Decades before Pope Francis grabbed the world's attention with his "Who Am I to judge?" remark about
gay priests, the Rev. John McNeill was a pillar of gay theology, whose robust challenge of one of the Roman Catholic
Church's most closely held doctrines got him expelled from his order.
McNeill wrote "The Church and the Homosexual," a 1976 book that argued that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality.
It caused front-page headlines and McNeill's very public acknowledgment that he was gay.
He wrote several more books, including "Taking a Chance on God: Liberating Theology for Gays, Lesbians, and Their Lovers,
Families and Friends" (1988), and "Freedom, Glorious Freedom: The Spiritual Journey to the Fullness of Life for Gays, Lesbians
and Everybody Else" (1995). He also wrote an autobiography, "Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair: My Spiritual Journey"
He did not mince words when speaking of the pain he had felt at the hands of his church. In 2012, McNeill wrote that
in his outspoken career he had tried "with the help of the Holy Spirit to free gay Christians from the lies of a pathologically
"In some sense it was my experience of a deep personal love relationship that led me to question church teaching about homosexuality,"
McNeill told the Miami Herald in 2014. "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."
McNeill’s scholarly writings helped galvanize gay and lesbian Catholics. He was an author, psychotherapist and
pioneer of gay civil rights.
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
McNeill wrote “Thank God that Church authorities have proved so fallible. The result has been a maturing of the
people of God. One of the greatest beneficiaries of the fallibility of church authorities has been the LGBT Catholic
community. We came to realize early on that we could not accept and obey Church teaching on homosexuality without destroying
ourselves physically, psychologically and spirituality. Consequently, as a matter of survival we had to take distance from
Church teaching, develop our freedom of conscience and learn to hear what the Spirit of God is saying to us through our experience.
The result has been that the LGBT community is leading the way to transform the Catholic Church into a Church of the
"He was one of the few in that period of time as a priest who was willing to stick his neck out and speak about the inequalities
in the Catholic Church with regard to the LGBT community," said Patrick McArron, a past president of DignityUSA, a national
advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics. "We characterize him as a prophet within the organization."
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry said "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."
McNeill decided to enter the priesthood after an incident during World War II.
Born Sept. 2, 1925, into an Irish Catholic family in Buffalo, N.Y., he joined the Army at 17 and was sent to the German front.
In 1944, he was captured near the French city of Metz and taken to a prison camp near Leukenwalde, Germany, where he
was held for five months.
Although weak from starvation, he was sent to work on a farm. A Polish slave laborer who saw him staring at the food
for the animals took pity on him and threw him a potato.
"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," McNeill recalled in the Miami Herald. "That made a very deep impression on me."
After he was liberated and returned to the States, he was admitted to Canisius College in Buffalo. In 1948, he entered
the Jesuit novitiate and in 1959 was ordained.
By then he had been struggling for years with his sexual identity but had remained celibate. He did not begin to have
gay relationships until he went to Europe to continue his studies for the priesthood. He remained deeply conflicted
for years during an academic career that included teaching at Fordham University, Le Moyne College and Woodstock College,
all in New York.
His life changed in 1965, a year after he received his doctorate in philosophy from Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium.
That New Year's Eve he met Charles Chiarelli in a New York bar. They became lovers and, in 2008, were married
McNeill and Chiarelli remained firmly in the closet for the first dozen years of their relationship, until McNeill was interviewed
about his book by NBC newsman Tom Brokaw. On air with millions of viewers watching, he was asked if he was gay and
acknowledged that he was.
He was "torn out of the closet by Tom Brokaw," McNeill, laughing, recalled later.
From that point on, McNeill was not just a radical theologian but an icon for other Catholics struggling to reconcile their
faith with their sexual orientation.
McNeill had written scholarly articles on homosexuality and the Bible several years before his book was published. Three
of his writings from 1970 formed the basis of DignityUSA's position statement in 1972, when the group held its first convention
in Los Angeles. McNeill later helped form the group's New York chapter. John McNeill was a powerful presence
at nearly every Dignity convention and in many Dignity communities for many years.
His address to the Dignity convention brought a book contract, but it took several years for "The Church and the Homosexual"
to reach print. He received the church's permission to publish it in 1976 despite a Vatican declaration weeks earlier
that a "permanent homosexual condition" was "pathological."
A year after the book's release, however, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the body charged with enforcing
church doctrine — withdrew its permission and ordered the author "not to speak on homosexuality and sexual ethics."
McNeill publicly obeyed the silencing order for nearly a decade, but quietly continued his private ministry to gay and lesbian
Catholics. His work included psychotherapy, workshops, lectures and retreats. He agreed to observe the silencing
order in the hopes that over time the church would consider the evidence and begin a reevaluation.
In 1986, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI who was then chief enforcer of church teaching, called homosexuality
an "objective disorder" and instructed bishops to stamp out pro-homosexual views within the church.
McNeill openly criticized Ratzinger's directive as "cruel."
As a result, he received yet another order from Rome directing him to give up all ministry to gay persons, an order, he said,
he could not follow in good conscience.
He continued to speak out against official Catholic teachings on matters of sexuality and in particular the harsh and "homophobic"
teachings coming out of the Vatican.
Because he broke the order to be silent, and because he challenged the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on the issue
of homosexuality, and because he disobeyed the order to give up all ministry to gay persons, in 1988 he was formally expelled
from his Jesuit order after nearly 40 years.
Still a priest but barred from performing most priestly functions, including celebrating Mass, he called himself "a Jesuit
“He was a gay man who was a Jesuit priest — and being a gay man who is a Jesuit priest, by the way, is not an
unusual thing,” said Mary E. Hunt, a Roman Catholic feminist theologian and longtime friend of Father McNeill’s.
“The difference is that John McNeill was honest, and he was honest early. And being honest early meant
that he paid a large price.”
Though the expulsion caused him great pain, Father McNeill said it was liberating in other respects. He continued his
psychotherapy practice and became more visible than ever as an activist. In 1987, he was the grand marshal of the New
York City gay pride parade, and in 2009 he was the recipient of the New Ways Ministry bridge building award.
His expulsion notwithstanding, Father McNeill remained very much a Catholic throughout his life, remained very much a Jesuit
in his orientation throughout his life, and remained very much a priest throughout his life.
This was perhaps never more starkly evident than at the end of his life during his final hospital stay. On the door
of his hospital room hung a sign that had been placed there at Father McNeill’s request.
It read, simply, “I am a Catholic priest.”
McNeill spent his final years living and working in the Fort Lauderdale area.
John McNeill died at a hospice in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on September 22, 2015 at the age of 90 with his partner of 46 years,
Charlie Chiarelli, at his bedside.
His radical and provocative views on sexuality were never successfully muzzled by church authorities.