Catholic Church

On Leaving Religious Life: Why I Cannot Be A Roman Catholic Priest

by Benjamin Brenkert

Last fall I finally had enough. Enough of hearing the Roman Catholic Church romanticize the materially poor. Enough of watching the Roman Catholic Church fire married gays and lesbians from public ministry from high schools and churches. Enough of trying to defend the Roman Catholic Church’s practice of ordaining only celibate men to the priesthood. Enough is enough.

As an openly gay man I’ve spent the past 10 years pursuing the priesthood in the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits).

I’ve loved being a Jesuit, being a son of St. Ignatius of Loyola, collaborating with lay men and women on projects as small as weekend retreats and as large as running school social work interventions in one of our Jesuit Prep schools.

Yet, the closer I came to seeking permission to be ordained to the all-male Roman Catholic priesthood the more alienated I felt from my more traditional-minded peers, the more betrayed I felt by my faith, and the more confused I felt about my authentic place in the Church. I felt like a fringe character and a safe outsider–less of a neighbor, more of a hapless victim in an institution with a storied history.

I lamented Pope Francis I’s uninspiring, yet still undefined comment “Who am I to judge?” Almost a year later I pray about his understanding of that question, and hope that some day he will publicly answer it. Until then it’s meaning remains up for grabs.

In the meantime, this quotation is often mischaracterized by the media who relish in putting words in the ambiguous Pope’s mouth.

I lamented the poorly written U.S. Bishops Document Always your Children which in 1997 told Roman Catholic parents of gay and lesbian youth to help find counseling, spiritual or psychological, for their children. And to first accept yourself as a parent. It did not tell parents to love their children, but rather “how to love them.” What a sad, tragic, document!

Over the past 34 years I’ve come out three times, first at 14, then at 21 and now at 34. Each time those closest to me reacted more coldly and in more alienating ways, proving to me time and again something about their malformation and spiritual disintegration as Roman Catholics. Jesus does not support such reactions; his is a Gospel message focused on human relationship, human intimacy and community rehabilitation. Jesus said, “Go, Do likewise” not “Who am I to judge?”.

And so this year, after a good, free, holy and prayerful discernment, where I practiced St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Rules for the Discernment of Spirits and applied his Rules for Thinking with the Church, I sought permission to leave the Society of Jesus and to be dispensed of my vows. I leave in good standing, with mutual love and respect, and deep heartfelt gratitude for the Jesuits. A huge weight fell from my shoulders. I could be me (again), happier, more joyful, taller – less burdened by a human institution driven by a primarily celibate-male agenda.

And about my departure I note that amongst the many good and positive responses were two that struck me the most painfully.

First, one former superior told me that our relationship had died because I did not seek him out during my discernment – but my discernment wasn’t about him, it was about Jesus’ primordial call to me to be a priest. I wasn’t Cher on a goodbye tour.

Second, a younger (typically) traditional, homophobic, heterosexist and chauvinistic Jesuit told me that in my desire to seek reception into the Episcopal Church that “I could not be saved,” that my discernment to leave the “Church” is disordered and disoriented, and that “I should pray before the Blessed Sacrament.” For him I can only be saved as a Roman Catholic; he cited Lumen Gentium and Saint Paul’s First Letter to Timothy. Why didn’t he cite Jesus? Like most traditional Roman Catholics: He couldn’t!

His thinking returned me to what the Roman Catholic Church tells me about my identity as a fully integrating, authentic, empathic and joyful gay man, that I am disordered, that my sexual actions are intrinsically evil – that I am never a full member of the Church, simply put: I remain a fringe character or a safe outsider who can seek community in gay-friendly parishes like Boston’s St. Cecilia or New York’s St. Francis Xavier.

But why, why should I have to retreat to a chorus of believers?

At these parishes good and faithful men and women must rely on the doctrine of the internal forum to guide their consciences (to act publicly or privately), acting less and less as a community and more and more as individuals. Aren’t these communities then also responsible for creating the often decried and vilified “Cafeteria Catholics”?

Furthermore: Why can’t I be loved for who I am at home, at my family’s parish in Riverhead, St John the Evangelist, or at Boston College, where the gay and lesbian club I belong to called Gaudete is restricted from advertising on the main campus. Nor can Gaudete sponsor events or meetings on Boston College’s main campus.

Why in the 21st Century am I treated like a sinner, when the current Pope tells everyone to get out of my bedroom and that we cannot be a Church that talks only about abortion or sexuality or birth control.

Didn’t God by becoming human bend down to join us in our spiritual and material poverty?

I am also much more fearful of the lone radical who might write his or her Bishop about any one of the married gay and lesbians that work at one of our Jesuit Prep Schools or Universities, or about the gay or lesbian student group at one of our high schools or universities. All it takes is one homophobe to force an administration and its board of trustees to decide the fate of an employee or student group, perhaps even a cherished gay or lesbian athlete at a Roman Catholic University like Notre Dame or Georgetown.

Recently, I’ve watched this discrimination play out across America in cities like Seattle, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Fridley, Moorhead, Oceanside, Bensalem, Glendora and on and on. Most recently our Jesuit Parish in Kansas City fired Colleen Simon because she is a married lesbian. Other dioceses are planning to implement new, stricter, more traditional contracts for employees of Roman Catholic Institutions.

As a Cardinal in Argentina Pope Francis I once told listeners that our Church has at times become too insular, leading to spiritual sickness, that we must avoid a “Church [that] remains closed in on itself, self-referential, [one that] gets old.”

To this I respond with a question posed to me by a Jesuit whom I admire and love:

What is the Society of Jesus doing today that would or could cause her to be suppressed (again)?

In 1773 the Society of Jesus was suppressed just as the world faced the introduction of modernity, secularism and the end of the ancien regime. What about today’s Society of Jesus or other institutes of religious?

Which openly or closeted gay Roman Catholic priest, Jesuit or not, will speak prophetically for the rights of the LGBTQ community?

Moreover, why don’t more Roman Catholics leave their Church, especially when their Church is leaving them, and leaving their world, behind? No, the Church is not a democracy, but neither is it a dictatorship.

As for me, I’m happily and joyfully leaving religious life, following Jesus’ primordial call to me to be a priest, a married priest, in an ecumenically and Incarnational Christian Church. I cannot stand to be part of an institution that fires even one gay or lesbian because of their free right to marry the person they love.

Photo via flickr user Michael Peligro

Comments (5)

Christine Rapoza

Blessed be.
Blessed be.

John Rovell

I am sorry you went through
I am sorry you went through all you went through, but as a gay Christian and an Episcopalian I am happy you will be received into the Episcopal Church. I hope you do discernment for ordination as the church needs more GLBT priests as more GLBT people are joining the church. There are also Episcopalian monks and nuns, though I am not sure if a Jesuit community has been established. May God bless you on your new path and for your testimony.

Maureen Cavanagh

I am sorry you went through
I am sorry you went through this. I am so disillusioned by what I thought my faith that I loved. My daughter is gay. She plans to marry and have a family and I think she should. I know Jesus thinks so too. Good luck to you!!!


yeah, that. It’s not just the
yeah, that. It’s not just the boys.


Thank you for your integrity
Thank you for your integrity and courage.

Comments are closed.