Irish Gay Group Honors Priest

John McNeill, author of landmark gay Catholic book, sees divine purpose in Benedict’s papacy

In 1988, Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, sanctioned John McNeill, a Roman Catholic priest who was outspoken in his advocacy for the rights of gay Catholics, expelling him from his religious order, the Society of Jesus. Ratzinger was the leader of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office responsible for enforcing doctrinal orthodoxy.

On Saturday night, McNeill, 80, was in town for the annual awards dinner of the Lavender and Green Alliance, an Irish gay and lesbian group. He said, without irony, that Ratzinger’s elevation to the papacy is a sign that “the Holy Spirit is transforming the Church.” The founder of New York’s chapter of Dignity, the national gay and lesbian Catholic group, added, “To put such a reactionary man in as pope guarantees a total undermining of the patriarchy. Say a prayer of thanks to the Holy Spirit.”

McNeill, who now lives in Florida with his partner of more than 40 years, Charles Chiarelli, received the Roger Casement and Eva Gore Booth Leadership Award, named for two Irish gay and lesbian political figures of the early 20th century. Lavender and Green’s founder, Brendan Fay, praised McNeill as “truly a holy father,” crediting his theological and pastoral work for helping “hundreds of thousands of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people around the world celebrate their love.” Fay screened his documentary, “Uncommon Jesuit,” about the life of McNeill.

With his 1976 book, “The Church and the Homosexual,” McNeill came to prominence as a theologian who made the cogent argument that the expression of homosexual love is morally good. His Jesuit superiors permitted the book’s publication, in keeping with the order’s mission of encouraging rigorous intellectual discourse.

Years later, after Pope John Paul II’s election to the papacy led to a more conservative interpretation of church catechism, and after McNeill’s appearances on national talk programs, the Vatican officially silenced the gay priest, ordering him not to speak out on issues of sexuality. He agreed to the silence, continuing to minister to lesbian and gay Catholics and to work as a psychotherapist. When Ratzinger issued a landmark October 1986 document to bishops, outlining the “pastoral care to homosexual persons,” since reviled by its opponents as the “Halloween letter,” the Vatican made clear that it would brook no dissent from church officials who objected to the church’s prohibition against gay sex. The document deemed homosexuality as “intrinsically disordered” and “evil” and blamed anti-gay violence on gay people who push for things to which “no one has any conceivable right.”

McNeill felt he had to break his silence and speak out again. That led to his expulsion from the Jesuits by Ratzinger, though not to his defrocking. Technically still a priest, McNeill is forbidden from celebrating Mass or doing pastoral work.

On Saturday night, McNeill recounted how his sister, Sheila, a Catholic nun, prayed with her sister nuns every time she knew McNeill was conducting a workshop for gay people. “Nothing the church could do could stop what the Holy Spirit wanted to accomplish through me,” he said, indicating his still fervent faith.

The Vatican espouses the belief that the will of the Holy Spirit—the third member of the Holy Trinity, along with God the father and Jesus Christ—prevails at the conclave of cardinals that elects a new pope.

McNeill said he was watching TV when the announcement came that Ratzinger was the new pope. “I burst into tears,” he said, “for the church. They made a totally wrong choice.” He added, “He could surprise me. But I feel if he continues on the same line, the church will be severely harmed and will lose the respect and obedience of many Catholics by acting contrary to the openness of Jesus Christ.”

“Every time Ratzinger issued a statement on gay rights,” McNeill continued, “the respect for the papacy dropped a notch. Maybe that’s the way the Holy Spirit wants it.”

McNeill is shopping around for a publisher for his new book, “Sex as God Intended it to Be,” a study of human sexuality as a form of romantic playfulness.

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