Born On This Day, 1925: Fr. John J. McNeill

Jim Burroway

September 2nd, 2016

6a00e54ed2b7aa883301bb087d3737970d-200wi(d. 2015) The Buffalo, New York, native enlisted in the Army in 1942 at the age of seventeen and fought in the 87th Infantry. He was taken prisoner by the Nazis in France and sent to a prisoner of war camp near Leukenwald, Germany. His tortures began before he left France: he was kept in a sealed box car for days without food and water, licking frost from the box car’s nail heads to survive. His starvation continued in the camp, and his weight dropped to 80 pounds. Despite his frailty, he was made to work on a farm. One day, a Polish captive saw McNeil staring at food intended for the animals and threw him a potato when a guard was looking away. McNeil silently thanked the Pole, who made the sign of the cross in return.

That single gesture would have a profound impact on McNeill’s spirituality. After the war, he graduated magna com laude from Canisius College in Buffalo and entered the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in 1948. He was ordained a priest in 1959 by Cardinal Spellman. In 1961, he continued his studies at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, where he earned his doctorate in philosophy in 1964. It’s also where he fell in love with another man for the first time. “The experience of the joy and peace that comes with that — it was a clear indication to me that homosexual love was in itself a good love and could be a holy love,” he later said in the 2011 biographical documentary, Taking a Chance on God.

After receiving his doctorate, he returned to the U.S. and joined the faculty of Le Moyne College in Syracuse, where he met Fr. Daniel Berrigan. The year before, Berrigan had founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship which would go on to organize protests against the war in Vietnam. McNeill soon began joining Berrigan in those protests.

By 1970, McNeill found what would ultimately prove to be his life’s calling, when he became involved with DignityUSA, an organization for LGBT Catholics that had been founded in San Diego the year before. McNeil founded the New York chapter in 1972, saying Mass, hearing confessions, and ministering to the needs of gay Catholics who struggled with self-loathing and depression.

Fr. McNeill, second from right, marching with a contingent of DignityUSA.

Fr. McNeill, second from right, marching with a contingent of DignityUSA.

In 1976, McNeill published The Church and the Homosexual, which was the first extended work by a scholar and theologian to challenge the church’s traditional teaching on homosexuality. The book argued that loving same-sex relationships were just as moral and godly as heterosexual relationships, and it argued for a change in church teachings and attitudes toward gay and lesbian Catholics. Before the book appeared in print, it was extensively vetted by a panel of theologians and received an imprimatur from the Vatican and the blessing of McNeill’s Jesuit superiors.

The Church and the Homosexual was translated into several languages, and it quickly picked up critics along the way. Meanwhile, McNeill publicly came out of the closet during an interview about the book with Tom Brokaw, who asked if he was gay. By 1977, the Vatican withdrew its imprimatur, and ordered McNeill not to write or speak publicly about homosexuality. McNeill, thinking that the church needed time to work through the issue, complied, although he continued his pastoral work with LGBT Catholics.

McNeill obeyed the order for the next nine years, until the AIDS crisis prompted him to reconsider. McNeill and Fr. Mychal Judge (May 11) founded an AIDS ministry to serve gay Catholics and the homeless in Harlem. Then in 1986, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who would later become Pope Benedict XVI) issued its letter On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, which labeled homosexuality “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.” McNeil broke his silence and condemned the letter in statements issued to The New York Times and The National Catholic Reporter. As McNeill later wrote:

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. Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter even suggested that it is gay activists and the professionals who try to help gays achieve self-acceptance who are responsible for the AIDS epidemic: “Even when the practice of homosexuality may seriously threaten the lives and well-being of a large number of people, its advocates remained undeterred and refused to consider the magnitude of the risks involved.”

In my more than twenty years’ experience of pastoral care with thousands of gay Catholics and other Christians, the gay men most likely to act out their sexual needs in an unsafe, compulsive way and, therefore, to expose themselves to the HIV virus, are precisely those persons who have internalized the self-hatred that their religions impose on them. They are precisely the ones who, while they find it impossible to suppress and deny their sexual needs totally, cannot enter into a healthy and committed intimacy with anyone because of this self-hatred.

Cardinal Ratzinger responded by ordering McNeill into silence once more, and to end his pastoral work with gays and lesbians. McNeill refused, and in 1987 he was expelled from the Jesuits on Vatican orders. McNeill said this expulsion, while painful, was also liberating. That year, he was name grand marshall of the New York City gay pride parade. “Our primary task these days as gay people is to learn how to celebrate life in the face of death,” he told The New York Times.

McNeill continued his work with the LGBT community, work that now included psychotherapy after picking up a degree at the Institutes of Religion and Health in New York. He also continued writing: Taking a Chance on God: Liberating Theology for Gays, Lesbians, and Their Lovers, Families and Friends (1988), Freedom, Glorious Freedom: The Spiritual Journey to the Fullness of Life for Gays, Lesbians and Everybody Else (1995), and the autobiographical, Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair: My Spiritual Journey (1998). In 2008, McNeill married his partner of thirty-three years, Charles Chiarelli, in Toronto. McNeill passed away in 2015 in Ft. Lauderdale.

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