“It is with sadness that I inform you that Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill has resigned as General Secretary of the Conference. … I ask for your prayers for Monsignor … during this difficult time” are the words of Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Archbishop Gomez is referring to the resignation of Monsignor Burrill following an exposé about the priest’s use of the gay dating app Grindr. While I can’t read the heart or know the mind of Archbishop Gomez, I do want to reflect on his choice of words, noting a grievance with the word “sadness” and the phrase “difficult time.”
Notwithstanding the media rush to condemn the journalistic methods of the staff at The Pillar, who first reported about Monsignor Burrill’s alleged improper behaviors, journalists have once again boxed themselves in to the same old trope: shock and awe that a closeted gay priest might be investigated by conservative journalists hoping to make even more narrow the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Who can fault the team at The Pillar for seeking to remove from office those who do not adhere to the written catechism? Of course, their level of orthodoxy is repugnant, after all while closeted and safe hiding his sexuality, Monsignor Burrill sought to weaponize Communion and deny President Joe Biden the Eucharist at Mass. Even gay and conservative has no place in the Roman Catholic Church.
The public relations team at Grindr quickly dismissed the notion that any journalist or media company could hack into their software and conduct a witch hunt of gay people. I daresay that such innuendo by more gay-friendly journalists is hearsay, misdirection, and in part ironic. There are times to report on the issue of data privacy, but is that the news here? The Catholic Church is certainly guilty of its own homophobic innuendo, and its methods of denying the sacrament of Communion to the LGBTQ+ community are unethical. (Consider the tactics of the investigators tied to the Newport sex scandal — the 1919-1921 investigation into gay sex in the U.S. Navy; certainly journalists from The Washington Post, America, and the National Catholic Reporter are not suggesting that this case of a resignation rises to that level of character assassination or cancellation.)
Of course, once a person settles down to reflect on this story the more pressing news surfaces. Which brings me back to my earlier point, the grievance with the word “sadness” and the phrase “difficult time.”
First, the resignation of Monsignor Burrill demonstrates the Roman Catholic Church’s continued lack of comfort with gays, gay sex, same-sex sexual attraction, and homosociality. While Monsignor Burrill has not disclosed his sexuality publicly, he is accused of using a gay dating app to meet men, not a straight dating app to meet women. It is therefore feasible to believe that at the very least, if he did not break with the clerical rule of celibacy, he did accompany other gay men to gay bars or meet with gay men socially.
Second, the bishops conference’s statement quickly assuages concerns about the possibility that Monsignor Burrill’s improper behavior involved minors. This is alarming, because to deal with gays and with what would normally be healthy, generative adult behavior between consenting adults, the archbishop must first assureCatholics that Monsignor Burrill is not a pedophile despite possibly being a homosexual.
Third, there is a sense that by acting on same-sex sexual desires, Monsignor Burrill is no less a sinner than the rest of us, that he may feel shame or far worse, ashamed. To me this argument does not pass the litmus test, because by suggesting that by acting on one’s same-sex sexual desire that gays or lesbians feel shame or should be ashamed suggests discomfort with the private acts of consenting adults. This is why conversion therapy needs to be banned globally and quickly.
Finally, Monsignor Burrill’s personal life was not scrutinized unfairly, as he is a public person, with a very public role in protecting minors from sexual abuse at the hands of an all-male and mostly white celibate clergy. Priests have every right to a private life, but if their actions do match their words, it is fair and ethical to speak truth to power and to expose them as being hypocrites. In this case, unless you are a Roman Catholic, it is not a sin that he acted on his same-sex sexual desire, so the question is not whether he acted on his natural sexual urges but rather that he did not follow the rule of clerical celibacy mandated his church and possibly contradicted his public role of priest for the bishops conference, in whose mission he served to protect others from sexual abuse by clergy. This is why the protection of minors should be the responsibility solely of law enforcement and not dealt with by a church that is historically known for allowing decades of abuse of minors by unhealthy, disintegrated men (men who are not gay!).
In the end, it is confusing that Archbishop Gomez writes about and asks Catholics to pray about the “sadness” and “difficult time.” We are not sad that Monsignor Burrill may be gay; if he is, we should celebrate it, and he should come out and be a role model for LGBTQ+ youth. Certainly it must be difficult for the bishops conference to lose a colleague or a staff member with whom many must have shared a laugh or had a good conversation. However, in most jobs in most companies, when people do not meet the standards of ethics, the mission, or vision of the company, they are investigated and usually fired. To be clear, Monsignor Burrill is a priest in a faith system that mandates clerical celibacy, enforces antigay theology in its catechism, and lacks full acceptance or welcome for LGBTQ+ people. All this despite the warmth of Pope Francis.
We must believe, unless told otherwise, that Monsignor Burrill freely and voluntarily became a priest and for however long has served his community with love. It is not shocking that he may have slipped and broken celibacy; what is shocking is that he could never come out publicly as a gay priest and be the man God created him to be, in God’s image and likeness. Unfortunately for the Roman Catholic Church, as its narrowing only makes clear, she upholds her catechism; the sadness associated with this difficult time is that too many progressive Catholics desire this church to be something she surely cannot be. Yes, sinners are welcome, but staying is voluntary.
Benjamin Brenkert is the author of A Catechism of the Heart: A Jesuit Missioned to the Laity.