Monday, 4 April 2011

Confessions of an Ex-Priest (1)


As regular readers of this blog will have probably registered at one stage or another, I spent nine years of my life as a member of the Dominican Order of the Catholic Church. When I left it a quarter of a century ago, I was a priest. In fact, my ordination, coming as it did only a year before I quit the whole enterprise, was probably the main reason why my leaving was not accompanied by any official blessing or assistance. Looking back now, I have a lot more understanding for my superiors than I had at the time; the then provincial reasoning that there was no way he could support a decision to abandon something I had spent eight years seriously preparing for only a year later. I know that he was very upset and felt personally betrayed, something I can also completely understand today, and so – despite personal understanding for my situation – was unable to take a position which could be seen as being supportive of my move. He may also have entertained some hopes that, by upping the ante, he might exert some pressure on me to reconsider my decision.

It wasn’t going to happen. I was in love. It was wonderful, rapturous, incomparable with any other alternative and if choosing that meant breaking radically with everything and everyone else, then that was the way it would have to be. After a very difficult summer, which involved negotiations with my religious superiors and breaking the news to my parents, family and friends, in September 1986 I left the monastery in Rome where I had been living for two years and set off for a new life in Germany.

This is all a long time ago now and much has happened since then. Although my departure from the Order and the priesthood has never been formally regularised, today I have a warm informal relationship with the Irish Province of the Dominicans – I often visit the priory in Dublin in which I lived for six years, and am greeted with hospitality and friendship by most of those I knew all those years ago who happen to be around when I drop by. I have a network of friends composed of both present and ex-members of the order, which the development of the internet has done a wonderful amount to support. And, perhaps most importantly, I have learned to cherish my memories of all that I experienced during my nine years in the Order, to integrate that roller-coaster period of my life as a young man into the dynamic unity of all that I have experienced and done and thought and felt which is my identity.

My own intellectual and spiritual journey has continued since then, leading me finally to a position of non-belief – a position formally described as “weak atheism.” This means that I personally do not believe there is a God but that I do not rule out the possibility that “God” may, in fact, exist, however I have not up to now encountered an argument which has been able to convince me. (This is not quite the same as agnosticism which is, strictly speaking, the personal suspension of judgement concerning God’s existence.) There is quite some discussion about the precise definition of particular positions in circles which concern themselves with such things but I don’t want to go into that here. At any rate, my development has led me far from my Catholic roots.

Logically then I should be supremely indifferent about what goes on within the Catholic Church. After all, I do not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, who was crucified to redeem humanity from sin and rose from the dead as a sign of God’s reconciliation with us. I cannot accept the claim of the Roman Catholic Church to be the certain repository of truth regarding God and his/her dealings with the world and how humans should consequently think, act and behave in order to concur with his/her wishes/commandments. Yet I repeatedly find that this attitude of indifference escapes me.

There’s an old pejorative Irish saying about people of simple rural origins which says, “You can take the man out of the bog, but you can’t take the bog out of the man.” I was born and brought up a Catholic and the Church and its traditions and teachings were vastly formative and normative for the first half of my life. Ironically perhaps, an attitude of defining my views in contradiction to church teachings – antithetical reaction – was something which characterised me much more strongly in my last years as an official church member than it has since. Neither do I belong to that group of non-believers who automatically classify religion and theology as hopelessly obscurant mumbo-jumbo.

I know, seen from some points of view this is inconsistent. Still, even if it is, well, consistency can be overvalued! J More seriously, I believe that our deepest opinions and views of life, even when they have been tempered and refined in the smithy of rational examination, are decisions we make with our whole person, which is much more than just our intellect.

Furthermore, in our world, religious beliefs and the theological reflection which results from them are formative for the attitudes of billions of people. There are different levels on which a non-believer like myself can engage with this, and they are not always mutually exclusive. One can take a position of adversarial engagement; debating critically with faith-based opponents. This attitude is often necessary when those with faith-based views attempt to impose conclusions based on such positions on society at large – gay marriage is one example of such situations, or the teaching of evolution in schools, or the right of religiously based judicial structures to supersede general societal ones.

Or one can take the position that much thinking about what it means to be human – much profound thinking of deep insight – takes place within a religious/theological framework. Simply because this thinking takes place within a general framework which one personally cannot accept does not mean that it is without value. I have become increasingly convinced in recent years that all theology is fundamentally anthropology and that when religious people talk about God, they are nearly always saying at least as much about what they understand human nature to be.

At any rate, what’s going on within the Catholic Church does continue to engage me. Far too often in recent years this has only served to provoke the reaction, “Thank God (in whom I don’t believe) that I no longer have anything to do with that horrible, despicable, corrupt, exploitative organisation!” But even when I experience such feelings, I know that they are not the whole truth. For I spent nine years as a member of the Irish Province of the Order of Preachers (as the Dominicans are formally known) without ever being aware of sexual abuse of children – and there are men whom I thought I knew who have since been convicted of it. There was certainly quite a lot of sex, both of the hetero- and homosexual varieties – but it was always between consenting adults. While some were certainly hypocritical about relationships in which they were involved, most of those whom I knew also suffered deeply because of the complications and contradictions and many accepted the consequences, either painfully putting an end to relationships or leaving the order in order to pursue them honestly and openly.

For every priest pursuing a fetishist power-trip, involving an make-up world of faux asexuality, artificial ritualism in place of living liturgy, neo-traditional hierarchical structures, profound misogynism disguised as Mariology and a rejection of any honest, open dialogue with a wider world full of wonderful people, concepts and ideas, there is another dedicated man busting his ass to try to help the people he is working with, giving them consolation, support and hope within the community of faith they share. The difference between them is that the second ones I’ve described aren’t playing the career game, aren’t being promoted to positions of power because a) they’re not interested and b) are regarded with suspicion by a centralised power clique because their attitudes tend to be more open and less dogmatic.

This second group is also becoming smaller. Many have given up over the past decades and the number of young men prepared to follow them has been decreasing for years. Celibacy is only one of the major issues responsible.

In describing my own personal story, I explained that it was my love for a woman which finally led to me leaving the order and giving up my priesthood. This is true, as far as it goes, but it is not the whole truth. For in the years preceding my de facto break with the Catholic Church, I had been becoming more and more uncomfortable with the direction it had been taking since the end of the 70s. This tendency – away from openness, dialogue and courage – has been growing ever since. But this is just one theme among a number I hope to address occasionally here in this blog in the future.

For that reason I’ve numbered the title of this post. Despite the fact that I no longer believe, despite the fact that twenty five years have gone by, there is still a part of me that cares about what is going on in the Catholic Church. Maybe because it is still such a potent force in the world – for good, but also for suffering. Maybe because I don’t think it’s enough to simply dismiss it as a hopelessly outdated organisation of mass superstition, irretrievably dominated by ignorant, developmentally stunted power freaks, who reject most of the modern world and enjoy dressing up in archaic robes. Or maybe because there’s some truth in the old saying, Once a Catholic always a Catholic.

On reflection though, perhaps it’s more like the feelings one has for an old girlfriend, years after you broke up with her, an ex-girlfriend you see has been making something of a mess of things. The old injuries are long forgotten, you’ve gone on with your life, are quite happy with the way things are and have no interest in starting anything again. But still you can be concerned about her and – should the occasion arise – you would drink a cup of coffee, maybe even have a meal with her and tell her a few home truths. Because, at some level, you still care about her and treasure the good memories of your time together.

Not that she’d listen, if my experience is anything to go by. But the chances that she would are considerably greater than that anyone who matters in the Catholic Church would read this anyway…

Still, when has futility ever stopped me doing anything?


Pictures retrieved from


  1. Francis. May I say that this is my favorite of your essays I've read thus far? You are excellent at weaving a personal story into a large social, religious and cultural examination.

    I thought I was more of an agnostic but I like the term "weak atheism". I can't explain it, but it feels more flexible to me.

    I look forward to the next installment.


    P.S. Is it okay if I share this on fakeboook?

  2. P.S. I'm a huge Paul Simon fan. Thanks for this. Great choice.

  3. The final episode of M*A*S*H featured a teary-eyed group, sad to leave the home they detest. Where we are and what do is a part of us, and it is hard to let go, no matter how bad it is. And no matter how bad it is, there is usually some good that helped define who we became. I can see why you still care. I have had a lesser experience, much lesser, with jobs I have left, and as you noted, with exes. It is human nature, and a good observation.

  4. This essay really resonates with me Francis. You've outdone yourself describing your personal journey too.

    I've had this weird feeling that if I had chosen the religious life I'd be out by now as well. The reason I manage, Is because as a dumbass lay person I just quit thinking about it when it becomes uncomfortable and try to avoid the priests whose imbecilic twaddle makes me want to stand up and scream NOOOOOOOOO!

    I just try to focus on the good wise spiritual people who work within it, while being fully aware that it's a pretty F%$#ed up organization.

  5. You have done such a wonderful job of giving a peek at the nagging quandary of "integration of self and other," something we all experience and find our unique story within. I also respect much of the ritual and insight of the Catholic Church, yet have never felt it to be the whole story. I feel your story to be heart led, and that might be the crux of the Christ message after all. Can't wait for the next peek. Thanks, Francis.

  6. A very interesting post. What an incredible intellectual journey you've travelled. You're probably right that no-one with any power in the Catholic church will read this. But is that who it's really meant for?

    Perhaps it will touch someone who is in the same stage of their life as you were 25 years ago? Or one of those thinking, caring priests that you describe?

  7. It wasn't so difficult for me to give up the C of E but then again we weren't really attached to one another anyway. There's a quite indescribable need in many people to believe in something larger and more pure than ourselves. When we assume we've found it anywhere other than inside ourselves we close the metaphorical door to spiritual growth.

  8. Dear Francis,
    It has been an absorbing read, and you have taken me back a few years, to Tallaght mostly – but also to a memorable visit to Germany on my part!
    You tell of the time you were in love, and of how rapturous it was, rendering inconceivable any alternative choice of life. I found myself nodding in agreement when you spoke of having learned to cherish the memories of those years and to integrate that period of your life into the lengthier unity of your entire journey thus far. Nodding – because it has taken me time to accept some of what happened to me (whether to my liking or not) in years gone by as part of the building-blocks that have landed the planet with the present set of molecules some call Tom!
    And your reflection on the Catholic Church – and on not being indifferent to so much of what happens in near or to the Church – had other questions facing me that I have for some time placed in storage rather than either dust them down and examine them or – discard them!
    I have stayed in the Order, and in the Church – and in its priesthood. I believe that for many the overall philosophy for living (and ethical satnav, if you will) are meaningful. I am not sure why I use the word satnav here, but it will do nicely – also because there are journeys I have undertaken that have seen me ‘obey’ the satnav promptings for hundreds of kilometres and then… at some point lower the volume of its promptings, or even switch it off and ‘love to choose and see my path’.
    Whatever I do in years to come, I cannot now see myself throwing out the general moral guidebook and major theological essays of the Church, and beginning again. So my own life in the Church, in the Order (40 years this coming September) and the priesthood are part of me, part also of my baggage – though I know some figures in the Church would want me to reword that and say the Church accepts me as part of its baggage, not the other way around! Pazienza.
    Thank you for sharing thoughts, considerations and feelings. For me too, the smithy (as you call it) of rational examination continues, and I am comfortable with (though aware of the discomfort of challenge!) much of the prophetic witness and – including inspiring scriptures – of the faith. I am ill at ease, however, with much of the current tendency to retreat. There is a tendency to pull away from the coalface of church-society debate, an engagement that did not seem as forbidding to us a generation ago as it does now to those whose outfit would be ‘incarnate’ (they would say sullied) by a moment spent at any coalface!
    Theology as anthropology? I have often noted how often our prayers ‘tell’ God how great God’s name is, when the purpose of such texts is to encourage the faithful/disciples to honour the name of God, whether it be in prayer, in respectful interpersonal relations or in lifting up this or that ‘image of God’ who is mistreated by us or by others… I have not found anyone saying it as clearly as you have, Francis, but yes those who most enthusiastically push a Mariology agenda are – for the most part – more enthusiastic still when it comes to their misogynist leanings.
    Es tut mir wirklich leid to hear that your former girlfriend may be ‘making something of a mess of things’. Echt schade. Genuinely I would also want life to go better than that for her.
    Finally, Francis, clearly I do not matter much (or at all?) in the Catholic Church – or I would not have (admitted to!) reading your blog!!
    It was good to see you of course at ‘that’ wonderful party in Dublin.
    Alles Gute! Auf Wiedersehen!
    Tom McCarthy

  9. Pagan Sphinx - Paul Simon is a truly great artist!

    Colleen - The good sense and ability of ordinary Catholics to tolerate an awful lot of bullshit is one of the great (if completely unacknowledged) strengths of the Catholic Church :-)

    Molly - I think you'd agree that integration is a major component of any kind of real wisdom.

    Akseli - for one of those thinking, caring priests you mention, I only need to refer you to Tom's comment below!

    Ah, Susan, now don't be confirming an old Catholic cliché about the C of E! :-) Of course, what is not internally affirmed becomes pure convention and formalism.

    Tom - Great to hear from you here and what a marvellous honest comment from the heart!

    One of the hardest things about leaving - for me - was the feeling that I was abandoning many brothers (a group to which you indubitably belong) in the middle of a difficult struggle. I feel grateful and blessed that friendship and mutual respect proved stronger in most cases - including yours.

    I love your "satnav" metaphor - so much that I immediately claim your indulgence to use it myself at some time in the future! As Whistler once commented to Oscar Wilde after Wilde complimented a witty remark by saying, "I wish I had said that!" - "You will, Oscar, you will ..."

  10. Enjoyed the post. This made me think twice: "...all theology is fundamentally anthropology and that when religious people talk about God, they are nearly always saying at least as much about what they understand human nature to be..."

    And I like to have to think twice.

  11. Thanks for this, Francis. I can relate to everything you say, & particularly to these points, which you have expressed so succinctly:

    “I believe that our deepest opinions and views of life, even when they have been tempered and refined in the smithy of rational examination, are decisions we make with our whole person, which is much more than just our intellect.”

    “one can take the position that much thinking about what it means to be human – much profound thinking of deep insight – takes place within a religious/theological framework.”

  12. "What is important is not that man believe in the existence of God; what is important is that God exist." Don Colacho's Aphorism #2984

    It's a suffering world. Francis, I hope that you will accept from me the best I can offer to someone whose story has touched me deeply.

    You are in my heart and prayers.

  13. I should have added that organised religions (of any kind) mean nothing to me. Too often, it destroys the God it pretends to know and attempts to preach.

  14. John - sorry that it took so long for your post to appear here - it had landed in my spam folder. I only discovered that this is becoming a bit of an issue at the moment today and went to check!

    Heathen - I love being made to think twice!

    Vincent and Claude - thank you for your kind comments.


Your comments are, of course, welcome. I've had to reinstall captchas recently as - like most other bloggers - I was being plagued by spambots.


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