The house on a quiet street in Davie is cozy, if not a bit cluttered, its walls decorated with award plaques, photos and old-fashioned bird plates. John J. McNeill greets me warmly, supporting himself with a cane in one hand and shaking my hand with the other. I have to raise my voice a little so he can hear me, but otherwise the 88-year-old is still sharp and sure of his convictions.
Decades before Pope Francis made front-page news with his “Who am I to judge?” remark about gay priests, McNeill was judged, and judged harshly, by the Catholic Church. A Jesuit priest for 40 years, he was expelled after writing The Church and The Homosexual, a book that argued homosexual love was just as valid as heterosexual love.
“In some sense it was my experience of a deep personal love relationship that led me to question church teaching about homosexuality,” says McNeill, who lives in semi-retirement with his partner of 48 years, Charlie Chiarelli. “I see gay love as another form of human love and just as valid as heterosexual love, and it's a gift from God to be celebrated and not to be condemned.”
In July, Pope Francis signaled a turn away from condemnation. Responding to a question about an alleged "gay lobby" at the Vatican, he told reporters he doesn't have an issue with homosexuality: "Who am I to judge them if they're seeking the Lord in good faith?”
McNeill was heartened. “His statement … sort of removes the traditional totally negative judgment of gay relationships. So I thank God for him every day. [Other church officials] have been quiet, and understandably so. I think they are unhappy with his liberal attitude, you know? And challenged by it because they've been anything but liberal.”
Liberal activism was a hallmark of McNeill’s priesthood. He protested against the Vietnam War and, after the 1969 Stonewall riots, began advocating for gay rights and focusing his ministry on LGBT people.
In The Church and the Homosexual, published in 1976, he maintained that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality and argued that the Catholic Church should end its anti-gay policies. In an appearance on the Today show, the political became personal when he acknowledged his own sexual orientation.
McNeill recalls, laughing, that he and Chiarelli “were torn out of the closet by Tom Brokaw, who on his first day on NBC interviewed me and he asked me if — we were talking about my book The Church and the Homosexual — and he asked me if I were gay and I said, ‘Yes I am,’ and that was my first ... with 20 million [viewers].”
In 1977, the Roman Catholic Church ordered McNeill to refrain from writing and speaking about homosexuality. In 1983, he was prohibited from serving as a psychotherapist to LGBT people. McNeill broke the Vatican-imposed silence in 1986, as the AIDS crisis grew, and in 1987 he was expelled from the Jesuits for “pertinacious disobedience.”
“It was very painful,” he says. “I had been 40 years in the Jesuits and loved the order, it was my family, so being expelled was a very difficult and painful experience.”
It was another difficult experience that had set McNeill on a path to the priesthood. Born into an Irish-Catholic family in Buffalo, N.Y., he came of age during World War II, and enlisted in the Army at 17. He was shipped to the German front and soon captured, spending six months in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp near the Polish border.
“We were being starved, deliberately, by the Germans, but we had to go out and work on farms. And we were at this farm chopping wood and a Polish slave laborer was mixing the mash for the animals. And the mash had potatoes and carrots, and so I am looking at the food and the slave laborer reached in and took a potato and threw it to me.
“I made a gesture of thanks and he made the sign of the cross, making it clear that it was because of his religious faith that he was risking his life for me. And that really impacted — I wanted that kind of courage to risk my life to help somebody, and that really made a very deep impression on me.”
McNeill’s faith sustained him.
“I remember I was praying every day for the day of my liberation, praying to Mary, the mother of God, that I would be liberated on May the first. Well, she was late, it was May second,” he says, chuckling.
After a long convalescence from the effects of his imprisonment, McNeill joined the Jesuits. Following his expulsion, he continued his ministry as a psychotherapist and theologian. He wrote four more books, most recently Sex As God Intended (Lethe Press, 2008), in which he posits the right to sexual expression.
“My point is that God created us, God would be sadistic if he created you gay and said, ‘You can't act on it.’ Everyone has a right to — a sexual right. And they also have the duty to use their sex appropriately. … I think if any human, gay or straight, has sex in a consenting relationship — especially a loving relationship — then I think God approves of it.”