Fr. John J. McNeill, S.J., was a Jesuit psycho-therapist and theologian concerned about Catholic gays and lesbians in the 1960s. He dedicated his special talents to enabling them to sort out their sexual puzzlement within the context of their quest for a loving God. Fr. McNeill, after many fruitful years of being an ally of gays and lesbians, disclosed that he himself had a homosexual orientation. He was acclimated to living as a celibate; hence, there was no sudden need to develop intimate relations with male lovers.
Fr. McNeill’s had a long and intensive ministry among gays. In addition to his many writings on the church and homosexuality, he cofounded a chapter of Dignity (a national group advocating for the rights of gay Catholics in the church) in New York City. In the late 60s, he arrived at a very constructive perspective respecting the special calling of gays and lesbians within their Church and within their society. At the same time, he was one of the first persons to reach out to the Catholic community and to warn them that “homophobic interpretations”[i] had corrupted the interpretation of God’s Word. Here are his three propositions:
Proposition #1: “In all cultures and in every period of history, a certain percentage of men and women develop as gays and lesbians. These individuals should be considered as part of God’s creative plan. Their sexual orientation has no necessary connection with sin, sickness, or failure [neither their own or their parents]; rather, it is a gift from God to be accepted and lived out with gratitude. God does not despise anything God has created.” [ii]
Analysis: Notice that McNeill begins by including homosexuals and heterosexuals as being equally created by God and, due to their innate orientation, everyone is called to serve God through the unique gifts and callings that he has written on their hearts. Instead of hating their condition, gays and lesbians are thus orientated to accept with gratitude and to implement the vocation to which God has uniquely called them.
Proposition #2: “Homosexuals, rather than being a menace to the values of society and the family, as many have tended to assume, have, as a part of God’s creative plan, special gifts and qualities and a very positive contribution to make to the development of society. Indeed, if lesbians and gay men were to disappear, the further development of society toward greater humaneness would be seriously endangered.” [iii]
Analysis: McNeill shifts his perspective from God’s point of view to that of our current society. He emphasizes here what no official Church document has ever allowed: namely, that the homosexual orientation ought not be denied, suppressed, or transmuted because the special gifts and qualities that gays and lesbians hope to bring to society at large can flourish only when gays and lesbians are true to what God has made them to be. The pioneering psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, observed in his clinical practice that gay people “often are endowed with a wealth of religious feelings, which help to bring the ecclesia spiritualis into reality.”[iv] Fr. McNeill agrees with Jung’s assessment entirely. Both of them had gay and lesbian clients and both of them came to parallel conclusions.
Critique: McNeill speaks positively of the contribution that gays and lesbians might make to the development of society. However, just as in the case of heterosexuals, some homosexuals become embittered by their suffering and, in turn, they cause needless suffering to those around them, and tear down the fabric of society.
Proposition #3: “The church’s traditional position has been that since every homosexual act is sinful and contrary to God’s plan, the love that exists between gay and lesbian people is sinful and alienates the lover from God. I argued that the love between two lesbians or gay men, assuming that it is a constructive human love, is not sinful. . . . On the contrary, it can be a holy love, mediating God’s presence in the human community as effectively as heterosexual love.”[v]
Analysis: Finally Fr. McNeill addresses the issue from the vantage point of the official Church. Immediately he gives his own moral judgment: “On the contrary, it can be a holy love. . . .” Using more traditional language, McNeill arrives at the same position as does Matthew Vines when he affirmed, with his youthful enthusiasm, that “gay people have the very same capacity for romantic love and self-giving that straight people do.”
When Father McNeill’s book was published, there was a surge of hope and optimism that (a) gays and lesbians themselves would discover that their condition was not a curse of God but a blessing and (b) that the Catholic hierarchy would open up free and public discussions, both formal and informal, that would lead to a revision of its blanket condemnation of homosexual acts as inherently disordered and sinful. Here are Father McNeill’s expectations in his own words:
After more than four years of exhaustive research [1970-1974] to write the book, the Imprimi Potest was obtained only after an additional two years of intense review [1974-1976] by leading moral theologians both in the United States and in Rome. They were unanimous in recommending that the book be published. I naively assumed that by granting me an Imprimi Potest, the Church, in the liberating spirit that followed Vatican II, was ready and willing to reexamine its teaching on homosexuality and that approving my book for publication was the first step in that process. The theologians who reviewed the manuscript believed, as I did, that the new evidence coming from the fields of scriptural studies, history, psychology, sociology, and moral theology seriously challenged every premise on which the traditional teaching was based. They anticipated, as I did, that my book would begin a public debate on Church teaching that would eventually lead to the Church’s revision of its understanding of homosexuality.[vi]
Later, in his autobiography, Father McNeill would draw attention to more details:
The General of the Jesuits, Pedro Arrupe, ordered me to submit the manuscript to two sets of censors, one a group of moral theologians in the USA, the other a group of moral theologians in Rome. All the censors approved publication. Then, Fr. Arrupe sent an order to the New York Provincial of the Jesuits granting his official approval for the publication of my book, The Church and the Homosexual, and granting approval to publish the book with an Imprimi Potest.[vii]
Then, out of the blue, lightning struck!
After Pedro Arrupe had a massive stroke Pope John Paul dismissed him as General of the Jesuits giving Pedro’s granting an imprimi potest for my book as one of the reasons.[viii]
One year after publication, in 1977, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) under the direction of Cardinal Ratzinger ordered the removal of the Imprimi Potest from my book.
Because of my appearances on popular television programs such as “Today” and “The Phil Donahue Show,” the CDF accused me of violating a nonexistent agreement that the public discussion would take place only among my peers in the theological community.[ix]
As a penalty, Fr. McNeill was effectively silenced by a solemn mandate forbidding him “to write or speak on the issue of homosexuality in any of its aspects: theological, psychological, or sociological.”
For ten years, until 1987, I observed the silence imposed on me by not speaking in public. During that period, my book was published around the world in five different languages. I had agreed to observe the silence, again in the hope that over time the Church would consider the evidence and begin a process of reevaluation. The American bishops did take several progressive steps toward liberalizing pastoral practice based on the distinction between homosexual orientation, which is neither chosen nor changeable, and homosexual behavior, which they continued to judge as contrary to God’s will. They also called for legislation protecting the civil rights of gay people. But every time any move was made toward a better understanding and spiritual care of gay people, the Vatican intervened demanding that the Catholic Church in the United States maintain a homophobic stance on all gay issues. The best example of that interference is the Vatican demand in 1987 that all Dignity chapters be denied their right to meet on Church grounds.
One major event was the release of the Vatican “Halloween” letter by Cardinal Ratzinger, the new head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on 31 October 1986. Rome took a giant step backward when it asserted that homosexual orientation was not a natural condition but represented an “objective disorder” and was an ‘orientation to evil.” Since most gay people experience their homosexual orientation as a part of creation, if they accept this Church teaching, they must see God as sadistically creating them with an intrinsic orientation to evil. Most gays would prefer to see the Church teaching as wrong, rather than believe God is sadistic.
The Vatican document went so far in its hatred of all things gay as to assert that if homosexuals continue to claim “unthinkable” civil rights, then they should not be surprised by the violence inflicted upon them by gay-bashers and have only themselves to blame. This statement has been interpreted in some quarters as encouraging violence against gay people.[x]
In 1986, McNeill broke the mandated silence imposed upon him and, under great threat, his Jesuit superiors were forced to expel him from the Jesuit order early the next year. McNeill left religious life with no bank account, health insurance, etc., but he did not abandon his faith or his dedication to serving the GLBT community. Why was this? McNeill says this:
During the years of my practice of spiritual counseling and psychotherapy I discovered that most gay men and women could not heal their wounds in isolation but needed a support group to help them make the discernment of spirits that would allow them to mature spiritually. I remember at the first meeting of Dignity in New York making the statement “Dignity is not something we can give ourselves! But it is something we can help give each other!”
But after nine years of seeing an increase in homophobia in the Vatican and a refusal of any effort at dialog and witnessing the death and destruction of the AIDS plague I found I could no longer in conscience remain silent.[xi]
Again, I see here a parallel with Matthew Vines’ publishing his first book and then, a year later, turning his attention to creating month-long workshops whereby Evangelical Christians could learn how to read the Bible with new eyes and to return home with the mission of transforming their local church’s stance on homosexuality. [More can be learned from the book.]
[i] John J. McNeill illustrates that not all theories of homosexual are created equal. Some arise out of deep traumatic fears (homophobia) that distort the individual and drive him/her to secretly hate all homosexuals. Thus, for homosexual Catholics to survive and thrive within the Catholic Church, John J. McNeill emphasizes that homosexual must begin their spiritual growth by training themselves to enter a mature faith that distinguishes between “pathological religion” and “healthy religion.” See John J. McNeill, Taking a Chance on God: Liberating Theology for Gays, Lesbians, and their Lovers, Families, and Friends (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), pp. 16-26.
[ii] John J. McNeill, Taking a Chance on God: Liberating Theology for Gays, Lesbians, and their Lovers, Families, and Friends (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), p. xvi.
[iii] McNeill, Taking a Chance on God, xvii.
[iv] McNeill, Taking a Chance on God, 2.
[v] McNeill, Taking a Chance on God, xvii.
[vi] Preface to the Fourth Edition from The Church and The Homosexual (http://www.johnjmcneill.com/TCTH.HTML)
[vii] John J. McNeill, Interview with Lidia Borghi, translated by Marius, 29 May 2011 (https://www.gionata.org/john-j-mcneill-both-feet-firmly-planted-in-midair-my-spiritual-journey/).
[x] Preface to the Fourth Edition from The Church and The Homosexual (http://www.johnjmcneill.com/TCTH.HTML)
[xi] Ibid. , John J. McNeill, Interview with Lidia Borghi.