Huffpost Politics
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Karen Ocamb Headshot

Catholic Priest Defies Church Over Antigay Ballot Initiative

Posted: Updated:

"A man of conscience." The phrase seems almost quaint today when most leaders talk largely about tactics, strategies, and short-term goals while not rocking the boat.

But some of us remember the agonizing efforts of conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War -- men and women of substance such as military analyst Daniel Ellsberg who released the Pentagon Papers, which the Washington Post's Katherine Graham published; Mohammad Ali who gave up his heavyweight title rather than submit to the draft; and Father Daniel Berrigan, a Roman Catholic priest, and his brother Philip, a Josephite priest, who wound up on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list for their antiwar/peace activism.

Add to that list now Father Geoffrey Farrow, a Catholic priest at California State University/Fresno, who Sunday defied his Bishop and preached from the pulpit against the anti-gay marriage initiative on the California ballot this November that would eliminate what the California Supreme Court called the "fundamental" right of same sex couples to marry. In so doing, Farrow knowingly gave up his 23-year career as a Catholic priest.

It was not an easy or quick decision, says Farrow, a former First Lieutenant in the Air Force who holds a bachelor's degree in Philosophy and a masters in Divinity and is considered one of the most popular lecturers at the university. It started when he received the bishop's July pastoral letter.

Farrow said in his homily (quoted in full below):

"This single fax threw my whole summer, and in fact, my whole life into a turmoil. Recently, I was speaking with some of our parishioners who advocate for the ordination of women. In the course of our conversation, a question arose which has haunted me: 'At what point do you cease to be an agent for healing and growth and become an accomplice of injustice?' By asking all of the pastors of the Diocese of Fresno to promote Catholics to vote 'Yes' on Proposition 8, the bishop has placed me in a moral predicament...

In directing the faithful to vote 'Yes' on Proposition 8, the California Bishops are not merely entering the political arena, they are ignoring the advances and insights of neurology, psychology and the very statements made by the Church itself that homosexuality is innate (i.e. orientation). In doing this, they are making a statement which has a direct, and damaging, effect on some of the people who may be sitting in the pews next to you today...

How is marriage protected by intimidating gay and lesbian people into loveless and lonely lives? What is accomplished by this? Worse still, is to intimidate a gay or lesbian person into a heterosexual marriage, which is doomed from its inception, and makes two victims instead of one by this hurtful "theology." This "theology," which is parroted by clerics in polished tones from pulpits, produces the very prejudice and hatred in our society which they claim to abhor...

I do not presume to tell you how to vote but I do ask that you pray to the Creator of us all...The act of casting a vote takes you a few minutes but it can cause other human beings untold happiness or sorrow for a lifetime. It can grant them hope and acceptance, or it can cause them to lose civil rights. It can be a rebuff to bigotry and hatred, or it can encourage bigotry and hatred. Personally, I am morally compelled to vote 'NO' on Proposition 8. It is my hope that the people of California will join with those others around the world such as Canada, Europe and South Africa who welcome their gay and lesbian family members fully into society by granting them the civil right to marry.

I know these words of truth will cost me dearly. But to withhold them, would be far more costly and I would become an accomplice to a moral evil that strips gay and lesbian people not only of their civil rights but of their human dignity as well. Jesus said, 'The truth will set you free.' He didn't promise that it would be easy or without personal cost to speak that truth."

In a phone interview after the service, Farrow said:

"I hope people will be reached and that Prop 8 will fail but more importantly, that gay people get the dignity that they deserve, along with everybody else.

And hopefully, some young kid who's going through the process of discovering that they are gay or lesbian, doesn't feel alone."

Farrow said he thinks he will now be suspended, which means he won't be able to function as a priest -- and the Church will call for him to reverse himself and publicly apologize.

But, Farrow said:

"I can't do that. So basically this is probably the end of my ministry as a Catholic priest. In a nutshell, that's it."

Farrow put his feelings into his own personal, historical context:

"My grandfather was a Sephardic Jew and he left Spain and went to Cuba. He was never religious in his whole life and in that country, they have state atheism imposed. He started going to synagogue all of a sudden. And then he got into an argument with the police over that and he said, 'This is why we left Europe.' And they took him to the police station, beat the crap out of him and he had a heart attack and died.

My family collected the body and then my parents came to this country with an infant, a toddler, two suitcases, $20 and started a whole new life.

I remember being a kid in grammar school and going to mom and saying, 'How come we don't have grandparents? Everyone else in the 4th grade has grandparents.' And she was preparing dinner and she stopped what she was doing, she sat me down at the kitchen table and said, 'Honey, you have grandparents. But we had to leave everyone behind because your father and I wanted you kids to be free.'

I can't betray that. And I know the reason a lot of people aren't speaking out is for fear. But it just takes one or two people to crack that nut and then things start to change. And it's worth it."

Farrow says he now feels "whole" and "at peace," combined with some grieving. It was hard to say goodbye. Two thirds of the approximately 350 parishioners stood up and applauded when he completed his sermon, with only two expressing disagreement afterward.

(The local ABC News affiliate was there and told Farrow the story would go to the network.)

Farrow says he gathered up his belongs, including his talkative cat, left the rectory, and will stay with family as he sorts out what to do next.

The battle over Prop. 8 is heating up in California as the election nears. To counter the No on Prop 8 ad, the Yes on 8 campaign has released an anti-gay marriage commercial featuring San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

I wrote about how the Prop 8 Culture War appears to be trumping the economy here.

In my report I refer to a story in the Whittier Daily News about a visit by Traditional Values Coalition head Lou Sheldon to promote Yes on 8 in the conservative evangelical churches. Sunday, the Rev. Bruce Gray, rector at St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Whittier, responded to Sheldon with an op-ed supporting marriage equality. This, too, is a stunning matter of conscious for the Episcopal Church, which is facing a sever test over equality for LGBT people. In fact, Saturday, the conservative Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh voted to break away and join the Anglican Province in Argentina.

But Farrow, who is gay, didn't come out against Prop 8 in a newspaper, nor was he trying to provoke an IRS confrontation as evangelical leaders have recently.
Farrows' sermon from the pulpit was a personal matter of conscience. Read for yourself:

"As most of you know, I was appointed pastor here at the Newman Center on April 15th of this year. When I arrived, I set out to address a series of various projects to repair our facilities. To date, most of these deferred maintenance items have been addressed. In the middle of dealing with contractors, the parish finance committee, the building department of the diocese, neighbors, etc., I received a fax from the bishop's office on the 30th of June. It was the bishop's pastoral letter for the month of July.

This single fax threw my whole summer, and in fact, my whole life into a turmoil. Recently, I was speaking with some of our parishioners who advocate for the ordination of women. In the course of our conversation, a question arose which has haunted me: 'At what point do you cease to be an agent for healing and growth and become an accomplice of injustice?' By asking all of the pastors of the Diocese of Fresno to promote Catholics to vote 'Yes' on Proposition 8, the bishop has placed me in a moral predicament.

In his 'Pastoral,' the bishop states: 'Marriage is much more than simply two persons loving each other. Marriage is naturally, socially, and biologically, directed to bringing forth life.'

Actually, there are TWO ends to marriage: 1) Unitive and 2) Procreative. The unitive end of marriage is simply a union of love and life. The Procreative end is, of course, to create new life. It is important to understand that the unitive end of marriage is sufficient for a valid marriage. The Church sanctions, and considers a sacrament, the marriage of elderly heterosexual couples who are biologically incapable of reproduction. So, if two people of different genders who are incapable of reproduction can enter into a valid marriage, then why is that two people of the same gender, who are incapable of reproduction, cannot enter into a valid marriage.

The objections which are raised at this point are taken from Sacred Scripture. Scripture scholars reveal the problematic nature of attempting to use passages from the Hebrew Scriptures as an argument against same gender relationships. Essentially, these scriptures are addressing the cultic practices in which sex with temple prostitutes was part of an act of worshiping Pagan gods. With regard to the Pauline epistles, John J. McNeill, in his book: The Church and the Homosexual, makes the following point: 'The persons referred to in Romans 1:26 are probably not homosexuals that is, those who are psychologically inclined toward their own sex -- since they are portrayed as 'abandoning their natural customs.'' The Pauline epistles do not explicitly treat the question of homosexual activity between two persons who share a homosexual orientation, and as such cannot be read as explicitly condemning such behavior. Therefore, same gender sex by two individuals with same sex orientation is not 'abandoning their natural custom.'

In 1973, as a result of a greater understanding of human psychology, the American Psychological Association declassified homosexuality as a mental illness. In 1975, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Church's watchdog for orthodoxy) produced a document entitled: 'Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics.' In this document, they made the most remarkable statement. They stated that there are 'homosexuals who are such because of some kind of innate instinct.' While these statements are hardly glowing affirmations of gay and lesbian persons, they represent a watershed in human perception and understanding of gay and lesbian people.

These new insights have occurred as a result of the birth and development of the science of psychology and understanding of brain development in the 19th and 20th centuries. The California Supreme Court cited and quoted an amicus brief filed by the APA in the Court's opinion issued on May 15, 2008 that struck down California's ban on same sex marriage. Specifically, the court relied on the APA's brief in concluding that the very nature of sexual orientation is related to the gender of partners to whom one is attracted, so that prohibiting same sex marriage discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation, rather than just imposing disparate burdens on gay people.

In directing the faithful to vote 'Yes' on Proposition 8, the California Bishops are not merely entering the political arena, they are ignoring the advances and insights of neurology, psychology and the very statements made by the Church itself that homosexuality is innate (i.e. orientation). In doing this, they are making a statement which has a direct, and damaging, effect on some of the people who may be sitting in the pews next to you today. The statement made by the bishop reaffirms the feelings of exclusion and alienation that are suffered by individuals and their loved ones who have left the Church over this very issue. Imagine what hearing such damaging words at Mass does to an adolescent who has just discovered that he/she is gay/lesbian? What is the hierarchy saying to him/her? What are they demanding from that individual? What would it have meant to you personally to hear from the pulpit at church that you could never date? Never fall in love, never kiss or hold hands with another person? Never be able to marry? How would you view yourself? How would others hearing those same words be directed to view you? How would you view your life and your future? How would you feel when you saw a car with a 'Yes on 8' bumper sticker? When you overheard someone in a public place use the word 'faggot?'

I remember the first time I heard that word, faggot, I was hanging out with my cousins. They all played on the football team of the Catholic high school in our town. One of them spat out the word in the form of a curse. I was just a kid in the 5th grade, I'd never heard the word before, and so I asked: 'What's a faggot?' A faggot is a guy who likes other guys, was the curt reply. Now pause. Think. What would those words mean to someone in junior high school who discovers that he/she is attracted to people of their same gender? The greatest fear that he/she would have is that they would be rejected by the people they love the most -- their family. So, their solution is to try to pass as straight, deceive, and in effect -- lie. Of course, this leads ultimately to self loathing. It should come as little surprise that gay teenagers have elevated suicide rates. According to the Center for Disease Control's Youth Risk Behavior Survey (1999), 33% of gay youth will attempt suicide.

The bishop states: 'The Church has spoken out constantly that those with a homosexual orientation must be respected with the dignity of every child of God. Every individual is created in the image and likeness of God and should never be subjected to prejudice or hatred.' A pious thought uttered by a cleric, robbed of any substantive meaning, as the executioner begins his work. Only a few select people actually read those documents. What most Catholics hear about being gay or lesbian at their parish church is -- silence. A numbing silence, which slowly and insidiously tells them, "You don't belong here, this is not for you, and you are not welcome." It is not the crude overt vulgarity of some churches. But rather, it is the coldness of a maitre d' who simply won't seat you, or the club which has put you on a waiting list with no intention of allowing you to join. And simply asks you to wait in polite, almost apologetic tones.

In effect, the bishops are asking gay and lesbian people to live their lives alone. Why? Who does this benefit? How exactly is society helped by singling out a minority and excluding them from the union of love and life, which is marriage? How is marriage protected by intimidating gay and lesbian people into loveless and lonely lives? What is accomplished by this? Worse still, is to intimidate a gay or lesbian person into a heterosexual marriage, which is doomed from its inception, and makes two victims instead of one by this hurtful 'theology.' This 'theology,' which is parroted by clerics in polished tones from pulpits, produces the very prejudice and hatred in our society which they claim to abhor.

When the hierarchy prohibited artificial birth control, most of the faithful in the United States, Canada and Europe scratched their heads in wonderment and proceeded to ignore them. There is an expression in theology: 'the voice of the people is the voice of God.' If your son or daughter is gay/lesbian let them know that you love them unconditionally. Let them know that you are not ashamed or embarrassed by them. Guide them as you would your other children to finding true and abiding love. Let them know that marriage is a union of love and life and is possible for them too.

I do not presume to tell you how to vote but I do ask that you pray to the Creator of us all. Think and consider the effects of your vote on others, especially minorities in our society who are sitting next to you in church, and at work. The act of casting a vote takes you a few minutes but it can cause other human beings untold happiness or sorrow for a lifetime. It can grant them hope and acceptance, or it can cause them to lose civil rights. It can be a rebuff to bigotry and hatred, or it can encourage bigotry and hatred. Personally, I am morally compelled to vote "NO" on Proposition 8. It is my hope that the people of California will join with those others around the world such as Canada, Europe and South Africa who welcome their gay and lesbian family members fully into society by granting them the civil right to marry.

I know these words of truth will cost me dearly. But to withhold them, would be far more costly and I would become an accomplice to a moral evil that strips gay and lesbian people not only of their civil rights but of their human dignity as well. Jesus said, "The truth will set you free." He didn't promise that it would be easy or without personal cost to speak that truth."