The late Sir Roger Scruton once wrote about the “religious imposter” Tartuffe, an archetypal character from a play by the seventeenth-century French comedic playwright Molière. “Tartuffe is not simply a hypocrite,” Scruton said, “who pretends to ideals that he does not believe in. He is a fabricated person, who believes in his own ideals since he is just as illusory as they are.” The infinite avatars we can create behind the apps on our screens make our true selves easier to ignore; and among Christian leaders, these fakers prop up a culture of deceit that leads to systemic failure.
In July 2021, Catholics learned about the secret life of Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, who resigned as General Secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, after it came to light that he was a frequent user of the gay hook-up app, Gridr. At the time, there was legitimate disagreement in the Catholic world surrounding the investigation and publicizing of Burrill’s moral failures.
But whether we should know about Burrill’s misdeeds is now beside the point. We know. And less than a year after Burrill’s demise, his bishop, The Most Reverend William Patrick Callahan, announced Burrill would be returning to public ministry as Parochial Administrator of St. Teresa of Kolkata Parish in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin.
While we should all rejoice for Burrill to be reconciled to Christ and the Church, we should also be appalled to see him leading the people of God at the altar and in the pulpit again. We all understand that priests are in short supply, but we will just have to soldier on without men like Monsignor Burrill at the altar.
I have never met Jeffrey Burrill, and I doubt he is a full-blown imposter. But he was a key player among the most influential people in the Church, all while presenting a false self. And because the truth about Burrill’s character came out, we now unfortunately have a more vivid picture of a Church whose hierarchy can be a smokescreen for double-living and manipulation. Burrill’s return to priestly ministry is a clear sign that the noxious fog of clericalism is only getting thicker. And for this reason, it does not take a conspiracy theorist to wonder how many more men like Burrill have not gotten caught, or have gotten caught and no one cared, or have even been encouraged in their sins by fellow clergy who have similar secrets.
Burrill’s sins are a revelation, and his rehabilitation as a pastor compounds the scandal. Everyone sins, yes, including every priest. But not everyone leads a secret life of vice, and priests must not. Burrill’s fall should remind us that we deserve real men as priests – that is, men who embrace their God-givenness, seek accountability to live in reality, and shun the pride of ecclesiastical success. Where our clergymen fail, it is a strange blessing of our digital age that we may very well find out about it in ways we may never have before. The secrecy must end.
As a former minister myself, and as a man, I understand all too well the perils that beset men called by God to great work. But I now sit in the congregation with ordinary men and women who are desperate to find hope amid hardship, to balance aggression with kindness, desire with discipline, and courage with wisdom. We need to learn chastity, and we can’t have leaders who are hypocritical about it.
But more importantly, we cannot live with a hierarchy that is indifferent to it. We need strong leaders who empower us to bring our own phoniness to light and to bear whatever consequences may come of it so that we may learn to accept the gift of eternal life with Christ.
Burrill’s return to parish ministry compounds the original scandal of his sin. He clearly wanted a hidden life, and now he should have one. We should wish Burrill well, but it isn’t too much to ask for an ostensibly celibate man who was caught hooking-up many times with other men – or women, for that matter – to spend the rest of his life as an ordinary Christian in relative obscurity. We will have no more self-made men living double or triple lives at the altar or in the pulpit, or men who cover for each other, look the other way, or rationalize failure.
If a man wants to lay down his one integrated life for the sheep, we need him now more than ever. But if a man wants something else out of the priesthood or a life in the Church, he must find another profession.
A Tartuffe, a “fabricated person,” need no longer apply.
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