For more than twenty-five years, John J. McNeill, an ordained priest and psychotherapist, has been devoting his life to spreading the good news of God's love for lesbian and gay Christians. One year after the publication of The Church and the Homosexual (1976), McNeill received an order from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Vatican ordering him to silence in the public media. He observed the silence for nine years while continuing a private ministry to gays and lesbians which included psychotherapy, workshops, lectures and retreats. In 1988, he received a further order from Cardinal Ratzinger directing him to give up all ministry to gay persons which he refused to do in conscience. As a result, he was expelled by the Vatican from the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) for challenging the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on the issue of homosexuality, and for refusing to give up his ministry and psychotherapy practice to gay men and lesbians. McNeill had been a Jesuit for nearly 40 years.
John McNeill was born September 2, 1925, in Buffalo, New York. After enlisting in the U.S. Army during World War II at the age of seventeen, McNeill served in combat in the Third Army under General Patton and was captured in Germany in 1944. McNeill spent six months as a POW (Prisoner of War) until he was liberated in May of 1945. John enrolled in Canisius College in Buffalo after his discharge from the army and, upon graduating, entered the Society of Jesus in 1948. He was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1959.
In 1964, McNeill earned a Doctorate in Philosophy, with highest honors (Plus Grande Distinction), at Louvain University in Belgium. His doctoral thesis on the philosophical and religious thought of Maurice Blondel was published in 1966 as the first volumne of the series Studies in the History of Christian Thought edited by Heiko Oberman and published by Brill Press in Leyden, Holland.
During his professional career, McNeill taught philosophy at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, NY, and in the doctorate program at Fordham University in NYC. In 1972, he joined the combined Woodstock Jesuit Seminary and Union Theological Seminary faculty as professor of Christian Ethics, specializing in Sexual Ethics. In 1975, McNeill entered the graduate clinical program in Psychotherapy at the Institutes of Religion and Health (IRH). After completing the program, he began his private psychotherapy practice and became a member of the faculty of the IRH teaching courses in "Object Relations Theory of Psychodynamic Development". For many years while on the faculty at IRH, he was Director of the program in Pastoral Studies for inner city clergy at the Manhattan Branch. As adjunct professor at Union Theological Seminary in 1990 he taught a course on "Psychological and Spiritual Dimensions of Ministry to Gays and Lesbians".
In 1974, McNeill was co-founder of the New York City chapter of Dignity, a group for Catholic gays and lesbians. For over twenty-five years, he has been active in a ministry to gay Christians through retreats, workshops, lectures, publications, etc. For twenty years John was a leader of semiannual retreats at the Kirkridge Retreat Center in Pennsylvania.
McNeill's major works on the subject of gay and lesbian liberation, self-acceptance and spiritual maturity are as follows:
- In 1976, The Church and the Homosexual was published. This book was a re-evaluation of homosexuality from a moral and theological viewpoint. It was published in four other languages: French, Spanish, Italian and Danish. A fourth edition with a new preface was published by Beacon Press in 1993. Other publications include "Homosexuality, Lesbianism and the Future: Building a More Humane Society", in A Challenge to Love, ed. by Robert Nugent, Crossroads Press, 1983.
- In 1988, his second major work on gay liberation theology, Taking a Chance On God: Liberating Theology for Gays and Lesbians, Their Lovers, Friends and Families, was published by Beacon Press. This book was published in French and German in March of 1993, and Italian in October of 1994.
- The most recent book, which examines the role interior freedom plays in spiritual maturity, entitled Freedom, Glorious Freedom: The Spiritual Journey to the Fullness of Life for Gays, Lesbians and Everybody Else, published by Beacon Press was distributed early in February, 1995. It was published in Italian in 1996.
- In 1993, he also published an article entitled “Homosexuality and Spirituality” in The New Dictionary of Spirituality, (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota).
- His article entitled “Tapping Deeper Roots: Integrating the Spiritual Dimension Into Professional Practice With Lesbian and Gay Clients” was published in The Journal of Pastoral Care, Vol. 48 No. 4, Winter 1994.
- His memoirs entitled Both Feet Firmly Planted in Mid Air: The Spiritual Journey of John McNeill was published in 1998 by Westminister/John Knox Press.
The honors John McNeill has received for his dedicated work include: grand marshal of the New York City Gay Rights Parade in 1987; the National Human Rights Award in 1984 for his contributions to lesbian and gay rights; the Humanitarian Award in 1990 from the Association of Lesbian and Gay Psychologists; the United Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches Special Award for his "dedicated work in spreading the Gospel to the lesbian/gay community"; the 1997 Dignity/USA Prophetic Service Award "In Recognition of over 25 years of extraordinary work on behalf of the Catholic Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Community;" and the People of Soulforce Award in 2000 to John and his partner for "lifelong commitment to justice, mercy and truth."
(This biographical statement provided by John McNeill.)
Biography Date: August, 2002
McNeill died on September 22, 2015. Here are some of the obituaries published at that time:
The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/26/nyregion/john-mcneill-priest-who-pushed-catholic-church-to-welcome-gays-dies-at-90.html?_r=0
National Catholic Reporter http://ncronline.org/news/people/patron-saint-lgbt-catholics-john-j-mcneill-90-dies
Miami Herald http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/gay-south-florida/article36352038.html
Catholic (Roman) | Dignity | Author/editor | Clergy Activist | Theology | New York | New York City | McNeill, John J. | Fay, Brendan
“John J. McNeill | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed January 29, 2023, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/john-j-mcneill.
“I never knew Father John McNeill well. But I remember vividly the first time I encountered him. It was the day after Thanksgiving, 1973, at John Jay College of Criminal Justice on Manhattan's West Side. More than three hundred people were gathered there for the Gay Academic Union's first national conference, "The Universities and the Gay Experience." John McNeill was on a panel that everyone attended, "Scholarship and the Gay Experience." His topic was religion. I had been one of the founders of GAU earlier that year. I was several years into my process of accepting being gay and coming out to friends. Part of that journey involved dealing with my religious upbringing as a Catholic. I had almost entered the Jesuits, Father McNeill's order, after high school. But I ended up leaving the Church because I could not reconcile its teaching with the identity I was taking on. Now, several years later, I was listening to a speech that was revelatory, even shocking. I was hearing a thoughtful and informed challenge to the standard teachings of Catholicism about homosexuality. McNeill was parsing the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis and arguing convincingly that the sin of Sodom was not homosexuality, but inhospitality. He went even farther by asserting that there were no condemnations of homosexuality in the Scripture. McNeill's talk was not enough to make me reconsider the direction of my life in relation to religion. But it was momentous to hear, absolutely unforgettable at that point in time, and it brought home to me the importance of doing research that could dispute conventional wisdom.
– as remembered by John D'Emilio on December 24, 2015
“I was on my way to see my shrink on Fifth Avenue and Sixty-Sixth Street the day John McNeill’s book The Church and the Homosexual hit the front pages of The New York Times. The year was 1976. I don’t know if I was looking for a cure for my homosexuality or some kind of miraculous deception to deal with my priestly celibacy and emerging homosexual consciousness. What I do know is, that the sight of McNeill’s book being reviewed, did more for my psychological health than the thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours spent in therapists offices up and until then. Father McNeill’s book opened for millions of lesbian and gay Catholics and others world wide a door to freedom that no amount of oppression could ever close. I was elated as I floated into my psychiatrist’s Doctor Padovano’s office. Here at last was hope.
I had read prior to this everything that I could lay my hands on in Catholic moral theology regarding homosexuality. The combined effect being a profound confusion of thought followed by bottomless despair. Here at last was a true work of scholarship meticulously researched and beautifully executed. Scripturally and theologically it broke new ground and for the next twelve months and more John M Neill’s face was on every chat show and every other publication across the nation.
John was instrumental in founding Dignity New York in 1972, an organization for the support of LGBT Catholics and their friends. His work and experience in those early days -- less than three years after the Stonewall Riots -- with Catholic gay men “compelled” him he once told me to respond in whatever way he could to the “loneliness, pain and anguish” of his gay brothers. Having been attracted early on in his studies to Maurice Blondel a French pre-existentialist philosopher from the turn of the century, he found his Jesuit vocation summed up in a passage of Blondel’s: “One must give all for the all.”
Certainly, this laid the theoretical basis for his movement into political and social activism. A Jesuit for almost forty years before his expulsion in 1987 for his views on lesbian and gay sexuality, eventhough he had obediently obeyed his silencing by the Vatican in 1977. John hoped that his silence would “speak eloquently” together with other greats like Blondel, Teilhard de Chardin, John Courtney Murray and Henri de Lubac. But ten years was not enough for the new inquisition in Rome. “Forced” to speak in response to the “evil” oppression of Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter on The Pastoral Care of Homosexual People, Father Mc Neill gave up membership of the religious family –the Jesuits- that he loved as much as life itself.
John met his lifetime companion Charlie Chiarelli in 1965 at the Avignon papal palace in France. John and Charlie’s relationship of love has done as much and possibly more, in bearing witness to the Christlikeness of homosexual love that he has spent his life writing and teaching about. By the time he published Taking a Chance on God in 1988 the landscape had changed decisively. Now John M Neill was offering another challenge: if religions were not welcoming to lesbian, gay and transgendered people, why should we be open to them?
With Freedom, Glorious Freedom in 1995, the subtitle tells all: ‘The Spiritual Journey to the Fullness of Life for Gays, Lesbians, and Everybody Else’. In this book he describes much of what happened to him along the way, especially how his spiritual life was enriched by being gay and vice versa. He did not strike out against those who wronged him, but describes with remarkable equanimity how the same Jesuit “discernment of spirits” brought him to coming out and speaking out. It was the congruence of his position on the need to live with integrity between truth and appearance that propelled John McNeill to a mature, healthy self-acceptance and an equally mature, healthy insistence that the rest of the church and us do the same. It is this message that he shared with clients and audiences, this congruency between what you see and what you get that made him who he was.
What John became in a lifetime of devotion to the Gospel and dedication to its demand for justice for all was an honest man in love. This is in sharp contrast to so many of his confreres who love with fear or who just fear. He did not need to hide Charlie, pretend that he was celibate, nor choose between ministry and marriage. He had it all and deserved it all. John did for Catholicism what Stonewall did for the world; he fought back against those who would discriminate. His great work earned him the opprobrium of Rome, but it also put the rest of us in his debt as he pioneered a struggle that by all Christian values ought to be long over by now, yet sadly is not.
He says that his tombstone will read “Here lies a Gay Priest Who Took a Chance on God!” Cynics among us would probably have given up on God, Jesus, the Church, and the Jesuits, long ago had we not experienced John as friend and mentor. As we extend our deepest sympathy and prayer to his husband Charlie, we know John is amongst the saints forever and a day.
– as remembered by Bernard Lynch on October 1, 2015
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