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Issue Date:  November 11, 2005

Gay theology pioneer trusts 'God's shrewdness'

Hollywood, Fla.

When The Church and Homosexuality was published in November 1976, its author, Jesuit Fr. John J. McNeill, became an instant celebrity. A front-page story in The New York Times told about the Jesuit theologian who had openly challenged the Catholic church on one of its most closely held doctrines. A few days later McNeill was on NBC’s “Today Show,” where he was interviewed by a nervous and uncomfortable Tom Brokaw (his first day as host). Stories quickly followed in Newsweek, TIME and newspapers around the country, and McNeill was a guest on “The Phil Donahue Show.” During the next year as the McNeill book tour hit some 20 cities, the priest was portrayed in the press as a radical innovator, and the infant Catholic gay rights movement embraced him as a credible voice and leader.

Now, almost 29 years later, the buzz associated with McNeill has still not entirely dissipated. At the national convention of DignityUSA in Philadelphia last July, McNeill got two standing ovations before he even said a word. One panelist choked with emotion as he told of coming by accident on The Church and Homosexuality in the library of the college where he was a student. Profoundly worried about his own orientation, he read the book hidden inside another, lest fellow students would see. “Fr. McNeill,” he said, “you saved my life!”

Indeed, life-saving is a fairly common topic when gay Catholics discuss McNeill’s influence. Kevin Heffernan, a leader of the Gay and Lesbian Alumni/ae of the University of Notre Dame and St. Mary’s College, said, “This guy saved my life, made me realize I can be OK as a gay man and still have faith. His book made so much sense to me when I was in the seminary figuring out who I really was.” In early October, Heffernan’s alumni group presented McNeill with its Thomas A. Dooley Award at a ceremony in Chicago.

“He stands as a pillar of gay theology,” said Jim Bussen, a former national president of DignityUSA. “He was the groundbreaker, the first to give gay folks a legitimate theological voice. Everything that has happened since was built on him.”

Loretto Sr. Jeannine Gramick, herself an outspoken voice in the Catholic gay and lesbian community, called McNeill “the most important figure in the Catholic church regarding homosexuality and gay rights. It may sound corny, but he is the giant on whose shoulders we stand.” Today, said Gramick, views about the morality of loving gay relationships, similar to or identical to those espoused by McNeill, are held by the vast majority of Catholic theologians, including those at top Catholic universities. Meanwhile, the Vatican has budged not an inch since the 1970s, repeatedly declaring that a homosexual orientation is itself intrinsically disordered and homosexual actions are gravely sinful.

Like an elderly couple

He is 80 years old now and not as active as he once was. McNeill and his partner of nearly 40 years, Charles Chiarelli, live in a trailer park in Hollywood, Fla. Truth be told, it is the AAA of trailer parks -- nicely built, individually-styled “manufactured homes,” many with carports and screened porches, spread out along winding streets. A series of small strokes and a touch of diabetes have slowed him down; he walks with a cane and his memory for names and dates isn’t as sharp as it once was. But his jaw is as square as ever and his eyes are clear. Seated in the living room of their home, McNeill and Chiarelli seem like any elderly couple, at ease and comfortable in their life together. Chiarelli, 70, a retired electrical engineer, is the junior partner, sometimes assisting McNeill as he stands up, getting books and documents from another room when requested, providing an elusive name or date when needed. “Charlie,” says McNeill, “what year did we move down here?”

“September 2001,” says Chiarelli, “right after 9/11, remember?”

McNeill is eager to share his latest views on the church, theology and the state of the gay rights movement. Once he starts, it’s hard to stop him. “I’m really excited about what is going on,” he says. To explain this, he cites Jesus’ statement at the Last Supper: “It is much better for you that I go. If I fail to go, the Paraclete will never come to you, whereas if I go, I will send him to you … and he will guide you into all truth.”

“As I see it,” says McNeill, “the whole trajectory of the church is toward the era of the Spirit, when each will know the truth in his heart and there will be no need for extrinsic authority.”

He is fascinated with the teaching of Joachim of Flora, a 12th-century visionary who spoke of three periods in Christian history: the era of the Father, that is, the period of the Old Testament; the era of the Son, during which the institutional church was developing; and the coming era of the Holy Spirit. “I think we’re moving into that era,” he said, and he sees the gay community as the vanguard. “By being rejected by church leadership, gays and lesbians have had to ask God directly if they can live authentic Christian lives, and they are getting [positive] answers. They’ve come to see church teaching on homosexuality as destroying their self-image, so they’ve had to take direct access to God, based on prayer, spirituality and freedom of conscience.”

But isn’t direct access the Protestant approach, and doesn’t this era of the Spirit he’s advocating mean the end of Catholicism? “Not at all,” says McNeill. “This is where we see the shrewdness of the Holy Spirit. Members of Dignity and other gay Catholics are not leaving the church. They’re staying. They value the church, the Mass, the sacraments. There will of course be leaders, priests and bishops in the new church. The people will appoint them, and the one duty of leaders will be to listen. You know, it’s already happening all over the world.” He sees the priest shortage as one more example of “God’s shrewdness,” because laity are beginning to name their own leaders, empowering them to do what must be done to preserve the faith.

The principal listener

Any room for the pope? “Of course,” says McNeill. “He will be the principal listener to the people of God -- and to the whole world as well.” But the pattern of paternalism, clericalism and hierarchy will go, he predicts confidently, as people “take their own faith seriously and stop thinking God can speak only through the institutional church.”

His life has taken a winding, somewhat mystifying path since he was growing up in Buffalo, N.Y. He was the youngest of five siblings -- four brothers and a sister -- of first-generation Irish parents. His only clear memory of his mother was the day she was taken to the hospital where she would soon die. He was 4 years old, and he remembers hearing her say, “What’s going to happen to my babies?” The wake was held in the family home on Christmas in 1929. McNeill says he mistook the looks of sympathy from relatives and friends as accusations, as though he were somehow responsible for his mother’s death. For many years after he would relate to God in fear, as the one who punished him by taking away his mother. His father, a construction worker on Erie Canal projects, soon married his wife’s sister, Katie, though they agreed to live as brother and sister, in keeping with an old Irish tradition, says McNeill. His father, he says grew more distant in time, and his stepmother seemed always angry.

As he got older, McNeill struggled with sexual fantasies and questions about his own sexual orientation, all of which made him even more fearful of the God preached at school and in Sunday sermons. In 1942, he enlisted in the Army in what he describes as a government-sponsored hoax to nab 17-year-olds like himself with promises of a “specialized education program.”

On the frontlines

His education turned out to be on the frontlines of battle in 1944 near the French city of Metz, where he and his companions were captured by the German army. Thus began five months of horror as a prisoner of war, which saw him nearly die of starvation and abuse. But a single incident during that time changed his life, he said. A European slave laborer, observing McNeill’s failing condition, threw him a potato one day. When McNeill tried to return a gesture of thanks, the man merely made the sign of the cross. In his autobiography, Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair, McNeill wrote, “Here was a man willing to risk his life to feed me, a stranger, and he found that courage and his freedom from fear in his religious faith. I date my vocation to the priesthood from that moment. My constant prayer from then on was that God would grant me the courage to never be ruled by fear.”

After being liberated by allied forces and discharged from the service, he attended Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., and entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1948. He believed religious life would resolve his problems and questions. As a philosophy student, he found in Maurice Blondel a 19th-century pre-existentialist, a kindred spirit. Blondel, who had his own run-ins with the church, fastened on a text from St. John’s Gospel: “One who does the truth comes to the light.” He taught that “doing” may be a more important way of knowing than intellectual exploration -- that freely chosen action can unite the human spirit with the divine spirit; thus one who loves knows God because God is love. Blondel’s approach became the subject of McNeill’s thesis, his first published book, and it would become the basis for much of his own doing and thinking later in life.

Ordained in 1959, he quickly discovered that the grace of the priesthood did not stem his sexual drive, and while continuing his studies in Europe, he began acting out his homosexual fantasies. “I searched out sexual encounters,” he says, “and became completely demoralized.” One day in Paris on the banks of the Seine, he found himself ready to jump into the river and end it all but said he was caught short by a sudden “deep trust,” a sense that God was hearing his prayer, “that he would remain close to me, that he would somehow bring good out of this.” His bouts with self-hatred, shame and guilt would continue for years as he taught at LeMoyne College in New York.

Then on New Year’s Eve 1965 he met Charles Chiarelli in a New York bar. The two have been together as lovers and partners ever since, even though McNeill continued functioning as a Jesuit priest for the next 23 years. Today McNeill says there are some things he is sorry about in his life, but not his alliance with Chiarelli, nor the deception that the breaking of his vows involved. “I prayed about this relationship for a long time,” he said, “and I finally got assurance that I had God’s approval. If an action is in accordance with the divine will, I believe you will know peace and joy in pursuing it. If something is not in accordance with the divine will, you will experience desolation and unhappiness.” Peace and joy, he explained, are all he has known in his 40 years with Chiarelli.

However, he acknowledges that the decision came with a price. After he admitted his own homosexual orientation in the Brokaw interview (though he denied he was sexually active at the time), his relationship with his three brothers, all now deceased, remained strained; only his sister, a Franciscan nun, offered him prayers and support until her own death. The Jesuit order has essentially exiled him, he said, not acknowledging him as a former member of the order or inviting him to occasional gatherings for those who left or were forced to leave. “I’m sure it’s because of all those years when I was under a vow of celibacy and seen as living as a hypocrite,” he said.

Ironically, those were the years of intense activity when McNeill, teaching for a time at the Jesuits’ Woodstock Seminary, began an in-depth study of homosexuality, especially what psychologists, psychiatrists and sociologists were saying about it. He noted how frequently some experts cited the anger and shame gays and lesbians directed at themselves and how often their relationships with others proved unsatisfying and transitory. Could it be, he wondered, that the shame and anger stemmed from the homophobic messages these people were receiving from church and society? Might it not also be that, besides the troubled gays who were seeking out professional help, there existed a whole subculture of well-adjusted gays about whom the social scientists knew little because they had no need of therapy? He also investigated what scripture scholars, church historians and moral theologians had written about the subject, and he discovered a great divide between traditional assumptions and what modern experts were saying. He came to think the foundations of church and society’s opposition to homosexual love were not only outmoded but had been wrong from the beginning.

In the spirit of Blondel, he combined action with research and began to counsel gay and lesbian clients and became involved in the early organizing of the Catholic Dignity movement. In 1970 he published three articles titled, “The Christian Male Homosexual” in the conservative Homiletic and Pastoral Review. They urged change in the traditional counseling approach with gays, questioned whether conversion to heterosexuality was practical or even possible, and suggested that, under certain circumstances, homosexual relations could be acceptable as a lesser evil than promiscuity.

Hundreds of calls and letters

McNeill was astonished at the hundreds of calls and letters of support he received. Within Catholic circles the series represented an apparently welcome break in the barrier of absolute condemnation. Over the next three years more questions and criticism of church teaching appeared in publications like The Thomist, Commonweal and the Catholic World and in a book by Fr. Charles Curran, Catholic Moral Theology in Dialogue. By 1972 McNeill had his own book manuscript ready, and after his speech at the first national convention of Dignity ran in NCR, he got an offer from Sheed & Ward to publish The Church and the Homosexual.

At that point the magisterium seemed to become aware of where all this was going. The Jesuit general, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, ordered McNeill not to publish anything in the popular press and not to address gay groups until further notice. A Jesuit commission, including Jesuit Frs. Avery Dulles and Richard McCormack, among others, studied the manuscript and sent their findings to Arrupe. Said McNeill, “I was given to understand that although the commission didn’t necessarily agree with all my conclusions, they did find it a serious and scholarly work worthy of publication.”

Arrupe asked to review a copy for his own personal judgment. After further delay, including another Jesuit expert review, Arrupe transferred final authorization to publish to the New York Jesuit provincial, provided McNeill made some clarifications in the work.

Then in early January 1976 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued “A Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics.” In the document, the Vatican noted for the first time a distinction between “heterosexuals who indulge in homosexual acts and others who share in a permanent homosexual condition.” It labeled such a permanent condition “pathological,” adding there could never be a pastoral justification of gay activity.

McNeill feared his efforts had bottomed out, but just 13 days after the Vatican declaration, his provincial granted his book an imprimi potest, that is, official permission to publish.

McNeill says he wanted the book to read “like a legal brief,” and it does -- except it’s a lot easier to read. It is tight, consistent, devoid of rhetoric, accusation or anger. Citing a wide range of authorities both for and against his positions, McNeill lays out his case: “Given 1) the uncertainty of clear scriptural prohibition, 2) the questionable basis of the traditional condemnation in moral philosophy and moral theology, 3) the emergence of new data, which upset many traditional assumptions, and 4) controversies among psychologists and psychiatrists concerning theory, etiology and treatment … there obviously is a need to open up anew the question of the moral standing of homosexual activity and homosexual relationships for public debate.”

According to Charles Curran, “Of all those theologians who have written on the subject since, McNeill through this book is most identified with an acceptance of the moral goodness of homosexual acts within committed relationships. His thinking has come to be shared by many Catholic moral theologians. Among gay persons themselves, his effect is to say you can be who you are and still be a Roman Catholic.”

A little more than a year after publication, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a letter to Arrupe, ordered the imprimi potest removed from future editions. McNeill was ordered henceforth “not to speak on homosexuality and sexual ethics.”

He was gravely disappointed but not crushed. He decided the silencing order could be interpreted that he could talk on homosexuality as long as he did not touch sexual ethics and vice versa. He operated for the next eight years on what some colleagues, he said, called this “Machiavellian approach.”

While waiting for a decision on the book, McNeill had earned a degree in psychotherapy from the Institutes of Religion and Health in New York. Soon after, he began teaching at the school, developed his own professional practice, cofounded the New York Dignity chapter and gave regular retreats to gays and lesbians. In the 1980s he also worked in a ministry to homeless AIDS patients in Harlem with Franciscan Fr. Mychal Judge, the New York fire chaplain who died at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

In 1986, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a document on the pastoral care of gays. The document called the gay orientation itself “an objective disorder” and signaled a new Vatican crackdown on theologians who publicly taught otherwise. Meanwhile, the Jesuit general, Peter Hans Kolvenbach, came to New York and met for two hours with McNeill, explaining that his public ministry was incompatible with the Jesuit mission and, if he persisted in it, he would be expelled from the order.

Jesuit in exile

Seeing the handwriting on the wall, McNeill announced he could not in conscience abandon what he had begun. More than a year later, his dismissal became official as the New York provincial, in the presence of two witnesses, read to McNeill (in English and Latin) the document of expulsion. He was not laicized, however, so he considers himself still a priest and “a Jesuit in exile.”

As it turned out, his departure from the order broadened his ministry beyond the Catholic church, and he has since written two books dealing with the psychology and spirituality of anyone who is gay and Christian: Taking a Chance on God and Freedom, Glorious Freedom, in addition to his autobiography. He has another manuscript but so far has not found a publisher. “I’ve been told it’s too Catholic and too scholarly,” he says.

McNeill is hopeful, almost buoyant about the future. He sees gay marriage as “a new paradigm” that will in time rescue straight marriages from their present dysfunctional status in modern society. “God created male and female as equals,” he notes, “but Western culture has been based on the superiority of the male, the inferiority of the woman, and therefore a fundamental inequality in the relationship.” The male is expected to suppress his female qualities and talents, and the female is expected to suppress her male qualities, he explains, inevitably leading to anger, a disruption of sexual intimacy and often a breakup of the union. Gay unions, on the other hand, are based on the full equality of the couple, says McNeill, leaving the partners free to express their male and female sides. The example of stable gay unions, he predicts, will have a salutary effect on all marriages, gay and heterosexual.

He sees legislative efforts to ban gay marriages as a “last gasp” of an outmoded system. Nor does he fear that the priest abuse scandal will raise a determined outcry against gays. “Who knows if abusive priests are gay or heterosexual?” he says. “Abusers are “self-hating, disturbed people” who don’t seek out healthy relationships; they abuse whoever is available. And if the pope issues a letter banning gays from entering seminaries, McNeill is convinced he will accelerate “the era of the Holy Spirit,” in which clergy and laity will more and more look directly to God for answers and dismiss oppressive, extrinsic authority. “Just another sign of God’s shrewdness,” he explains.

Despite age and infirmity, McNeill is not ready to fully retire. He is on the road at least twice a month giving talks, attending conferences, receiving awards. Chiarelli accompanies him. “I sort of see myself as Sancho these days,” says Chiarelli, who has himself survived bypass heart surgery but is more mobile than his partner.

If there is anyone in the wings to replace McNeill when the time comes, that person could be Daniel Helminiak, a 62-year-old psychotherapist and professor of psychology at the University of West Georgia. Helminiak, author of What the Bible Really Says About Sexuality, is convinced the old biblical, theological and psychological disputes have now been resolved in favor of gay and lesbian relationships; he calls the evidence “incontrovertible.” The next step, he said, is “political,” that is, getting the Vatican to change its stance. He suspects this will be a long struggle. Meanwhile, he is concerned about helping gays “live with a profound spirituality,” and he thinks Catholicism, “with its tradition of grace building on nature” may be better equipped to do this than those strains of Protestantism that are obsessed with the depravity of human nature.

Helminiak says McNeill’s legacy is assured. “He broke the dam,” he says, and the Catholic approach to sexuality has been forever changed.

Robert McClory of Chicago is a longtime contributor to NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, November 11, 2005

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