John McNeill’s Message of Hope for Queer Catholics.

In an aside in my post “Some Heartss Close to Cracking: What Gay Catholics HAVE Done”  I noted that the question of what gay priests have done is rather different and trickier one.  For the rest of us, many people have used expressions like “exile” to describe their position. For priests, this exile can be extreme, very directly threatening their livelihoods and even the emotional support structures of friends and colleagues.  Still, exile is threatening but not deadening.  Many of those who speak of exile couple it with words like “grace” and “hope”.  So it is too, with many of the priests who have embraced their own exile. The intriguing thing to me, is the possibility (no more than a glimmer, at present) that the exiles from the institutional church are forming a new community, one which could well grow and flourish while the formal structures shrink from lack of interest, undermined by scandals and internal resistance to the medieval culture. If so, the possibilities for restructuring are fascinating.

John McNeill is one of the iconic figures among gay priests and in the story of the emergence of gay & lesbian theology.  Once a Jesuit, he was a founder member of Dignity, and published an important book on the topic- before eventually being forced to leave the order and the (formal) priesthood. Since then, he has if anything being more productive, finding that he was able to speak and write with a new freedom, released from the possibility of Vatican censorship.  The titles of two of his books are themselves revealing: “Freedom, Glorious Freedom”, and “With Both Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air”). He has also had an important practice as a psychotherapist.

When I first started writing on this blog, I was very much taken with some ideas that I had picked up in a letter he had written to the US bishops, which was widely posted on several sites. The letter in turn referred back to a seminal address he had given to a Dignity gathering in 2005, on the occasion of the infamous letter restricting gay candidates’ entry to the seminaries.  Prompted by a response he placed to a post here earlier this week, I realised that McNeill’s message in that address, delivered in response to a specific action at a specific time, nevertheless still has much to say to us now, at the end of 2009.

Advent is a time of waiting, of expectancy.  I have sensed from many of my fellow gay or progressive Catholic bloggers that in what appears superficially to be dark times in the Church, there is a perception that this could be a time in which the Holy Spirit is knocking down in order to rebuild.  This is leading many of us to what would otherwise be an irrational confidence that we may be seeing the end of the old hierarchical, control obsessed institution, and the emergence of something new, a reimagining or “reformatting” of the Church. If (as seems at first glance likely) the hierarchy is unable or unwilling to initiate this themselves, the rest of us my be forced to take the lead ourselves.  But the real work, actually effecting and implementing the essential changes, will not be done by either the “hierarchy” or by us as “laity” – but by the Holy Spirit.  As McNeill bluntly reminds us, s/he remains the Boss.

Here are some extracts from the address to Dignity.  The original is clearly addressed directly to lesbian and gay Catholics, but in the present context they are also relevant to a wider audience. I have edited and abridged to highlight this broader significance. (I feel privileged that I have been authorised to post a copy of the full address here)

 

How Should Lesbian and Gay Catholics Respond to the Hierarchy’s Decision to Bar Gays from the Seminaries and the Priesthood?

On Sept 21st, I read in the New York Times that the Vatican, under Pope Benedict is considering the decision to bar all gays, even celibates, from the priesthood. …I then entered into prayer and asked the Holy Spirit to help me discern what this is all about.

First, the Spirit assured me that this decision has nothing to do with God or the teaching of Jesus Christ. Notice the total absence of any sense of love and compassion for all the suffering this will cause gay Catholics in general and, especially, gay priests. The hierarchy is aware that the child abuse crisis has seriously undermined their authority and power……

The Holy Spirit is still ultimately in charge of the Church and will call the shots on how the Church will evolve and be transformed and our task as gay Catholics (and all others – the crisis in governance affects us all, not just LGBT) is to prayerfully discern what the Holy Spirit is about in this moment of crisis and support that transformation.

I shall never forget the excitement we felt at the first meeting of New York Dignity some 35 years ago. We had put a small notice in the Village Voice. We had hoped for a few people. But over a hundred people crowded into the room we reserved at Good Shepherd Church in Gramercy Park. We had a simple plan: To bring the message of God’s love to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and transsexual people. Secondly, by giving witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we hoped to enter into dialogue with the institutional Church to bring about a change in its teaching on homosexuality; a change fully justified by our new understanding of scripture, tradition and of human psychosexual development. Our cry here was that “what is bad psychology has to be bad theology and vice versa.”

We were full of the hope and enthusiasm of Vatican II, which had redefined the Church as “The People of God”! Now almost thirty years later, although the Holy Spirit has abundantly blessed our ministry to bring the message of God’s love to our sisters and brothers, I am sorry to have to report that in terms of dialogue with the hierarchy, it has been mostly downhill.

The Church has adamantly refused our offer of dialogue and refuses to hear what the Holy Spirit wants to say to the hierarchy through the experience of faithful Catholic gays and lesbians.

Because of the incredible success Dignity and other gay liberation groups have had over the last 39 years, very few gay candidates for the priesthood today have an egodystonic (a psychological term for those who see their sexuality as something to be rejected and suppressed) attitude of self-hatred. So the Vatican felt forced to take a more radical stance. The hierarchy has decided to scapegoat the Catholic gay community, rather than to acknowledge any failure and sinfulness on their own part.

I admire the shrewdness of the Holy Spirit. The cultic priesthood, limited to professed celibate males, whether heterosexual or repressed homosexual, is rapidly disappearing.  I can think of no action the Vatican could take that would guarantee the total collapse of that priesthood – a collapse that will necessarily lead to a new form of shepherding in the Church.

In my own experience over the years, if I met a priest who was an exceptionally good pastor, loving and compassionate, I could be close to certain that I was dealing with a gay priest. Let me give two examples of that.  The first is my friend and colleague,  Father Mychal Judge, a gay Franciscan, who was Chaplin to the New York City Fire Department, and died while anointing one of his beloved fire-fighters in the 911 collapse of the World Trade Towers.  A second model of gay priesthood is Matthew Kelty, the gay Cistercian monk, until recently guest master at Gethsemane Abbey and spiritual director for Thomas Merton. In his book, Flute Solo: Reflections of a Trappist Hermit, Matthew wrote that he attributed the special spiritual gifts that God had given him to his homosexual orientation:

People of my kind seem often so placed, the reason, as I have worked it out, that they are more closely related to the anima (the feminine) than is usual…. Perhaps a healthy culture would enable those so gifted by God or nature (i.e. homosexuals) to realize their call and respond to it in fruitful ways.

We gay and lesbian Catholics must not let our enemies outside ourselves define who we are. We must let the Spirit of God, the Spirit of love dwelling in our hearts, define who we are. And then give witness to all the great things the Lord has done for us.

What, then, should be our attitude toward the institutional church? James Allison, a gay Catholic theologian, suggests that we should have the same attitude toward the institutional church as Jesus had toward the temple, total detachment and indifference. In his ministry, the Temple was always there in the background but appears to have little relevance to Jesus’ mission. As Mark noted, after the Palm Sunday procession, Jesus came into Jerusalem, entered the Temple and looked around but immediately left for Bethany with the twelve. Bethany was where the action was. Bethany was where the household of Martha and Mary, who I can imagine to be a lesbian couple and their gay brother Lazarus who was Jesus’ best friend. Here was Jesus’ church – a true community of love.

At the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples that “it is necessary that I go away in order for the Spirit to come. I tell you this: unless I go away the Spirit cannot come to you. But when I go away, I will send the Spirit to you and He will dwell in your hearts and lead you into all truth.” Jesus was referring to a maturing process in our spiritual life, a process for which we gay and lesbian Catholics have a special need. We must detach ourselves from all external authority and learn to discern what the Spirit has to say to us directly and immediately in our own experience.

We must fight to free ourselves from any attachment to the institutional church,. We should see ourselves as equals and siblings to Church authorities and pray for them as they try to discern the Spirit of God in their lives. Leave the Hierarchical church in God’s hands. Be grateful to them for the gifts they helped bring to us like the scriptures and the sacraments. But do not waste one ounce of energy in a negative attachment of anger with the Church. Commit every ounce of our energy to the positive ministry of love to which God has called us.

Judaism and Christianity are both religions of the collapsing Temple. There is always a connection between the collapse of the Temple and God bringing into existence a new form of shepherding. In Judaism, it was the collapse of the Temple in the year 587 BC which led to the creation of text based Judaism. And again, the collapse of the Temple in 70 AD, which led to the creation of Rabbinic Judaism.  In every case, the collapse is part of God’s plan to get through to us and help us to get beyond something that is no longer worthy of us.

A recent example of this, a young man came to me in Fort Lauderdale. He was leading a gay life and had a lover, but he could not let go of feelings of guilt, shame and self-rejection. He was praying constantly to God to make his will known to him. As he was driving home to Boston still praying, suddenly he had a profound experience of God hugging him. This experience lasted a long time and when it was over he was sure of God’s love for him as a gay man and felt a strong need to share that experience with as many as possible.

There is no doubt in my mind that we are in a new stage of the collapsing Temple and the emergence of a new form of shepherding. Joachim of Flores prophesied in the 13th century there would come a day when the hierarchical church, becoming superfluous, would in time dissolve and in its place would emerge the Church of the Holy Spirit. Ministry in the Church of the Holy Spirit will come from the direct call of the Holy Spirit. The task of authority will be to listen prayerfully to what the Holy Spirit is saying through the people of God. This Church must become a totally democratic Church with no caste system, no higher or lower, totally equal: women with men, gays with straights; everyone possessing the Holy Spirit within them, everyone an authority.

John McNeill

2 October 2005

There is much more which is specifically relevant to LGBT Catholics. In 2005, this was prescient.  Today, McNeill’s thinkg seems to underpin much that I am reading from many other observers.  I strongly recommend that you read (or re-read) the full address.

Further reading:

Books:

John McNeill:

The Church and the Homosexual

Freedom, Glorious Freedom

Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair

Taking a Chance on God: Liberating Theology for Gays, Lesbians, and Their Lovers, Families, and Friends

Sex as God Intended

James Alison

Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay

On Being Liked

Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-in

Broken Hearts and New Creations: Intimations of a Great Reversal

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6 Responses to “John McNeill’s Message of Hope for Queer Catholics.”

  1. Rev Dr John J McNeill Says:

    Thank you for bringing mt message, originally intended for the members of Dignity, to a much wider readership. I developed this theme at luch greater length in my book, Freedom, Glorious Freedom: The Spiritual Journey to the Fullnes of Life for Gays, Lesbians and Everybody Else. The Beacon edition went out of print. However, a new edition with a new preface by a lesbian Catholic will be published soon by Lethe Press. Veni Creator Spiritua! Mentes tuorum visita. Imple sperna gratia quae to creasti pctora!

    • Terence@queerchurch Says:

      No, thanks to you, for placing your comment. This reminded me that it was overdue for me to revisit your useful and valuable books, which I have now started doing, and will be promoting further in the weeks ahead. (Following on the extracts from the Dignity address, I am right now preparing a commentary on the epilogue remarks on disorder you refferred to).

      I look forward to the reissue of “Freedom, Glorious Freedom”, which I have not yet had a chance to buy. Now I can look forward to a new edition.

  2. Mark from PA Says:

    Thank you for posting this and also the link. I read the entire address. How excellent. It gave me much to think about. I can’t believe that Pope Benedict XVI would bar all gays, including celibate gays, from the priesthood. Since sexuality is fluid, where would he draw the line? I think to do such a thing would be to give people the idea that gay men are not fully human, are not truly men. It would reinforce the hatred that some Catholics feel towards gay people but drive even more away from the Church. I think that the Pope will tread softly here.

    • Terence@queerchurch Says:

      I’m glad you liked it, Mark. I have more on John McNeill to come, in the next few days.

  3. Jayden Cameron Says:

    Extraordinary address with so many remarkable statements which have proved prophetic. Thanks so much, Terry, for getting this out there. I hope to comment on it at greater length at GayMystic. One of the most striking: “But do not waste one ounce of energy in a negative attachment of anger with the Church. Commit every ounce of our energy to the positive ministry of love to which God has called us.” Amen to that. Coincidentally, John McNeill’s two books Freedom, Glorious Freedom and Taking a Chance on God, are sitting on my night stand for bedside reading.

    • Terence@queerchurch Says:

      I look ofrward to seeing your fuller response at Gay Mystic.

      Enjoy the books. I loved “taking a Chance on God”, which I am preparing to reread, but have not yet had access to”Freedom Glorious Freedom”. I will get there in the New Year.


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