Inside This Local Priest’s Decision to Come Out as Gay

The ‘out’ heard round the world…

During his homily at Sunday morning Mass on Dec. 17, the Rev. Gregory Greiten, pastor of St. Bernadette’s Catholic Parish on Milwaukee’s northwest side, stood at the pulpit under the round skylight in the church’s low-slung nave and announced that he was gay. A woman yelled out, “God bless you, father!” as he spoke, and afterwards he received a standing ovation from the congregation.

The next day, the National Catholic Reporter, an independent newspaper that covers the church, published an essay that Greiten had written and rewritten for two years, hoping to explain to the world his decision to come out. “Today, I break the silence and emerge free from the shackles of shame placed upon me at a young age,” he wrote, breaking with the church custom that normally calls for clergymen to deal with homosexuality privately.

The announcement, which came with assurances that Greiten is celibate, made an immediate splash around the world. It was translated into German, for example, in the national weekly newspaper Die Zeit. Greiten says he received more than 300 letters and emails from as far away as Australia, Spain and Uganda, many of them from gay Catholics and their families, thanking him for his honesty. Some 35 to 40 others, however, were critical, and one man even came to Greiten’s office at St. Bernadette’s to call him a “sodomite.” The conservative Catholic press soon piled on, with the news site Church Militant implicating Greiten in a “tidal wave of sodomy” said to be swamping the church. All of a sudden, Greiten found himself something of a soldier in a culture war going on inside the church.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Greiten’s coming out the next day, along with a message of support from Archbishop Jerome Listecki, with whom Greiten had consulted before making his announcement. “We support Father Greiten in his own personal journey and telling his story of coming to understand and live with his sexual orientation,” Listecki is quoted as saying. “As the church teaches, those with same-sex attraction must be treated with understanding and compassion.”

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, a Massachusetts-based group that advocates for LGBT people in the church, says she recalls no more than 10 similar cases of priests coming out to their congregations in the 15-20 years she’s been active. And she praised Listecki’s statement: “I think the archbishop did a great job [and] provided a very measured and supportive tone.”

But the archdiocese appeared to soften its initial support for Greiten’s coming out. After Listecki answered questions in a radio interview about it, his supportive statement was revised to add this sentence: “My preference would have been not to publicly announce this, because it can be confusing for some people as to whether someone with same-sex attraction can minister as a priest.”

A few days after Greiten’s announcement, the Rev. Nathan Reesman, pastor of two parishes in West Bend, stirred the pot some more. As chaplain of the local branch of Courage, a group that ministers to people with “same-sex attraction” and encourages them to avoid acting on it, he published a blog post that didn’t mention Greiten by name but was critical of his actions. “The people in the pews have the right to receive, at Mass, the unbroken teachings of the Catholic Church,” he writes, “rather than being forced to make a false choice between supporting or abandoning a priest who willfully makes the occasion of a homily [to talk] about his own interior struggles.”

Listecki’s chief of staff, Jerry Topczewski, says the archbishop regards Reesman’s post as “well expressed.”

Right-wing Catholic news outlets around the country went a great deal further. criticized Listecki for his apparent support of Greiten, under the title, “Seven things a bishop should say when a priest tells his congregation he’s ‘gay.’” These included invoking “scriptural references condemning sodomy” and renouncing “the use of the word ‘gay’ because it is a political term that has its roots in the homosexual subculture.” Church Militant lamented that after a number of developments, including Greiten’s announcement, 2018 would become the “Year of the Gay” in the church.

Greiten, 52, was born in Milwaukee andraised Catholic in Oconomowoc. His father was active in the Knights of Columbus, and both his mother and his grandmother worked at St. Jerome Parish. As a teenager, he attended St. Lawrence Seminary High School in Mount Calvary, near Fond du Lac, and later received an undergraduate degree in social work from Marquette University while studying for the priesthood at the St. Francis de Sales Seminary in St. Francis. He was ordained in 1992.

Early on, at St. Lawrence, “I was taught that homosexuality was something disordered, unspeakable and something to be punished,” he writes in his column for National Catholic Reporter. He says he faced the fact that he was gay with some anguish at age 24, when he was a seminarian, but remained publicly silent about it for decades.

Over the years, he received counseling for this pain, which led him to get training and certification as a trauma counselor and a pastoral sex addiction professional. In those capacities, he’s counseled individuals and given workshops in the archdiocese on overcoming pornography addiction and sex addiction – and as a result, he’s likely more comfortable than most Catholic clergy when speaking on the subject of sex. Greiten was also among a small group of priests who, with the help of Peter Isely of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, met for dialogue and prayer with victims of priest sexual abuse in the early 2010s.

In November, Greiten attended a retreat for priests and other religious community members who identify as LGBT. It was the first time he’d ever been with such a group, he says, and he talked with them freely about his decision to come out.

When he got home, he attended a parish staff meeting. He’d told staff he’d be away at a “priests meeting,” and someone asked him what the topic of the meeting was. “The lying stops now,” he said. “I’m done creating stories to hide this and pretend.” With that, Greiten came out to his staff.

After coming out publicly, Greiten spoke with the Rev. Thomas Suriano, a 79-yearold priest who’s been a mentor to Greiten. “You look to me happier, healthier and more relaxed than I’ve ever seen you,” Suriano says he told him. He also says, “People who are gay are gay from the hand of God.”

Greiten’s announcement has come during a time of foment in the church over its approach to gay priests and to LGBT people in general. A change in Catholic attitudes gained momentum in 2013, when Pope Francis answered a reporter’s question about a “gay lobby” in the Vatican by saying, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” The comment was widely reported as a softening of the church’s stance toward gay priests. But the church still holds that homosexual activity is a sin, even if homosexual orientation is not and Catholics should accept LGBT people without reservations.

Since the clergy sex scandals swept through the U.S. in the early 2000s, Catholic seminaries have been required to discourage candidates for the priesthood who “practice homosexuality,” promote “gay culture” or have “deep-seated homosexual tendencies,” as a 2016 Vatican document describes it. Despite efforts to push gay priests away, clerics with homosexual orientation remain a significant part of the church. Estimates of the number of homosexual priests vary widely, but most put the number far higher than the proportion of gay men in general society.

Still, some conservative Catholics feel that Pope Francis and some bishops have overly loosened their rhetoric on homosexuality. Last year when a well-known American Jesuit priest, James Martin, published a book called Building a Bridge that argued the church should be more welcoming to LGBT Catholics, a firestorm erupted. His critics persuaded several groups to disinvite him from speaking engagements, and an online petition invoked a papal declaration from 1972, on a different subject: “From some crack the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.”

Somewhere in the middle is Reesman, the West Bend priest. He notes that the Nicene and Apostle’s creeds, which lay down the basic doctrine of Christianity, were debated for centuries before adoption by the church. He predicts Catholics will debate the church’s pastoral response to homosexuality “for quite some time,” adding, “God will bring us to the right answer.”

Meanwhile, Greiten doesn’t regret his decision to come out. “I have told people that it was one of the best moments for me,” he says, “because it’s important, I think, for people to be able to live and to be who they are.”

As for the bigger picture, Greiten says, “We as a church have a responsibility to let people know that we have had and will continue to have people with same-sex orientation, those who are gay, [as] a part of the priesthood – and they minister just fine.”

‘The “Out” Heard Round the World’ appears in the April 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Tom Tolan is managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine, where he's worked since January 2016. He spent 24 years at The Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as a copy editor, assistant metro editor and reporter. He lives in Shorewood.