Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila called on fellow Catholics over the weekend to launch programs in their churches aimed at “healing” LGBTQ people by turning them into heterosexuals.
Aquila made the comments during his opening remarks at an archdiocese-sponsored conference in Denver Saturday featuring Andrew Comiskey, whose anti-gay organization, called “Desert Stream/Living Waters Ministries,” trains parishioners on how to “heal homosexuals” and other “sexually broken” people.
Once trained in Missouri or Southern California, these “healers” return home and set up church-based programs, with the goal of leading LGBTQ people to a life of “mature heterosexuality.”
This is intended to be achieved though small-group sessions in church, “prayer,” and with “key insights from reparative and developmental psychology,” according to Comiskey’s The Kingdom of God and the Homosexual (Revised).
But such programs, often called “conversion therapy,” both secular- and religion-based, have been widely discredited, and are opposed for use by medical professionals by, among others, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Psychological Association.
Still, Aquila told the 200 people attending the conference, which drew protests from local activists, that Comiskey’s program, which does not appear to be targeted specifically at minors, will succeed “within our parishes, within our communities” with the leadership of parishioners “who want to lead this and really desire to lead it.”
“And so, I ask you to prayerfully consider, as you are going through today, to really reflect upon, ‘Am I called to do this? Am I open to doing it? Am I receptive to the Lord?'” said Aquila, who’s decried the sexual preferences of LGBTQ people in the past and has identified “homosexuality” as a cause for sexual abuse by priests.
The archbishop warned that those who work to change the sexual orientation of LGBTQ people will be “persecuted,” because our “culture” is sympathetic to gays.
“Any time you are claiming the truth today, you will be persecuted,” Aquila told the group at the conference, which was called “Gender Matters: Fighting for a New Generation” and featured multiple LGBT “witnesses” who said they’d become heterosexual with the help of Comiskey and religion. “And that’s just a fact about the way things are today.”
To illustrate his point about cultural trends, Aquila explained what’s going on at “secular universities,” as told to him by one of his “faithful.”
“One grandfather,” he said, “was really upset because his granddaughter every year has to declare her sexuality. And one of the people [at the university] got upset with her because for three years she identified as female. But she said, ‘I am very confident. I am a female.’ And the person was trying to say, ‘Well, there should be more fluidity or ways of dealing with this. And you should experiment.’ And that is unfortunate.”
Archbishop Answers the “Call of Evangelization”
Against this backdrop, and empowered with his own desire to respond to what he referred to as the “call of evangelization,” Aquila became familiar with Comiskey’s work and was “convinced” of its efficacy.
The archbishop then “sent a few of the priests to go experience it, and they came back with great reports on it,” he said at the conference.
Aquila became a convert.
Not only did the archbishop host Saturday’s Desert Stream event, but the day before the conference, “35 to 40 priests gathered” in a private conference with Comiskey. “And it was extremely helpful,” he said.
“The beauty of Living Waters is the firm belief that people can be healed,” Aquila told the group as he introduced Comiskey. “It is believing in the power and authority of Jesus Christ and that he can heal any wound, he can forgive any sin, he can heal any disorder, if we truly put our faith in him, and our trust and confidence in him.
“And what Living Waters does is it really helps us to submit ourselves to God and put our faith in God,” Aquila continued. Faith is absolutely essential, and faith in Jesus Christ. And the healing may not be immediate. All of us know we have different feelings at different times. If all of us acted on all our feelings, none of us would be here. We’d all be in jail. And so it’s important to see that the feelings can be right and wrong, but how we act on them is where the morality comes in. And so Living Waters really helps us to see that.”
Aquila endorsed Comiskey’s organization previously, stating in an undated Desert Stream promotional video that Jesus offers Comiskey’s program to “every sinner” and “for every person who is broken sexually.”
This includes victims of abuse, addicts of pornography and masturbation, those with relationship or marital issues, and others. But the focus of the program appears to be on LGBTQ people.
Comiskey’s Anti-LGBTQ History
Comiskey and Desert Stream Ministries have a long and well-documented history of religious bigotry toward LGBTQ people.
Comiskey’s books and lectures are laced with lines such as, “there is no such thing as a ‘gay’ person,” and, “Satan delights in homosexual perversion, because it not only exists outside of marriage, but it also defiles God’s very image as reflected in male and female.” (Andrew Comiskey, “Pursuing Sexual Wholeness: How Jesus Heals the Homosexual,” p. 101)
Comiskey makes no secret of his past as a gay man, and he repeatedly references how he was “set free from homosexuality.”
“One cannot negate the spiritual deception that occurs when a person identifies with his or her homosexuality as the real, authentic self,” writes Comiskey in his book (p. 184-5) Strength in Weakness: Healing Sexual and Relational Brokenness, which details his personal journey.
“Soon to follow will be a yielding to homosexual activity,” Comiskey continues in his book. “The person’s sexual desires are then strengthened as result of his or her behaviors. One cannot dismiss the spiritual darkness at work in the lives of young vulnerable men and women as ‘realized’ homosexuals encourage their ‘true’ gay selves.”
Comiskey sees his work, in part, as a way to fight back against an “assertive minority in the conservative church that insists one is born gay, cannot change, can practice gay sex, and still be true to God and the Bible,” according to his The Kingdom of God publication.
Some of Comiskey’s language and evangelical tone, (e.g., “Satan delights in homosexual perversion.”) appears more extreme and mean than that used by Aquila and other Catholics, who nonetheless oppose LGBTQ rights.,
Asked if Aquila felt it might damage the church to align with Comiskey, the Archdiocese of Denver issued the following statement:
We would be disappointed to see Andrew Comiskey’s point of view and lived experiences to be unfairly reduced or misrepresented, the same way no group or individual should have their beliefs unfairly reduced.
The Archdiocese of Denver takes very seriously the psychological, biological and spiritual dimensions of the human person.
This conference was for adults who wanted to explore more deeply the healing power of Jesus and the Church’s teachings on human sexuality. The heart of the teaching is about recognizing the dignity of each and every individual and to lead them to a closer relationship with God. It has nothing to do with the “conversion therapy” of minors that the City of Denver recently banned.’
The feedback from those who attended the conference was overwhelmingly positive and people left with an increased sense of compassion and hope.
Archbishop of Kansas City Also Endorses Comiskey
It appears Desert Stream hasn’t been widely embraced by archbishops or other elements of the Catholic Church.
Aside from Aquila, only Joseph F. Naumann, Archbishop of Kansas City in Kansas, has endorsed Comiskey’s organization, at least according to publicly available documents.
“There is a false compassion in our culture today. And I think it springs from perhaps a good motive that encourages people to engage in behaviors that are really destructive,” Kansas City Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann says in a promotional video on the Desert Stream Living Waters website. “They are not going to find happiness. How do we help them to know that these things don’t define them, that they have this dignity as beloved sons and daughters of God. Living Waters is a ministry that really gets the whole message of the church. We love you. And we embrace you. And we want to lead you to a better way.”
The Catholic Diocese of Wichita is hosting what appears to be an identical “Gender Matters” conference, to be run by Comiskey, March 15.
Does Pope Francis Approve?
Despite the endorsements from the archbishops and the Vatican’s stance against gay sex, it’s not clear if Pope Francis would approve of Desert Stream Ministries, because the program, with references to “reparative and developmental psychology” and other pseudo-psychological explanations, clearly treats gay people as mentally ill.
And the Vatican said last year that being gay is not a “mental illness,” clarifying Pope Francis’ suggestion that “psychiatry” could help address “homosexual tendencies” in children.
On the other hand, the Catholic Church sees “homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity.”
The Denver Archdiocese did not respond to a question about whether Aquila sought approval to embrace Comiskey’s conversion-therapy program from higher church authorities, who might have a better understanding of Pope Francis’ stance on the matter.
Wandering in an “Immoral Wilderness”
“We as Christians face an unprecedented moral crisis,” states the Desert Stream ministries website. “Sexual abuse (including clerical), and soft approaches to hard stuff like porn addiction, marital infidelity, ‘LGBT’-identification, and undisciplined Christian leaders have weakened our voice and allowed a generation to wander in an immoral wilderness.”
In response to that statement, the Rev. Amanda Henderson, Executive Director of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, stated in a news release:
“We face a moral crisis when people cause harm to others in God’s name. We are in crisis when we forget the opening chapters of our holy text, which name that all people were created in God’s image; good and worthy of love. Rather than preaching hate and bigotry, we should be speaking and acting with love and inclusion. We must honor the basic dignity and humanity of every person and assure that God’s unconditional love is experienced through our words and actions.”
Listen to Aquila’s remarks At Saturday’s conference, which took place at the Archdiocese’s St. John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization in Denver: