Father Bernárd Lynch, 65, who should know, estimates that half the men in the Catholic priesthood are homosexual. Lynch has paid a dear price for being one of the few to come out and affirm his sexuality, a story recounted in his timely and insightful book, “If It Wasn’t Love: Sex, Death and God.”
Father John McNeill, 86, wrote the groundbreaking “The Church and the Homosexual” in the 1970s and attracted international media for his assertion that gay love was moral, eventually coming out himself. His unusual and inspiring journey is the subject of a fine new documentary by Irish-American gay activist Brendan Fay, “Taking a Chance on God,” that is making the LGBT festival circuit. It premiered in New York on June 16 at a screening sponsored by Dignity/ New York, the LGBT Catholic group that McNeill co-founded 40 years ago.
I worked with both priests in my own Dignity days in the late 1970s, was a reader of Lynch’s manuscript, appeared briefly in the McNeill documentary, and am proud to be their friends. But unlike them, I left the Catholic Church 30 years ago. Despite my firm atheism, I have deep admiration for the lives, work, and bravery of these men of God.
Lynch dedicates his book to his husband, Billy Desmond, a fellow Irishman with whom he lives in London as they approach their 20th anniversary. McNeill’s husband, Charles Chiarelli, is a big part of Fay’s film, showing us how to sustain an intimate relationship for 46 years.
Lynch and McNeill are not unique as priests who have male partners. But they are in a class almost completely by themselves in openly affirming their relationships. And for that unpardonable sin of honesty they have been removed from their religious orders — the Society of African Missions and the Jesuits, respectively. They have not been defrocked — removed from the priesthood entirely — but that may be Pope Benedict XVI’s next move in his obsession with imposing orthodoxy in the Catholic world, even if it means a smaller Church. Consider his recent crackdown on American nuns for spending too much time helping the poor and not enough fighting abortion and same-sex marriage — a public relations disaster, but a clear indication that Benedict believes a shrinking flock is a price worth paying.
The pope has already made McNeill and Lynch pay a high price.
“Taking a Chance on God” takes the Irish-American McNeill from his boyhood in Buffalo to a prisoner-of-war camp in World War II, where he nearly starves to death. It is there that he promises his God he will serve as a priest if he survives. As a Jesuit moral theologian, he makes the case for the goodness of gay love. When his book on the subject comes out he is not only a guest on “The Today Show” (shown in the film being interviewed by Tom Brokaw on his first day on the job), he also does “Phil Donahue,” is translated into many languages, and sets off the biggest debate in the Church since the ban on birth control.
Church authorities, who had given McNeill official permission to publish his book as a contribution to Catholic dialogue if not worthy of an imprimatur, were unprepared for the stir. Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, now the pope, had McNeill formally silenced, forbidding him to speak on the issue of sexuality.
McNeill obeyed the order for nine years, and, applying the Jesuit tradition of intellectual rigor, instead spoke out on issues such as freedom of conscience. However, when Ratzinger, as Pope John Paul II’s director of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, issued the infamous 1987 Halloween letter not just condemning homosexual acts, but also declaring a gay orientation to be “disordered” and blaming gay-bashing on gay activism, McNeill could be silent no more. In a moving scene in the film, he talks about what it felt like to be expelled from his Jesuit family.
Lynch’s story starts in the small town of Ennis in County Clare, Ireland where he discovers his vocation amidst confusion about his yearnings for his own sex. He serves as a missionary in Africa for a time, but discovers himself while studying in New York and connecting with Dignity. He also serves a parish in the Bronx, where he was beloved and worked as campus minister at Mount St. Michael’s Academy.
When AIDS hit, he ministers to hundreds of dying gay men — and nearly every one of them did die in those terrifying and dispiriting days when they were often abandoned by their families. He also speaks out for gay rights, testifying in his Roman collar for the New York City gay and lesbian rights bill in 1986 when it finally passed.
In a harrowing story retold in his book, the Archdiocese of New York and the FBI conspired to bring false sexual abuse charges against him. The charges were thrown out of a Bronx court and he was exonerated, but the “soul murder” was nearly total. The Church and government officials responsible never paid a price, despite a UK documentary film on the trial shown here on PBS in the 1990s. Most of the press in New York just will not take on the Catholic Church, preferring to celebrate papal visits and the appointment of a new cardinal.
Lynch moved to London, continued his ministry, worked as a therapist, and was redeemed by time, his faith, and the love he found with Desmond.
Lynch shares his insights into why his Church is so anti-sex, what he learned from his own pain and that of others, and how to live with hope in a troubled world.
“I believe that freedom, not happiness, is the precious stone of life,” he writes. “To have the freedom to imagine an interior world without fear is the first giant step in our quest to be human.”
Two happily married gay priests. That fact will draw some to their stories and outrage others. But if you spend the time to read and watch their remarkable stories, you will be surprised and challenged by their message of freedom through love.
IF IT WASN’T LOVE: SEX, DEATH AND GOD By Father Bernárd Lynch Circle Books 139 pages | $16.95 | 139 pages | circle-books.com
TAKING A CHANCE ON GOD: A DOCUMENTARY PROFILE OF JOHN MCNEILL, PIONEER GAY PRIEST | Directed, co-written, co-produced by Brendan Fay | Co-written & co-edited by Dan Messina | Co-edited & co-produced by Ilene Cutler | Music composed by Peter Wetzler | takingachanceongod.com