challenged the production code—buttressed by the Catholic Church—that had restricted the content of movies. “I saw the change happen. It was an explosion,” Scorsese said. (Films such as “The Children’s Hour” (1961) and “Advise and Consent” (1962) presented homosexuality as a road to perdition—things turn out badly for the protagonists—but at least they depicted it as a complex and personal reality.) Similarly, “Building a Bridge” might help to open up a Church that is leery of discussions about homosexuality, especially if it is shown in parishes and schools in places where anti-gay forces are strong. “Many Catholics, not knowing any L.G.B.T. people, are ready to condemn them: ‘I don’t need to meet them, don’t need to talk to them, I’ll just condemn their life style,’ ” Martin said during our conversation. He hopes that the film will enable Catholics who might never knowingly encounter L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics directly to encounter them onscreen—a small step, but a necessary one
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