After a Chicago-area Catholic high school bowed to protests and hired a lacrosse coach in a same-sex marriage, the Benedictine monks who sponsor it have said they will transition out of leadership at the school.

“After much deliberation, the monks as a community have discerned that they no longer have the resources needed for the governance and oversight of the academy,” Benet Academy chancellor Abbot Austin G. Murphy, O.S.B. and the academy board’s chairman Dennis M. Flynn said Jan. 4.

Benet Academy, a co-ed preparatory school of about 1,300 students, is located in Lisle, Ill., a western Chicago suburb in the Diocese of Joliet. The Benedictines of St. Procopius Abbey, who currently have about 20 monks, founded the school in 1887. Murphy is its tenth abbot and has served in that role since 2010.

Murphy and Flynn said that alternatives for how the academy is governed are being considered.

“In the meantime, the Abbey will continue its role in the governance of the high school,” they said Tuesday. “The goal is that Benet Academy will continue to operate with an emphasis on academic excellence and Catholic identity within the Benedictine tradition.”

Later that day Stephen Marth, Head of School at Benet Academy, tried to counter portrayals of the changes as a rejection of the school’s Catholic identity.

“Contrary to some reports circulating in the media earlier today, know of our steadfast commitment to ensuring that the Academy will maintain its Catholic identity, in the Benedictine tradition, for years to come,” he said.

Marth said there would be a committee to collaborate on this work, with representatives from the Joliet diocese, the American Cassinese Congregation of Benedictines, the Benet Board of Directors, and the administration at the academy.

In September 2021 Benet Academy deferred an employment decision about prospective girl’s lacrosse coach Amanda Kammes after learning she is in a same-sex marriage. It initially defended its decision not to hire her because of the importance of employing individuals who “manifest the essential teachings of the Church” in the education and faith formation of students.

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However, it reversed the decision on Sept. 21 after its decision became public and prompted some protests from students, parents, and others in support of Kammes.

A group of 40 or so students and parents at the school reportedly staged pro-LGBT protests after learning that the school had decided not to hire Kammes. The girl’s lacrosse team was photographed wearing rainbow masks in support of the prospective coach.

Numerous comments from self-described alumni were posted on the school’s social media site. An online petition advocating for Kammes’ hiring, which appears to have since been removed, reportedly garnered nearly 4,000 signatures. 

Kammes, an experienced lacrosse coach and a Benet Academy alumna, had previously coached at a Catholic school in Lombard, Illinois. In a statement, she said she was “truly humbled” by those who supported her and voiced hope that “the LGBTQ+ community at Benet and other Catholic institutions, felt supported, loved, and know that they are not alone.”

In a Sept. 28 statement, Abbot Murphy said the reversal “raises the question of what a Catholic high school should require from those who work with and form its students.” He said he believes it is necessary that “the witness of their public lives not be in opposition to Catholic moral teaching” and so he was “deeply troubled” by the decision. The school’s decision “calls into question its adherence to the doctrines of the Catholic faith.”

“Pope Francis has been clear that our love and respect for all persons is not in contradiction with Church doctrine on the sacrament of matrimony and teachings on sexuality,” he said. “At the same time, it is important to note that honest disagreements about the morality of homosexual acts should not be construed as hate. If we give in to the voices that say that disagreement equals hate, then we allow civil discourse to perish.”

In his September announcement, the abbot said he would take the matter to prayer and he encouraged everyone to “stay rooted in the peace of Christ.”

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Benet Academy lists on its website 24 board members. Of these, five are Benedictine priests, brothers, or sisters; 12 are lay alumni of the school; and seven are non-alumni lay persons.

The abbey gave at least $50,000 to Benet Academy in the 2019-2020 school year and is one of its largest donors, the Chicago Sun-Times reports.

St. Procopius Abbey also has a connection to Servant of God Dorothy Day, a radical activist who converted to Catholicism and launched the Catholic Worker Movement. She became an oblate of the abbey in 1955 and she often returned there for retreats. At the time, the abbey was involved in promoting Christian unity with Orthodox Christians and she was attracted to this effort. 

The abbey says on its website that it continues to pray for Day’s canonization.

The controversy at Benet Academy follows decades of cultural, political, and legal changes in how society views Christian morality and same-sex relationships.

In the United States, various Catholic schools and dioceses have faced lawsuits from employees who have been fired after contracting same-sex marriages in violation of the diocesan or school policy. Many states and localities protect sexual orientation and gender identity under anti-discrimination law.

Federal law prohibiting workplace discrimination – Title VII – includes an exception for ministers of religion. In the June 2020 ruling Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the U.S. Supreme Court found that Catholic school teachers, even if not given the formal title of "minister,” can fall under the ministerial exception because the essence of their job is to transmit the faith to students.

However, these precedents are not necessarily strong. In North Carolina last fall, a federal judge ruled that the Diocese of Charlotte discriminated against a substitute teacher by firing him upon his announcement that he intended to contract a same-sex marriage. The judge said the plaintiff was a lay employee whose role was limited to teaching secular classes.