Remembering Fr. John McNeill, Gay Prophet and Pioneer, on All Saints’ Day

Fr. John McNeill at a New York City march for gay rights

Rev. John J. McNeill‘s canonization may be years away, but as Catholics mark today’s Solemnity of All Saints, we celebrate certain he is among the saints in heaven. McNeill’s passing into new life comes in a fall where the church itself is gradually dying to prejudice and misunderstanding and passing into a more inclusive life.

Yet, busy though these last weeks have been, we must not forget a person the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) called the “patron saint of LGBT Catholics.” The following are reflections on McNeill’s passing with full obituaries linked at the bottom. Thomas Fox of NCR wrote:

“McNeill is widely revered among gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights Catholics as well as others who looked to his scholarly writings to help them accept their own sexuality and defend themselves against what they view to be misguided church teachings. . .

“He did not mince words when speaking of the pain he had felt at the hands of his church. . .His radical and provocative views on sexuality were never successfully muzzled by church authorities. . .His pastoral approach toward healing the pain gay and lesbian Catholics were experiencing seemed boundless. . .He believed that individual conscience needs to be the final arbiter when deciding on sexual matters.”

LGBT Catholic advocates echoed these remarks. Sr. Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, said the former Jesuit priest was a “true pioneer” and continued:

” ‘I learned so much from his research and writing, but I learned even more from personal interactions with him by witnessing the passion and human concern he had for every LGBT person he encountered.’ “

New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director, Francis DeBernardo, said McNeill had a “rare mixture of both a great heart and a great mind” and continued:

” ‘It is not an overstatement to say that any of the pastoral, political, theological, and practical advances that LGBT Catholics have made in recent years could only have been brought about because of John’s ground-breaking work.’ “

You can read New Ways Ministry’s full statement on McNeill’s passing here.

DignityUSA’s statement called McNeill a “seminal figure” in that organization’s history, stating that he was:

“A powerful presence at nearly every Dignity convention and in many Dignity communities until recent years, McNeill was presented with DignityUSA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.”

Executive Director Marianne Duddy-Burke added that McNeill was “the first major prophet of the Catholic LGBT movement” who exhibited “groundbreaking bravery in daring to question official Church doctrine” that was “truly liberating to so many people.” You can read more testimonials from Dignity leadership here.

Michael Bayly of The Wild Reed said McNeill offered a “tireless proclamation of God’s unconditional love for LBGT people and further:

“He was without doubt a prophet of his time, one who challenged the Roman Catholic hierarchy and cultural homophobia through his steadfast affirmation and celebration of the goodness of the human body, relationships and sexuality.”

Theologian Mary Hunt, after wondering why neither Pope Francis, a Jesuit, nor the Jesuit weekly America made note of McNeill’s passing, wrote movingly in Religion Dispatches about a fellow theologian whose ministry was “legendary”:

“He always encouraged people to practice their faith insofar as their conscience allowed. For this, the institutional church scandalously silenced him. He accepted their sanctions for years until he could not longer reconcile his conscience with the cowardice of ecclesial officials.

“People were dying of AIDS and the Vatican, under the pen of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, was prattling on about the “intrinsic moral evil” of homosexual orientation. John had enough guts and good sense to stop colluding with such nonsense and got on with the ministry to which he was committed. The Society of Jesus eventually dismissed him. Many friends like myself noticed that while they may have taken the man out of the Jesuits, they never took the Jesuit out of the man. He maintained a deep faith and a critical consciousness to the end of his distinguished life.”

Jesuit Fr. James Martin tweeted that though he did not always agree McNeill he praised him as “a pioneer in ministering to the LGBT community. . .he was a kind and courageous man.”

Rev. Nancy Wilson, the Global Moderator of the Metropolitan Community Church, said it was not an accident that this former Jesuit died just as Pope Francis visited the U.S. Wilson, in a statement, spoke of McNeill’s marriage as a “profound witness [that] changed the church and the world.”

Brendan Fay, a Dignity member whose documentary Taking a Chance on God is about McNeill’s life, described him on Facebook as: “gay priest, prophetic witness, healer, warm friend, teacher, bearer of hope and tenderness.”

We can add to those identifiers saint, for if we believe today’s Gospel which says, “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven,” we know certainly John McNeill has been welcomed into communion with God with the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

To read more about John McNeill’s life and work, consider obituaries from the National Catholic Reporter, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and South Florida Gay News.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Papal Canonizations, Part 1: Pope John XXIII’s Influence on LGBT Equality

On Sunday, April 27th, two recent popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, will be canonized as saints in the Catholic Church.  For many Catholics who support LGBT issues, this double canonization is an occasion of mixed emotions. Though many are happy with the canonization of John XXIII, their joy is tempered by the fact that John Paul II, who was responsible for instituting many anti-LGBT policies and teachings, is being similarly honored.

Pope John XXIII

Today, I’ll review the contribution of John XXIII on LGBT issues in the church. Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at John Paul II’s influence on these matters.  On Monday, we will provide a review of some of the wealth of commentary written recently about these two men.

John XXIII’s greatest achievement in his papacy was convening the Second Vatican Council, which opened up a new era of theological reform in the Church.  Most importantly, for LGBT issues, the theological reform included an important development in the Church’s sexual teaching.  Theologian Lisa Fullam recently offered a succinct description of Vatican II’s development of sexual theology in her essay, “Civil Same-Sex Marriage: A Catholic Affirmation.”  Fullam states:

“The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes identified two ends of marriage: the procreation and education of children, and the intimate union of husband and wife through which ‘they experience the meaning of their oneness and attain to it with growing perfection day by day.’ (GS 48) Gaudium et Spes eliminated the long-held idea that procreation was seen as the primary end of marriage while the union of the partners was deemed secondary or instrumental to that primary end. The Council insisted that  ‘[m]arriage to be sure is not instituted solely for procreation’ (GS 50). Instead, it ‘maintains its value and indissolubility, even when despite the often intense desire of the couple, offspring are lacking’ (GS 50). Departing from most previous teaching in which the procreative end of marriage was elevated over the unitive end, the Council refused to prioritize either. However, the Council insisted that childless marriages are still truly marriages, not some lesser partnership, while no such contrary affirmation is made—loveless but procreative unions are not affirmed (or rejected) as true marriage by the Council.”

By displacing procreation from its position of primacy in sexual theology, and by raising the unitive function to a higher status, Vatican II opened the way for theologians to explore the unitive function more deeeply, which allowed them to consider the moral status of relationships which were not biologically procreative, especially gay and lesbian relationships.  So, John XXIII’s Vatican II  opened the way for a new discussion of sexuality in theology, which paved the way for the growing field of lesbian and gay theology.

Vatican II’s emphasis on justice being a constitutive part of the preaching of the gospel also had an effect on the development of LGBT ministry.  Fullam points out that John XXIII’s emphasis on human rights in his encyclical Pacem in Terris provided a new perspective for Catholics:

“The language of rights, then, is how Catholics take our religiously grounded understanding of the common good out into public discourse. With the humility appropriate to fallible human beings, we seek input from all people of good will as we do so. We don’t seek to legislate the whole moral law, but only those rights and duties by which the flourishing of all people is made possible. Our deep commitment to human dignity and the equality of all human persons is the bedrock on which Catholic teaching grounds its social message.”

John’s writings opened the path a more justice-oriented church.  One other outcome of this pope’s approach was the development following Vatican II of liberation theology, which would eventually be applied to the LGBT experience.

Immediately following Vatican II was when Catholics first started taking the human rights and liberation of LGBT people more seriously.  As this blog stated on October 11, 2012, the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II:

“In one respect,  the movement for LGBT liberation, equality, and justice in the Catholic Church is a direct result of Vatican II.    The Council’s reform of theology, its updating of scriptural interpretations, its openness to scientific knowledge, its invitation for participation by the laity, its clarion call to work for justice in the world and the church–all these things were part of the 1960s Catholic zeitgeist which resulted in a burgeoning movement to be involved with, and work for justice for, LGBT people.

“It’s no accident that both two of the oldest Catholic ministries to LGBT people–Dignity and New Ways Ministry–emerged from this era and as a direct result of priests and religious following the call of Vatican II.  Similarly, it would have been unimaginable that John McNeill’s theological groundbreaking work, The Church and the Homosexual, could have been written before the Council.”

It is no overstatement to say that without John XXIII, the movement in the Church for LGBT equality would have been much delayed and much diminished.  For this contribution of his, and for the many other ways that he ushered in a more compassionate, just, and socially involved church, Catholics who support LGBT equality are rejoicing at his canonization.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

New Film Explores Life of Pioneering Gay Catholic Theologian John McNeill

Taking a Chance on God, a new documentary on the life of pioneering Catholic gay theologian, John McNeill, will have its New York debut on Saturday, June 16th, 7:00 p.m., at the School of Visual Arts Theatre, 333 West 23rd St., Manhattan, NY.

The film’s screening, sponsored by Dignity/New York, in honor of their 40th anniversary, will feature a panel of distinguished speakers that includes: McNeill himself and his lifelong partner, Charles Chiarelli, Mary Hunt,  James Bernauer SJ,  Bishop Gene Robinson, Kate Clinton, Ginny Apuzzo, Andy Humm, Fr. Dan McCarthy, Fr. Bernard Lynch, Ken Gomolka, Rev. Nancy Wilson.  McNeill is one of the founders of Dignity/New York.  Tickets for the screening are available at

Brendan Fay and John McNeill

The film’s publicity materials describe the documentary as:

“An inspiring portrait of a pioneer gay priest, Taking a Chance on God follows the extraordinary life of 86-year-old John McNeill from his Buffalo boyhood through his experiences as a POW in Nazi Germany, Vietnam peace promoter, leading gay rights advocate, and loving partner of forty-six years to Charles Chiarelli. McNeill – the author of groundbreaking works of gay spirituality, a founder of the LGBT Catholic group Dignity/New York, and a gay community leader during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s – refused to be silenced by the Vatican on LGBT issues, which resulted in his expulsion from the Jesuit priesthood. Chronicling McNeill’s love for the Catholic Church, the LGBT community, his Jesuit brothers, and his partner, Taking a Chance on God is a powerful story of faith, love and perseverance in the face of oppression and rejection.”

Taking a Chance on God was produced by Brendan Fay, who is also the producer of  The Saint of 9/11, a documentary on Fr. Mychal Judge, OFM, the gay NYC fire department chaplain who is died ministering to people in the attack on the World Trade Center.

In an interview with The Miami Herald, Mc Neill describes the film this way:

 “This film is about my partner Charlie and our 46-year love affair. . . . The message is that God loves gay lovers and approves of them. . . . I don’t want any part of the church’s homophobia. . . .I was bringing a message that God brought to me. God’s love is universal and includes both gay and straight people.”

In the same interview, Fay comments on why he made the film:

“John became a hero to me the way Harvey Milk and other pioneers of the gay liberation movement had. . . .John is often a hidden figure. An unknown pioneer. There are not many who are aware of the dramatic impact and significance he had on the movement for change in society and the church in the early ‘70s.”

McNeill is best known for his ground-breaking theological work, The Church and the Homosexual, published in 1976.  In 2008, New Ways Ministry presented him with the Bridge Building Award for his life-long contributions to scholarship and pastoral work with LGBT people. You can read his award acceptance speech, which sums up his mission and ministry, here.

Kingston, N.Y.’s Daily Freeman interviewed McNeill and Chiarelli when then documentary was screened in the Woodstock, N.Y. film festival in September 2011.  In that interview, McNeill sums up his life work this way:

“I wanted to take away the guilt and self-hatred of gay Catholics who believed the church’s position on homosexuality.”

For a full listing of upcoming screenings, visit the documentary’s website,

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry






Transgender Catholic Woman Is Featured in “Queer Catholic Faith” Webinar Series

Hilary Howes

Transgender Catholic issues will be the subject of the next installment of  DignityUSA’s webinar series, Queer Catholic Faith, on Tuesday, April 17, 2012, 9:00 pm, Eastern Time.  The featured guest will be Hilary Howes, a Catholic transgender woman living in Maryland.

Hilary’s life journey has been an inspiring one, since she not only transitioned from living as a man to living as a woman, but her previously heterosexual marriage to a woman remained intact through that transition.  Additionally, she is an adult convert to Catholicism, having turned to her wife’s faith after the gender transition process.  The couple are active members of the Greenbelt Catholic Community, an intentional Eucharistic community in Greenbelt, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC.

Ms. Howes has already shared her unique life-story in a variety of Catholic venues.  She authored the article, “To Be or Not to Be: A Catholic Transexual Speaks,” in the September 2010 issue of Conscience magazine, which she concluded with this paragraph:

“I understand that my journey, though personal, touches that which is universal about gender for everyone. Perhaps your notions of father, mother, brother, sister, husband and wife get opened a little by meeting someone who has been all of those at different times in her life. Maybe you can take it from someone who has been there that looking at everything as us and them, black and white, male or female is limiting and dangerous. Ultimately, welcoming the mystery of diversity in God’s plan is the healing for our church for which I most hope.”

In September of 2011, she was a featured panelist at the first conference of the “More Than a Monologue” series, held at Fordham University, New York.  A National Catholic Reporter article on the event noted Hilary’s participation, observing that she offered her message of diversity with a strong dose of humor, with lines such as:

“I remain in my Catholic marriage of 33 years, to the most understanding woman in the world — making ours one of the few same-sex marriages affirmed by the Roman Catholic church.”

Most recently, Hilary, along with her wife, Celestine, were focus session leaders at New Ways Ministry’s Seventh National Symposium last month in Baltimore, Maryland.  Their presentation is available on CD; click here for the order form.

The DignityUSA webinar series kicked off last month with a conversation with Jamie Manson, an award-winning columnist for The National Catholic Reporter.  It will continue, Tuesday, May 22, 2012, 9:00 pm, Eastern Time, with Rev. John McNeill, theologian, psychotherapist, and pioneer of LGBT rights in the Catholic church.   The series concludes on Tuesday, June 12, 2012, 9:00 pm, Eastern Time, with Dr. Mary Hunt, theologian and co-founder of WATER (Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual).

To register for any of these webinars, go to: or visit DignityUSA’s webpage for this event.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry