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To the Catholic Church, All I Am Is Sin

Benjamin Brenkert commentary on Catholic Church

The popular Pope Francis has finally changed his words to match his inaction. The "Who am I to judge?" pontiff has now expressed serious worry and reservation about the place of gays in the priesthood. With those five words, the pope granted so much hope to the gay community: It meant that the pope and the church accepted gay people. But the pope duped everyone. With his latest remarks in Fernando de Prado’s forthcoming book The Strength of Vocation, the pope highlights the possible double life of gay priests, but when talking about the “strength of vocations,” he does not see a tendency toward duplicitous lifestyles by pederast priests or heterosexual priests.

In the same breath, Pope Francis says nothing about the strength of women’s vocations to become priests. His is a tired line, one that tells his 1.2 billion–member flock something about the nature of his shoot-from-the-holster papacy: His words and actions bend to the policies of conservative prelates (aka high-ranking clergy). Others speculate that the pope will offer his resignation in February at the Vatican summit on the protection of minors, a summit where Boston Archbishop Sean O’Malley (whose archdiocese has been rocked by sexual abuse scandals) is no longer a force, having been dropped from the summit's panel. Such are the topics of my surreptitiously canceled memoir with Bloomsbury Press. In my memoir I write candidly about the inside world of the Society of Jesus (known as the Jesuits, the order of the pope), but especially about my transition from being a gay seminarian to the laity. My only sin: wanting to be an openly gay ordained Jesuit priest.

I now am a school social worker in the New York City Department of Education. My students, mostly African-American and Latino, live in the projects in Queens; they are statistically considered “disadvantaged youth.” My training as a Jesuit nourishes my current work. In an effort to form these youth and encourage their self-esteem, I employ the secular wisdom of Ignatius of Loyola, the educational theorist and founder of the Society of Jesus. Loyola conceived of the school as a place for educators to care for the whole person, for in helping students to be their true selves while they in turn help to make their school a place not only one of learning but also one of family. Such is the crux of my research projects at Teachers College, Columbia University.

In my public schools the students thrive under the vision and mission of our principals, which is another part of Loyola’s education theory, care of the work. I love my job and never count the cost, including the rough commute from Long Island to Queens. I still wonder, however, where I would be today if I had remained in the Society of Jesus and been ordained as a closeted gay priest. I would likely be unhappy; how could I celebrate being a priest when so many of the people I’d serve are excluded? I could bless a boat or holy water but not marry gay couples.

Since my departure from the Society of Jesus, no openly gay Jesuit or other seminarian has been ordained. I told my story as a soon-to-be-ordained gay Jesuit in a memoir, quickly accepted by London’s Bloomsbury Publishing, but once the Jesuits got wind of my contract, they moved to stop my book from being published, and unfortunately they succeeded. because Bloomsbury is the international publisher of the Catholic catechism.

At the same time, other books about being gay and Catholic have emerged, but no one has referenced my well-known exclusion as a gay seminarian. One brother Jesuit never contacted me during the writing of his book on building bridges between the Catholic Church and gays; he knew about me and the reasons I left the Jesuits; he also heard my complaints (during vacations) about our order's homophobia. When I left the Jesuits, my brothers, many my good friends, considered me “dead,” a long-held Jesuit mind-set toward those who’ve left the order: “You are now dead to us.”

What hurts more is that since my departure from the Society of Jesus, the Catholic Church has not moved a smidgen on the issue of celebrating and honoring the ministry, relationships, or parenting of lesbian and gay Christians. Even now closeted gay seminarians continue to be ordained by dioceses and religious institutions around the globe. If they reveal their homosexuality, they will be asked to leave their seminary. I wanted to avoid leading a double life, and it’s why I insisted that I be ordained publicly as a gay Jesuit priest. I knew the inherent homophobia in the church, including the assumption that gay priests cheat on their vows. I am not aware of any research studies about this issue, because gay priests cannot come out. Still, my superiors refused my request. They said I could stay and be ordained, but I would have to pretend I was a straight man.

Since Pope Francis uttered his most famous five words, "Who am I to judge?," about gay priests, the Catholic Church has grown more baffling, sending out so many mixed signals that most Catholics are thoroughly confused about where the church really stands regarding Catholic gays. But I know my theology: the church's teaching on homosexuality has not changed. Gays fall under the rubric of the disoriented, the morbid and the immoral. When Pope Francis said there is no hell, he could not have known that my own Catholic family informed me that I’d burn in hell when I tried to come out as a gay youth in 1993.

Recently a colleague at one of my New York public schools learned about some articles I published before the Jesuits blocked my memoir. A second-year teacher praised me for being who God made me to be. She lamented that her gay cousin could not find a Catholic priest to marry him and his lover. To her it is simple: God made people in his image and likeness, so why can't the Catholic Church solemnize a gay or lesbian couple through and in the sacrament of marriage?

There are several reasons that the Catholic Church has not moved at all on the doctrine of homosexuality. First, to embrace homosexuals, to celebrate their ministry, relationships, and parenting, the Catholic Church would have to (a) see the pope speak ex cathedra (with the full authority of his office) on this issue, thus immediately pronouncing a Church teaching that same-sex couples can marry, or (b) a Vatican Council would have to be called where a collection of male prelates could write on the issue of homosexuality in the 21st-century world of the church and then have the Pope approve the document.

Second, bishops and cardinals cannot solve less challenging moral dilemmas — for example, the church cannot develop a new Eucharistic theology that allows divorced Catholics to receive communion, the body and blood of Jesus. If the church cannot resolve this issue, how can it move on to solve more theologically pressing issues like allowing gay and lesbians to have sexual intercourse or to participate in the sacrament of marriage?

The Catholic Church still believes it speaks the truth on human sexuality. That is, despite the "building bridges" hype of progressive Catholics, the church does not equivocate: Homosexuals who act on their sexual orientation are committing serious, mortal sin, and by doing so they thrust themselves from grace into darkness. They are the only ones who must try harder, that is, be celibate. The church sees itself as the way to Jesus and thus to God; consequently, it condemns homosexuality because it is against natural law.

While the Jesuits accepted my resignation, and prevented me from becoming the first openly gay ordained priest, no other bishop or cardinal has sought to ordain me. Pope Francis never responded to my "Open Letter: Help Save My Vocation," which was published by New Ways Ministry and The Huffington Post.

In my role as a school social worker, I participate in a different Eucharist and fellowship. I banquet with New York City’s urban youth. During my commute to work, I pray for my scholar’s experience of the world, one that is inclusive, kind, and generous. Yes, I am daily saddened that I'm not an openly gay ordained Jesuit priest, but I love what I do in my school and community. The strength of my vocation encouraged me to transition from being gay Jesuit to modeling Jesus as an inner-city school social worker.

In the secular world being gay is accepted, not as something fashionable, for one does not wear his/her sexuality like a fur coat or Prada shoes, (the latter the garb of Pope Benedict XVI), but rather as something inextricably all of me. In the secular world I am good and trusted, never a sinner, but in the world of the Catholic Church all I am is sin — not even the pope’s famous five words could reconcile me, according to the dogma of the Catholic Church.

I am a proud gay man who represents Jesus. I am adamantly opposed to living a double life, as some worry that I was more inclined to do because of who God made me to be in his image and likeness. To the church, I could not fully represent Jesus as a gay man, but I’ll not renounce who I am for anyone or any order or any institution. It saddens me that that Catholic Church sees gays as weak, that their vocations are worthless — what if gay priests finally said "enough"? How many churches would close, how many ministries would be canceled? The church and the pope don't have a clue how many of their priests, pastors, bishops, cardinals, abbots, and popes are gay, most of them living a double life, one of fear and trembling lest anyone find out they're gay.

The strength of my vocation led me away from the church, but to my delightful surprise, I am more priestly than ever!

BENJAMIN BRENKERT is a New York–based writer who left formation to become a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest after learning that more and more lesbian and gay employees and volunteers were being fired by the church.

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