Reflecting on the Life and Ministry of John McNeill, Gay Theology Pioneer

John McNeill

New Ways Ministry is greatly saddened at learning of the passing of John McNeill, the first Catholic theologian to critique and challenge the magisterium’s condemnation of same-gender sexual relationships.  At the same time, we are deeply grateful to God for the courageous witness and ministry of this prophet, who never lost his faith or his courage despite being severely penalized and ostracized by the Vatican.

John McNeill’s landmark 1976 book, The Church and the Homosexual, was the first Catholic theological work to dispute the official Catholic moral prohibition of same-gender sexual activity and relationships.  A Jesuit priest at the time, McNeill was also a licensed psychotherapist who also held a doctorate in theology.  IN the book, he used arguments from both the human sciences and the Catholic scholarly tradition to point out that the prohibition was pastorally harmful and theologically incorrect.

Sister Jeannine Gramick, New Ways Ministry’s co-founder reflected on the impact McNeill had on the church, the LGBT community, and herself:

“John McNeill was a dear friend and colleague. He was a true pioneer in whose footsteps so many of us followed.  I learned so much from his research and writing, but I learned even more from personal interactions with him by witnessing the passion and human concern he had for every LGBT person he encountered.”

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry’s executive director noted the unique gift that McNeill offered the church and the LGBT community:

“John McNeill was a good friend of New Ways Ministry for many years. He  had a rare mixture of both a great heart and a great mind.  His “academic” theological work was informed not only by philosophical principles and logic, but by awareness of deep and real human needs.  It is not an overstatement to say that any of the pastoral, political, theological, and practical advances that LGBT Catholics have made in recent years could only have been brought about because of John’s ground-breaking work.”

In 2009, New Ways Ministry presented John McNeill with its highest honor, the Bridge Building Award, for his lifetime of theological and pastoral work which aimed at reconciling the Catholic Church with its LGBT members.  Here’s a link to his acceptance speech, in which he reflected on his own life and work. At one point in his very personal talk, he explained an idea that many people think is one of his greatest contributions to Catholic theology:

“At his discourse at the last supper Jesus is reported in the gospel of John: ‘It is necessary that I should go away before the Spirit can come to you. If I go away I will send the Spirit to you. The Spirit will dwell in your hearts and lead you into all truth.’ What was that necessity? Why could the Holy Spirit not come as long as Jesus was alive?

“I believe that Jesus was expressing a basic law governing human growth into spiritual maturity. As humans, we must grow from dependence on external authority to dependence on an authority that dwells within us. To achieve that growth we need fallible authorities. If our parents had been infallible we could never develop into mature adults making our own decisions and taking responsibility for them.

“Thank God that Church authorities have proved so fallible. The result has been a maturing of the people of God. This began when the Vatican fumbled the issue of birth control, forcing millions of Catholic to exercise their freedom of conscience, make their own decisions and take responsibility for them. . . .

“One of the greatest beneficiaries of the fallibility of church authorities has been the LGBT Catholic community. We came to realize early on that we could not accept and obey Church teaching on homosexuality without destroying ourselves physically, psychologically and spirituality. Consequently, as a matter of survival we had to take distance from Church teaching, develop our freedom of conscience and learn to hear what the Spirit of God is saying to us through our experience. The result has been that the LGBT community is leading the way to transform the Catholic Church into a Church of the Holy Spirit.”

You can read the text of that talk by clicking here.

In 1997, McNeill also took part in a historic academic debate at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, which New Ways Ministry hosted.  He defended the idea of full equality of lesbian and gay people in church and society.  The other two participants in the debate were Professor James Hanigan, of Duquesne University, and Professor Richard McCormick, SJ, of the University of Notre Dame.

The Church and the Homosexual book, which had originally received an imprimi potest (“it can be printed”) from his Jesuit superior, was later condemned by the Vatican, and the imprimi potest was removed.   McNeill was also ordered to silence on the topics of Catholicism and homosexuality—a directive he observed for a decade.

He broke his silence in 1986 after the Vatican issued its “Letter to the Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” a document which labeled gay and lesbian people as “objectively disordered” and their sexual relationships as “intrinsically evil.”  He spoke out strongly condemning this language and the theological approach the Vatican had taken.

Because he broke the order to be silent, he was expelled from the Jesuits.  He continued his work as a psychotherapist, as well as his theological and spiritual reflection, publishing the books:  Taking a Chance on God: Liberation Theology for Gays, Lesbians, and Their Families, and Friends; Freedom, Glorious Freedom; With Both Feet Planted Firmly in Mid-Air (autobiography); and Sex As God Intended. 

McNeill’s life and work was the subject of a 2010 documentary, Taking a Chance on God, produced by Brendan Fay.

At the end of McNeill’s life, Charles Chiarelli, his companion and husband for many years, was by his side.

–Francis DeBernardo

9 replies
  1. Anton
    Anton says:

    God grant John Eternal Memory and may that memory continue to be a blessing for all who knew and loved him and beyond for the hope he gave so many of us when things looked so hopeless. He was like Moses leading a whole people out of slavery to a Promised Land. His life story reminds me of this one from another source:
    This is a story my grandfather told me and one that I would like to pass on to my grandchildren. Grandfather Isaac said it was the beginning of how he learned to think for himself.
    He lived, at the time of the story, in a thatched-roof house in a shtetl in Poland, with his parents and his aunt Fanny. They were poor, naturally, but they had food. For Isaac it was never enough. Growing rapidly from the time he was eleven years old, he was always hungry. During the week the food was very plain, but on Fridays his mother usually managed something extra. On this particular Friday she was preparing cholent (a bean stew) with a good piece of meat. The aroma filled the house, making him restless. He couldn’t concentrate on his studies, his chores. He was intoxicated by the cooking smells.
    Walking around outside, tossing stones into a bucket, he heard his mother scream. He rushed into the house. His mother was ringing her hands, asking God to forgive her. Aunt Fanny looked stunned. She had been cooking rice and milk. Mother had accidentally taken the milk spoon to stir the cholent. Mixing dairy and meat is strictly forbidden according to the laws of kashrut.
    Isaac was afraid his mother, a pious woman, would throw away the cholent. He begged her to sit and be patient. He would go to the rabbi and ask for his advice. Although not agile, he ran the two miles in record time and blurted out the story to the rebbetzin (the rabbi’s wife). She listened respectfully but said he would have to ask the rabbi, as this was too important for her to handle.
    It seemed forever until the rabbi arrived, buttoning his trousers. Isaac retold the story. The rabbi asked him such questions as “In what direction was the spoon facing? What time of day did it happen?” Questions that my grandfather, even at his young age of eleven, decided were foolish and irrelevant. Impatient as he was, he answered to the best of his ability.
    Finally, the rabbi asked him how old he was. When he said he was eleven, the rabbi said he was too young, not yet a man, to deal with a matter of such importance. “Go home and tell your mother or father to see me about this,” he told Isaac.
    Isaac arrived home half-dead from exhaustion and anxiety. His mother asked him, “What did the rabbi say?”
    He answered, “The rabbi said, ‘Throw away the spoon and eat the stew.’”
    He had decided, at that young age, that some rules were impractical and useless and that in this matter he would rely on himself to decide what was appropriate.

    Told by Matilde Friedman in BECAUSE GOD LOVES STORIES, edited by Steve Zeitlin (New York: Touchstone, 1997) p. 104.

  2. Paul Morrissey
    Paul Morrissey says:

    God bless John McNeill, our Godfather in the LGBT movement, and as he indicates in his New Ways Ministry acceptance speech (for his medal), a Godfather of all Catholics who have been encouraged by his behavior to discover and act on our conscience. He was a friend and mentor to so many of us and his death leaves us a bit lonely, but he is surely with Jesus, enjoying freedom, glorious freedom. Save a place for us, dear John!

  3. Bishop Carlos Florido, osf
    Bishop Carlos Florido, osf says:

    I met John McNeil years ago when our Fr Joseph Killian introduced me to him. I was celebrating mass at a hotel in San Francisco. I was impressed by John’s scholarship and commitment to the LGBT cause. He will be greatly missed by all LGBT people, family and friends. Rest in peace John, you were a true prophet for the cause. You were blessed on earth and you enjoy now in the plenitude of blessings. May we all do our best to follow your example. In God’s love, +Carlos

  4. andreambrogetti
    andreambrogetti says:

    I met father McNeill twice in Rome, in 1995 and 2010. His book *The Church and the Homosexual* was a real revolution and helped not only researchers but many people. I share your saddness. Andrea Ambrogetti, former president of Nuova Proposta


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Rev. John J. McNeill‘s canonization may be years away, but as Catholics mark today’s Solemnity of All Saints, we celebrate certain he is among the saints in heaven. McNeill’s passing into new life comes in a fall where the church itself is gradually dying to prejudice and misunderstanding and passing into a more inclusive life. […]

  2. […] Source: Reflecting on the Life and Ministry of John McNeill, Gay Theology Pioneer | Bondings 2.0 […]

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