The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I thought I could be a gay Jesuit priest. I can’t believe how wrong I was.

Ben Brenkert (right with friends. Photo courtesy of Ben Brenkert)

I’ve come out as gay three times in my life. Most challenging was not telling my conservative family, at 14, but rather a group of men who promised to love and to labor alongside the materially and spiritually poor — my class of Jesuit novices, men who would someday become Jesuit priests or brothers.

Even as a teen, I felt called to join the priesthood. I attended mass daily and studied the stories of saints like St. Anthony, medieval missionaries like Matteo Ricci and mystics like Hildegard of Bingen. I wanted to be like them. And I was drawn to the opportunities to serve God by helping others. I worked as a religious education teacher with students with disabilities.

Over time, I prayed and reflected about working with LGBT youth who felt lost and rejected by those closest to them, alienated by a Church that made them foreigners. It was a feeling I knew too well.

In 2005, I joined the Jesuits, one of Catholicism’s most progressive religious orders. I was nervous, at first, that being gay would be a problem. After all, the church opposes gay marriage; many members of the church believe practicing homosexuality is a sin.

But I was open and transparent about my sexual orientation from the beginning. Before I committed, I talked to my vocation director. He was a gay Jesuit; he assured me I’d be welcomed into the Society of Jesus, that I wouldn’t have to go back into the closet. I met other gay Jesuits who told me the same. I hoped that I might be able to help nudge the church in a more accepting direction, pushing it to accept and support its gay and lesbian members.

So I came out to my peers. We had all been invited to explain our life stories in chapel. I told my peers about my struggle to accept and love myself as a gay man. I expected surprise, but also support. Though Catholic priests are celibate, they are very open about their sexuality in private.  I listened to my straight brothers speak openly about opposite-sex attraction, or make crude jokes about women. And Pope Francis (a Jesuit himself) has promises a more compassionate Catholicism, where divorcees and gays are accepted.

Instead, over time, I felt more and more alienated and ostracized by the institutional Church. Some of my Jesuit classmates refused to talk to me. I remember going to New Orleans to do some Hurricane Katrina relief. I worked alongside my classmates in silence — they were silent to me over meals and in our home. I felt like a fringe character or a safe outsider.

My Novice Master even told me that I had made a fundamental mistake in coming out – that I, by fully embracing who I was, not shying away from God’s love of and for me, nor by retreating into the closet, that I had caused them to reject me.

I immediately spiraled into the dark night of the soul. Thankfully God found me that summer during a trip to study Spanish in Bolivia.

Over time, I realized I could not be part of an institution that hated me. I thought of the anti-gay legislation in countries like Uganda and Russia. I didn’t want to be part of an organization with similar policies, where LGBT Catholics are fired for loving their partners, for being the selves God created, the selves God delights in.

I’ve since left the priesthood and have pursued a different religious life with the Episcopal church.

But I am not the only victim. LGBTQ Roman Catholics are being fired from employment, simply because of their sexuality.

Most recently a Jesuit parish in Kansas City fired Colleen Simon because she is a married lesbian. Two lesbians were fired from Cor Jesus, a high school in St. Louis. Other dioceses are planning to implement new, stricter, more traditional moral contracts for employees of Roman Catholic Institutions. 

Today I still miss being a Jesuit. I miss my community, and the many lay men and women whom I befriended in Boston.

Yet I tried my best to stay, to make changes from the inside. Unfortunately the Jesuit brand is up against an institution with a long history of staunchly refusing to evolve with the times. I can no longer participate in a religion that fires LGBT people simply because of whom they choose to love, an institution that by firing LGBT employees brings them closer to the physical and material poverty Pope Francis speaks so passionately against.

I know now that it’s not God who rejects me. It’s the dogma of a church run by celibate straight and gay men that’s pledged to change, but that refuses to.