A Gay Catholic Priest on Sex and the Synod: A Q&A with Fr. Geoff Farrow

A Gay Catholic Priest on Sex and the Synod: A Q&A with Fr. Geoff Farrow October 27, 2014

by Timothy Villareal

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, California experienced something of an earthquake in October of 2008. A month ahead of the vote on Proposition 8, which would ban same-sex marriage in California – the same Prop 8 that was finally put six feet under by the Supreme Court in 2013 – a Roman Catholic priest, Fr. Geoff Farrow, declared he was gay.

Farrow, then 49, was the pastor of the St. Paul Catholic Newman Center in Fresno. Just before giving a sermon in which he asked the congregation, “How is marriage protected by intimidating gay and lesbian people into loveless and lonely lives?” Farrow gave an interview to a local TV station voicing his opposition to Prop 8. Asked by the TV news reporter if he was gay, Farrow confirmed that he was.

The Cuba-born priest, who was raised in Joliet, Illinois by his Cuban exile parents, and who entered the seminary at age 19, was promptly removed from all Catholic Church ministry by the Bishop of Fresno.

Since his 2008 rupture with the Roman Catholic Church, Farrow has become an advocate for gay and lesbian rights, earning him accolades from the City of West Hollywood and even a resolution from the California State Assembly honoring the priest for his civil rights advocacy. If detractors bristle at the fact that Farrow still calls himself a priest, and sometimes wears his Roman collar, they might do better to vent their frustration with the Vatican: Though he has been removed from active ministry, Farrow has never been defrocked by the Roman Catholic Church.

In this Q&A, Farrow discusses the highly-publicized, and controversial, statements coming from Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, and why he believes the gay community and straight supporters of gay rights – be they Catholic or not – would do well to curb their enthusiasm for Pope Francis.

The Catholic Church’s recent Synod of Bishops on the Family, and in particular its document on LGBT people and homosexuality, has caused a firestorm of controversy within the Catholic Church. Why do you think this Synod was held in the very first place?

The crisis for the institutional Church is that a considerable, influential, and growing list of nations now legally recognize same-sex marriage. Additionally, many nations now grant legal adoption rights to these same-sex married couples.

Laws are simply the codified values of a people. This is alarming for the Vatican, because people’s values are shifting radically on this issue. It is alarming because the Vatican is unable to influence governments to uphold the Vatican’s definition of marriage. Simply put, the Vatican is losing its power to dictate, or at least to influence legislation, but even more alarming, to form public opinion on what is moral and socially acceptable.

The practical problem faced by Pope Francis is the navigation of a vast international institution (consider the differences in attitudes on LGBT rights in Western Europe and the Americas vs. Eastern Europe and Africa) and an institution that claims to be the Divine spokesman on morality.

So, how can the institution formulate an international united front that will respond practically and effectively to this crisis? How can the institution respond in a way that addresses these intensifying pressures and divisions. Accomplishing all this while not appearing to abandon its core beliefs and values, and therefore its authority, and yet, not face mass defections and be reduced to irrelevance in the West and the Americas.

Back in March, former host of Meet the Press, David Gregory, asked Cardinal Timothy Dolan to comment on football player Michael Sam’s coming out as gay, including the fact that Sam was publicly congratulated on his coming out by the President and First Lady. Dolan said about Sam’s coming out “good for him” and “bravo.”

The cardinal’s comments struck me as bizarre, given how dedicated the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Dolan in particular, has been to not only to defeating marriage equality, but going to the extreme of using Eucharistic adoration to equate homosexuality and abortion in the minds of Catholics with those so-called “Holy Hours for Life, Marriage and Religious Liberty.” But now that you mention how sensitive the Catholic hierarchy is to being reduced to cultural irrelevance, I’m wondering if concerned Catholics, liberals and conservatives alike, might look to Dolan’s response on Michael Sam’s coming out as a microcosm of this entire Synod, at least on the issue of homosexuality: namely, that the hierarchy is evermore concerned with their public image than with truth and candor.

What are your thoughts on that, and do you think there any Catholics – liberal, conservative, moderate, whatever – who have any real spiritual, intellectual or emotional stake in this karate chopping of truth and candor? If there aren’t, what reasons are there for the press to be focusing so much attention on this Synod or its 2015 follow-up session, save, of course, the high melodrama entertainment factor?

Dolan does an excellent job as a spokesman for the Catholic hierarchy and their position in this Meet the Press clip. His demeanor is warm, his tone is affable and he is engaging and “down to earth” with the journalist.

When the journalist mentions that both the President, the First Lady and others lauded this young man for publicly coming out as gay Dolan responds, “Good for him,” and then, in a bow to Pope Francis adds, “I would have no sense of judgment on him.” Those are the words that the vast majority of people who view this clip will remember and they will think this is a fair and decent man. Dolan then adds, “Look, the same bible that tells us about the virtue of chastity and the virtue of fidelity in marriage, tells us not to judge people.”

This is a masterful addendum to his initial response. This opens him to add conditions now being imposed on LGBT people who come out – you must live “the virtue of chastity and virtue of fidelity in [heterosexual]marriage.” The viewer will hear these words and think: “Yeah, you shouldn’t run around and have sex with everyone and anyone and that sex should be conditional to family values.”

What those words actually mean in Catholic theology is that sex is only allowed in the context of [heterosexual] marriage and anything outside of that is a grave sin. Dolan’s comments are pure and perfect propaganda, and the journalist is an unwitting tool in its distribution.

This is why Francis publicly thanked journalists at the end of the Synod.

Many have highlighted the confusing messages about homosexuality coming out of this Synod. While this attempt to show “mercy and compassion” toward gay people as a means to bring them into the Catholic Church, only to eventually, over the course of time, get them to halt sexual intimacy with same-sex partners may not have any impact whatsoever on the psychological well-being of tough-skinned, sexually-integrated men and women who treasure their homosexuality, how do you think this messaging and strategy now coming from the Vatican will impact the psychological well-being of others who are more emotionally vulnerable, particularly vulnerable LGBT teenagers?

Most of us discover our sexuality and our sexual orientation at puberty. The blessing of being LGBT is that it forces you to examine your life. The curse of being LGBT is that society, until very recently, has said that you are defective, disordered, evil, wrong, sick, etc. The Center for Disease Control, in its 1999 “Youth at Risk Study” stated that one third of gay adolescents attempt suicide. Not reflected in those figures are those who turn to alcohol and substance abuse in an attempt to cope. Those who live lives in a constant state of depression. Those who are forced to lie about who they are in order to simply survive.

Where do all of these beliefs and social attitudes come from? Religion. That is where these beliefs and attitudes originate. Until there is substantive change in religious teachings and attitudes, or until adherents acquire the power of will to disaffiliate from hurtful religions, healing will not occur.

You have a great deal of pastoral experience. How would you counsel open and accepting Catholic parents of out LGBT teenagers – as well as open and accepting parents who might suspect that their teen is homosexual but not yet ready to come out – and who may be worried that attending Masses celebrated by priests who tout the official “love the sinner, hate the sin” mantra may have an adverse impact on their teen’s psychological well-being? On the one hand, these parents may want to ensure that their teenager receives the sacraments and is formed by the positive aspects of Catholic social teaching, and yet on the other hand, these parents may realize that some priests who preach the “love the sinner, hate the sin” teaching may well put their kid’s head into the psychological equivalent of a meat grinder? Is it possible to navigate that difficult spiritual and formational terrain and still keep the family in the Catholic Church? Or do you think disaffiliation from the Catholic Church is the only way these caring parents can positively ensure that their teens are kept safe from psychological harm? What would you counsel these parents?

Join an Episcopal USA Church. Your child will be formed with the positive Christian values that you cherish, you will enjoy a far superior liturgy and more beautiful music. You will also be a member of a community that welcomes and esteems your child and does not merely tolerate him/her or impose impossible conditions (life long celibacy) on your child.

Why has the gay community, especially so many gay Catholics, been so exuberant in their embrace of Pope Francis? Is this a form of “irrational exuberance?”

Like all people, LGBT people want to be accepted and loved. So if a person, or an institution, that has previously been hostile towards us appears to offer us an olive branch we happily grab it.

Others who read the actual printed statements of Francis and the very precisely articulated teachings of the Catholic Church will immediately see the disconnect between “tone” and substance. Many of them hope, falsely I believe, that the Church will “evolve” and grant LGBT marriage and employment rights.

No person, no institution, can “grant” your rights. They are yours innately. To plead, bargain, and compromise on your fundamental human rights, in an attempt to secure them, is to betray yourself and to undermine your rights.

What then was your reaction when The Advocate, one of the oldest and most established LGBT publications in the U.S., declared Pope Francis their 2013 “Person of the Year,” complete with an airbrushed “NOH8” tattoo on his cheek?

That action by The Advocate, a publication that I appreciate and respect, mirrors attitudes of many LGBT people. My assessment is that those attitudes run the spectrum from naivety and false hope to an uncritical expectation that Francis’ affectations will move Catholic to greater social acceptance of LGBT people and their rights.

Forget personalities. We are speaking of an institution with very precise and clearly articulated, hostile formal teachings on homosexuality. If you read what Francis has actually said and consider that he has acted against LGBT people you will be disabused of the hype.

This is a dangerous game that LGBT activists and publications are playing. They think they can out maneuver an organization that coined the term propaganda, and that holds the affections of over 750 million people world wide.

Francis is the pope and his first duty and concern is to preserve the power and the authority of the Catholic Church, and to grow the Church. The Catholic Church will not reverse its position on marriage equality or on LGBT rights. It claims infallibility on faith and morals and such a reversal would be a fatal blow.

The purpose of Francis’ hype and the Francis Affect is to make the institutional position, if not acceptable, then at least palatable in the short term. The current Synod in Rome is part of the well-choreographed theater intended to bolster Francis’ popular image as a champion for a more tolerant acceptance of LGBT people and to give Catholicism a much needed pass on this issue. The long term goal is to reverse gains made by LGBT people and subordinate them once again. It is to reestablish the Catholic Church as the final authority in morality, with power to translate those morals into legislation in civil governments.

Many in the secular and Catholic media describe the “changes” going on in the Catholic Church right now as the “Francis Effect,” but you prefer to call it the “Francis Affect.” Explain what you mean by that.

Consider Francis’ own words in his famous interview on the flight from Rio to Rome. Here is part of the plane interview transcript:

Patricia Zorzan: Speaking on behalf of the Brazilians: society has changed, young people have changed, and in Brazil we have seen a great many young people. You did not speak about abortion, about same-sex marriage. In Brazil a law has been approved which widens the right to abortion and permits marriage between people of the same sex. Why did you not speak about this?

Pope Francis: The Church has already spoken quite clearly on this. It was unnecessary to return to it, just as I didn’t speak about cheating, lying, or other matters on which the Church has a clear teaching!

Zorzan is asking Francis why he did not directly address LGBT and woman’s issues when speaking to Brazilians at World Youth Day. Francis clearly admits that he avoided speaking about these issues, he says these are “matters on which the Church has a clear teaching!”

Francis is content to affect a tone that seems genuine, human and humane, while not changing one iota of teachings that form the infrastructure of hate.

The rationale for this is to create a euphoria on the part of the listener and engender goodwill towards the institutional Catholic Church, while leaving intact intellectually indefensible teachings. If a politician did this, they would be accused of deception.

His famous quote “Who am I to judge?” is not a statement. It is a question. It leaves it to the listener to make his/her own inferences and thereby effectively sidesteps the issue. He says nothing on the substance in question, he simply smiles piously and gives what many interpret to be a progressive statement. It is not.

Francis has been silent about the firing of LGBT teachers from Catholic schools. Their “crime” was entering into civil marriage with their partners. Yet, people gush over the “Francis Effect.” I correct them and explain why it needs to be spelled with an “A” and not an “E.” Deeds not words.

What are your thoughts about Catholics who receive Communion but who personally reject core Catholic Church teachings on human sexuality – be it homosexuality, premarital sex, contraception, masturbation, etc.?

Communion signifies that you are one with others. This sense of belonging is very important to humans because we are social beings. Something each of us has to wrestle with, sooner or later, is the tension between social belonging and personal authenticity.

“My Country right or wrong!” is an expression that signifies the importance of belonging above authenticity. St. Thomas Aquinas’ famous quote that it is better to suffer excommunication than to violate one’s conscience stands at the other end of that paradigm.

On a practical level, heterosexual Catholics have resolved their disobedience of Church teachings on artificial contraception by simply ignoring those teachings. They have reasoned that the hierarchy’s teachings on contraception are poorly reasoned and unreasonable. They simply ignore the Pope and bishops on this question. Most clergy also do the same.

When you mention the sense of belonging that is an important human need, I think of all the opportunities we have in modern society to fulfill that need: social and family gatherings, clubs, professional associations, team sports, book clubs, even spiritual and emotional support groups of every variety. It seems to me that the Catholics who believe in, and who try their best to abide by, the Magisterium’s teaching on human sexuality don’t go up to receive Communion simply to fulfill a human need to belong; they are doing so out of total reverence for Jesus, total appreciation for the Catholic priesthood, including the bishops, that makes the Eucharist possible in the first place, and after having examined their conscience, have concluded that, while certainly human, they are in a state of personal authenticity vis-à-vis their relationship with the Pope, the bishops, and the clergy.

By receiving Communion as a way to fulfill that need for belonging – for which there are ample outlets in the wider society as well as in Catholic parish activities – it seems to me that Catholics who “simply ignore” Church teachings on human sexuality are helping to fuel the global crisis of the Church which you previously alluded to, in that by routinely receiving Communion they are telegraphing to the priests and bishops that they take Church teaching seriously, when in fact only a small number do. It seems only logical that this massive scale false telegraphing would eventually come to a head, and result in the current crisis the bishops now face.

If a person is routinely telegraphing a false message of moral unity to the Catholic priesthood by receiving Communion, which over time contributes to a major crisis in the Catholic Church, which could potentially even lead to schism, how can that be construed as serving, and showing reverence for, Jesus Christ?

If you go to a typical Catholic church for a Sunday Mass, you will see that a large portion of the congregation gets up and goes to receive communion. Many of these people are young married heterosexual couples. How many of those young married heterosexual couples do you think follow the Church’s prohibition of artificial birth control? Do you think that the question you have asked troubles those couples, or their priests? I can tell you that the answer in the vast number of cases is a resounding: No.

Where there is a divergence for LGBT people on the disconnect between formal teachings of the Catholic hierarchy and the lives of the faithful, is that the hierarchy, at least in the U.S., do not press the issue of adhering to the ban on artificial birth control with heterosexual couples. They are, however, very vocal in their opposition to marriage equality and LGBT sexual orientation & gender identity issues.

Can a Catholic continue to grow in holiness and closeness to Jesus by attending Mass but refraining from Communion?

The traditional answer is yes. Aquinas spoke of “Spiritual Communion” for those unable to receive the Sacrament. Realize that you are talking about sharing in grace, the life of God. Ultimately, even in traditional theology, clergy and the Sacraments are channels of this, but God can (and does) act independently of clergy. Often times, its God’s best work.

How does a person come to spiritual wholeness and health? The answer is through free personal decisions to love. To learn to love yourself, others and the all encompassing reality that ties us together.

Fr. Geoff Farrow, thank you for your work on behalf of civil rights for gay Americans, and for taking the time to address issues facing Catholics in America, and around the world.

Timothy Villareal is a Miami-based writer.

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