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McNeill’s a bright guy, but his feet are still planted in midair


By John J. McNeill
Westminster John Knox Press, 184 pages, $18.95


Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair is aptly titled. The name is taken from a comment made about McNeill as a student by Jesuit Fr. Gustave Weigel. The famous professor added: “Wherever he goes, whatever he does, there will be trouble, trouble, trouble.” Even McNeill admits the warning was prophetic.

A Jesuit for almost 40 years before his expulsion in 1987 for his views on gay and lesbian sexuality, McNeill is a psychotherapist and lecturer. This book chronicles his life’s journey and is an interesting read. It is not particularly significant as a chronicle of gay and lesbian issues in or out of the church, but it is a compelling look at one man’s journey.

McNeill was attracted early on to Maurice Blondell, a French preexistentialist philosopher from the turn of the century. McNeill found his Jesuit vocation summed up in a passage of Blondell’s that asserts, in part, “one must give all for the all.” McNeill sees his philosophical work as having laid the theoretical basis for his movement into political and social activism.

Early in his clerical career, McNeill “was given the grace to realize” that his motive for praying the liturgy of the hours had been fear. So he stopped: “I closed my breviary and put it on the shelf.” Shortly after followed his “compulsive acting out of sexual needs” followed by “shame, guilt and self-hatred.”

Then he found a new translation of Genesis: “Every human needs a companion of his or her kind.” In his companionship with a gay lover he met in, of all places, the papal palace at Avignon in France, McNeill reports having found a peace and joy never experienced before. And that relationship, amazingly, freed him to give all his “psychic energy over to completing my thesis on Maurice Blondell.”

McNeill’s psychic energy seems to have had moving targets. He later reports that his energy was caught up in a struggle to suppress sexual needs. Then he made a decision to seek out a gay friendship, hoping that the energy “would be freed and made available for loving ministry.” But he was mugged three times in visits to gay bars. He found his lover in 1965 and maintained the relationship while still living, at least part-time, in a Jesuit community and serving as a professor of Christian ethics.

McNeill sees his own struggles as a recapitulation of Blondell’s problems with the Vatican. He reports being “astounded and disgusted” at never having been listed in the pages of America among “all the theologians silenced by the Vatican.” McNeill seems not to understand that debating and discerning the origins of homosexuality and the place of gay and lesbian people in human society and in the eyes of God is one thing; faithfulness to his promises another. Sexual orientation, or late discovery of one’s orientation, precludes neither the keeping of promises nor honesty with one’s community.

McNeill was instrumental in the founding of Dignity, but seems not to forgive the organization for moving beyond him. His report of slights made me wince.

Silenced by the Vatican in 1977, he responded with a hope that his silence would be eloquent. He asserted that he would join those who had gone before him: Blondell, Teilhard de Chardin, John Courtney Murray, Henri de Lubac and many others.

McNeill laments that one of his books, released in 1996, was ignored in the media because, as he sees it, his writing is “too religious” or “too pro-gay.” He had hoped for a review in the NCR, but was disappointed to find only “a short put-down review … in the Booknotes column.” That’s the “Bookshelf” column that I have written for the last 10 years or so. He reports “a couple of sleepless nights” and I felt bad when I read that

McNeill is clearly a bright man with an interesting story to tell, but he is not the theological equal of Blondell. It is clear that, even at this late date, he still has both feet firmly planted in midair.

William Graham writes the “Bookshelf” column for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 1999