FATHER JOHN WHITEFORD’S APPALLING IGNORANCE AND PASTORAL MALFEASANCE by Giacomo Sanfilippo

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Father John Whiteford pastoring LGBTQ people

Whenever Father John Whiteford weighs in on questions of sexuality and gender, he can reliably be counted on to repeat, like a cracker-craving parrot, an inflexibly doctrinaire, pseudo-theological, and pseudo-pastoral ideology grounded in precisely no actual knowledge of the matter at hand.

Sometimes Father Whiteford enlists the support of “experts” who have no more knowledge of the subject than he. We saw this recently in his laughably but also tragically uninformed rebuttal to Father Richard René’s Meeting Michelle: Pastoral and Theological Reflections on a Transgender Inmate. Father René’s thoughtful essay—based on a genuine encounter between two human persons beloved of God, one a humble priest who doesn’t presume that the Grace Divine of ordination (or his advanced theological education: he is currently a PhD student in theology) transformed him into Father Know-It-All, the other an incarcerated transwoman—was published as part of Public Orthodoxy’s Bridging Voices series. (Check Public Orthodoxy’s separate Bridging Voices archive for a complete list of titles published to date in this series.)

Father Whiteford begins his attempted takedown of Father René with the following: 

I asked a parishioner, Tikhon Pino, to comment specifically on Fr. Richard’s use of St. Maximus. Tikhon Pino is a patristics scholar [actually, a PhD candidate] who acted as research assistant on Fr. Maximos Constas’s translation of St. Maximus the Confessor’s Ambigua (Harvard UP, 2014), and so is well qualified to do so.

Fair enough. Who better to debate Father René’s interpretation of St. Maximus than an Orthodox graduate student who has some research experience in the translation of one of the Confessor’s books? (Mr. Pino’s doctoral research focuses not on St. Maximus, though, but on St. Gregory Palamas.) I looked forward to reading something intelligent and scholarly for once on Father Whiteford’s blog.

Talk about short-lived hopes. Mr. Pino starts right in with one of the most insensitive offenses that one can commit against a transgender person: the refusal to use his or her preferred pronouns. (If I can adapt to the new pronouns of my own son, surely Mr. Pino can do it with no effort at all.) He then proceeds to mock gender dysphoria in children, condemn parents for doing their best in a situation for which nothing prepared them, and belittle Father René’s loving engagement with a transgender person—all in the space of his first four sentences! 

The essay ends by casting Father René as a poor ninny who has no idea what he thinks. 

That a patristics student should presume to pontificate on gender dysphoria, transgender identities, and the possible range of appropriate pastoral responses—while demonstrating no familiarity whatever with the relevant medical, biological, neurological, psychological, theoretical, and autobiographical literature—is par for the course for Father Whiteford’s blog. It renders the rest of Mr. Pino’s essay worthless. 

In Father Whiteford’s predictably uninformed response to Father Aaron Warwick’s Pastoring LGBTQ Individuals in the Orthodox Church, he crosses the line from ignorance to pastoral malfeasance—to which I will get in my third point below.

1). “…[I]t was somewhat of a surprise to see that an Antiochian Priest, Fr. Aaron Warwick, had written a pro-homosexual article and published it via a notoriously pro-homosexual website ‘Orthodoxy in Dialogue.'”

If my untiring advocacy for queer Orthodox children, teens, women, and men driven to despair by the likes of Father Whiteford and like-minded priests makes Orthodoxy in Dialogue “notorious,” I wear my notoriety as a badge of honour and gift from God. (See Editorial: Rod Dreher’s Limited [and Theologically Meaningless] Vocabulary for the names of other priests who are a spiritual, emotional, and psychological danger to LGBTQ children, teens, and adults.)

2). Father Whiteford’s voyeuristic fixation on same-sex sex whenever the subject of same-sex love comes up for discussion fails to take into account the fact that sexual orientation—not unlike transgender identity—begins to manifest very early in a child’s consciousness. Is Father Whiteford prepared to tell a 5-, 7-, 10-year old that he or she will have to spend his or her teen dating years and adulthood either in loneliness or play-acting as straight?

As I have written previously:

The completely arbitrary use of the word [homosexuality] from one speaker to another acquires a sense of extreme pastoral urgency when we consider that children start to become aware of their romantic interest in their own gender at a very early age, long before they can envision—let alone pursue—its sexual enactment. In today’s social context these young children now possess the vocabulary to name their innocent same-sex desire and to “come out” to their family and friends, if and when they choose to do so. What must it do to a child of 6 or 7 or 10 or 12 who suddenly learns in the middle of the Sunday Epistle reading that he or she is destined for hell? The correlation between religious faith and suicidal ideation for LGBTQ persons is real. (See From the Fathers: The Kingdom of Heaven Is Like…Two Men in Bed Together? for the original context.)

And from an anonymous archpriest and grandfather:

Father Andrew Stephen! Father Lawrence! Father Johannes! Father John! Father Josiah! If you don’t stop your very public spiritual malfeasance online and in your travels, how many spiritual deaths will be accounted to you before you’re finished? How many physical deaths?

In how many young hearts will you murder God before you’re done? (See Priest to Priest: An Open Letter to Fathers Damick, Farley, Jacobse, Parker, and Trenham for the original context.)

3). “But of course lifelong celibacy is not the only option for those struggling against homosexuality—they may marry someone of the opposite sex. If they do not wish to do so, that doesn’t make lifelong celibacy their only option—it makes it the only remaining option if they choose not take the other option.”

Aside from the fact that this reads like pure Trump for eloquence and logic, this is where Father Whiteford’s pastoral malfeasance sinks to its lowest level. As I have written previously:

The existence of gay fathers support groups in major cities across North America attests to the not uncommon phenomenon of men who marry women despite their erotic, emotional, affectional, and spiritual orientation toward other men. Although bisexual functionally, they come to these meetings self-identifying as gay, not bi.

The motives that compel gay men to marry women—even young gay men, in spite of the growing social acceptance of same-sex relationships—vary along an intersectional spectrum of societal, religious, parental, and internalized pressures to conform to a rigidly heterosexist paradigm of human love. Often the man has a genuine desire to father and raise biological children. Very few marry with the intention of cheating on their wives or leaving their families. All of them love their wives and children to the best of their ability. Yet few think to ask themselves about the possible effects on a woman when her husband’s desires and fantasies lie secretly and diametrically elsewhere. Undoubtedly many Orthodox priests fit this profile.

Some of these men come to the support group still closeted and married (some faithful to their wives, others having sex with a man or men on the side); others “out” to their wives (and sometimes to their children), but still married; others navigating their separation and divorce from their wives; and yet others openly gay and divorced for many years. The majority do not envision a life of bed-hopping for themselves, but wish to form—or have already formed—a stable, monogamous same-sex bond.

While their individual circumstances vary, the men who attend these meetings all have this in common: the realization that attempting to repress their same-sex desire over a lifetime of monogamous opposite-sex marriage hasn’t worked. Unfulfilled desire only intensifies over the years and decades. Being a man of faith does not dispel it. For many men, unfulfilled same-sex desire comes eventually to border on the obsessive. Sooner or later, the initiation and completion of marital coitus occurs only through vivid fantasies, undisclosed to the unsuspecting wife, that “something else” is happening in the presumably undefiled marriage bed. Adultery occurs repeatedly in the man’s imagination, no matter how earnestly he prays that it were otherwise, no matter how much he loves his wife. This is how his children are brought into the world.

In the end, life turns upside down for too many women and children when their beloved husband and father announces that he just can’t do it anymore. The trauma for the men in these situations also cannot be overstated. 

[…]

Father Thomas Hopko’s notoriously ill-conceived Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction reaches its nadir of bad pastoral theology when he counsels gay men who are capable of opposite-sex intercourse (and how would they know, unless they experimented with premarital sex?) to marry an “understanding” woman. In classroom remarks some thirty years ago, he asserted that married men sneaking off now and then to the local park for anonymous late night sex with other men, and crawling back to confession yet again in abject self-loathing, comprised a more authentically Christian way of life than following their hearts into a committed same-sex relationship in the first place. He seemed not to know that even same-sex oriented husbands who do not duck behind the bushes in the park at 2:00 a.m. still have sex with men—in their fantasies, in the persons and bodies of their wives. Is this Christian marriage? (See Pastoral Practice in the 21st Century: Some Thoughts on Premarital Counseling for the original context.)

In conclusion: Father Whiteford gloats that all the liberal Protestant churches have emptied out. By this metric, such a righteous, right-teaching priest as himself must have grown his parish to a European-sized cathedral by now. We eagerly await a full report, complete with photos.

See the Warwick Files in our Archives 2020 for a catalogue of articles written in response to Father Warwick.
Also see the Fifty Years after Stonewall and Sexuality and Gender sections in our Archives 2017-19 and Archives 2020.
Finally, if you would like to respond to any of the articles in Public Orthodoxy’s Bridging Voices series, see our Bridging Voices: Call for Responses.

Giacomo Sanfilippo is an Orthodox Christian, PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, founding editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue, father of five, grandfather of two, and former priest. He holds a BA in Sexuality Studies from York University in Toronto and an MA in Theology from Regis College/St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, is an alumnus of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto, and earlier in life completed the course requirements for the MDiv at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He tweets @GiacoSanfilippo.

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