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The Spiritual Legacy of John J. McNeill

By Mary E. Hunt

Fr. John. J. McNeillBeacon Press author John J. McNeill died at the age of ninety on September 22, 2015 in Florida after a full and world-shaping life. He leaves literally thousands of survivors, people like myself whose lives were enriched, in some cases even saved, by his courageous and prophetic work as a gay religious pioneer.

John McNeill was a Jesuit priest who wrote the first substantive treatment of Catholicism and same-sex love in his 1976 book The Church and the Homosexual. It was originally granted the required Imprimi Potest, but that permission to print was shortly withdrawn by his religious superior when it became obvious that John had touched a nerve.  

Contra Catholic teaching, John argued that homosexuality was part of the will of God. Far from being a threat to the family, he claimed that lesbian, gay and bisexual persons (transgender people were not in his view at that point) had new experiences to share about sex unconnected to procreation. He proposed that same-sex love, rather than alienating people from God, could instead bring them closer to God. So much for the Catholic teachings on Sodom and Gomorrah, of heterosex only, and that without condoms or other forms of contraception. He articulated post Vatican II moral theology with intellectual rigor and pastoral insight.

Four decades later, these claims seem quite tame despite the continued recalcitrance of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. But it is hard to overestimate the novelty of such ideas at the time. Being an LGBTIQ Catholic today can be a healthy, good, natural, and holy experience. But a lot of ink has been spilled to get to that point, and John’s writing paved the way.

His careful scholarship, clear writing style, and gutsy willingness to express his conclusions even though they ran counter to a very strong tide made him a revered figure among progressives. His work opened up large intellectual and spiritual spaces in many other religions whose adherents followed his lead to investigate and revise their own traditions’ teachings on same-sex love.

For his “good work,” John was silenced by the Jesuit order, a silencing he complied with for years until the contradictions became too great. The impact of the AIDS pandemic on the gay male community, and the release of the 1986 Vatican document “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” (derisively referred to as “the Halloween Letter”) by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and later to become Pope Benedict XVI, led John to shake the dust from his sandals. This resulted in his expulsion from the Jesuits and the explosion of his own unique and necessary ministry.

The Church and the HomosexualJohn McNeill worked as a therapist, helped found Dignity New York, led countless retreats and workshops, made media appearances, and wrote several more books. He lived the life of a Catholic priest who took seriously his commitment to ministry. Legion are the people, mostly gay men but others as well, who credit John with helping them get beyond the narrow and powerful constraints of their faith tradition. Many considered “taking a chance on God” because he had. Ironically, this person who was accused by the institutional Roman Catholic Church of causing harm spent most of his life helping people find ways to be part of the Christian community.

It was not easy to be John McNeill. After decades as a Jesuit, he had to make a living, think of himself as an individual not as a member of a community, and make sense of the deep contradictions he had been taught by a church that rejected his way of loving. Happily, he met Charles Chiarelli, his husband who survives him, and found the love and companionship he missed so much in the Jesuits.

I was always impressed by John’s spirituality. Being a theologian is no guarantee of being a spiritual person. But John was—often in ways that were quite traditional. He read and reflected on scripture, held fairly orthodox views of death, loved the Eucharist, and valued being part of a worshipping community. Still, when pressed on ethical matters, he was able to move beyond the confines that such traditionalism might impose and see persons in all of their complexity. That is a spiritual maturity few achieve.

I recall a spirited conversation with him on anonymous sex. As a lesbian feminist, I did not know much about it and thought it was rather dubious both from the point of view of health/safety and as a moral matter. He said forthrightly that for some people, anonymous sex might be the only intimate human contact they ever have. I had not thought of it that way. He was privy to the lives of many people because he empathized, consoled, and understood. I learned something that day and came to agree with his perspective, replacing judgment with mercy. I remain in his debt for opening my eyes and heart.

John McNeill’s insights and his courage to articulate them made him a rare and beloved part of a community much wider than he could ever have imagined in his Jesuit days. He encouraged “freedom, glorious freedom,” especially for same-sex loving people whom the world has often despised. Because of John, we and our descendants who survive him will thrive. Deo gratias.


About the Author 

Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D., is a feminist theologian who is co-founder and co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA. A Catholic active in the women-church movement, she lectures and writes on theology and ethics with particular attention to social justice concerns.