The Vatican and “Objective Disorder”: John McNeill

In John McNeill’s “Sex as God Intended”, the epilogue reflects on the “Vatican Instruction” barring openly gay men from seminary training.  This reflection is clearly directed at gay men and lesbians, but in fact covers much more ground, with important observations on the very meaning and understanding of God’s revelation,  and on the source of authority within the Church. As such, it is relevant to a wider audience as well, and just as the “Declaration” that I wrote about earlier in the week, it seems at least as relevant in the light of the current troubles over abuse, as when first published.  These are some edited extracts from that chapter,  with a light commentary to take you through it.

From the Epilogue to “Sex As God Intended”: Objective Disorder

Since his election as Pope Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Ratzinger has carried the persecution of gays and lesbians to almost a hysterical level.  I would like to reflect here on one action in particular:  the implications of the Instruction forbidding the ordination of self-accepting gay men to the priesthood.

In that Instruction the Vatican has given a vicious collective slap in the face not only to gay priests and seminarians, but to every gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered person on earth.  The Instruction, issued by  Pope Benedict XVI,  calls homosexual orientation an “objective disorder” and any sexual act that follows from that orientation is contrary to the divine will and profoundly sinful.  Any effort by a gay person to reach out for human sexual love, no matter what the circumstances, it judges as evil.   Scripture says that if anyone loves, they know God because God is love.  The Vatican says that if gay people enter into a human sexual love relation, they know evil and will separate themselves from the love of God.

It is common knowledge that the primary yet unstated reason for the publication of this Instruction is the priest/child abuse scandal that has seriously and probably permanently damaged the Catholic Church’s moral authority. This document has little to do with God or even morality.  This is a political document issued in self-defence by the human and sinful hierarchy of the institutional church. The hierarchy, rather than accept their responsibility, for this crisis, decided to scapegoat gay priests and seminarians

A more probable explanation for the abuse, according to the majority of psychologists is the high number of priests who were immature, insecure about their tendencies and full of doubt and guilt.  Any homosexual who achieves a healthy self-acceptance and has a positive attitude towards his sexual orientation is precisely the one this Instruction excludes, whereas those gay men who are struggling with immaturity and self-rejection acceptable candidates for seminary. Rather than setting up a cure of the child abuse crisis, this Instruction guarantees that the crisis will continue.  What is bad psychology is bad theology.

A consequence of this Instruction will be a further decline of the moral authority of the hierarchy.

(This decline has already been obvious in the few years since this book was published, and is marked in such formerly staunchly Catholic countries as Ireland, where the authority of the church has been all but destroyed by the abuse scandals, and in Spain, where Mass attendance has plummeted.)

The Instruction is so out of touch with reality that it is obvious that the authors consulted only so-called experts who agreed with its dogmatic premises that homosexual orientation is an orientation to evil. By limiting themselves to such prejudiced consultants the Vatican cut itself off from the reality of gay life. Every major psychological association has concluded from empirical evidence that homosexuality as such does not imply psychological disorder. The Vatican has an important role in the human search for truth, but it certainly does not have the right to invent the truth concerning homosexuality.

The Vatican is right, I believe, in claiming that we are dealing with an “objective disorder”. But that objective disorder has nothing to do with homosexuality but with the Vatican itself.

One clue to what that disorder can be found in the use of the term “objective”.  Traditionally, the Vatican viewed all homosexual behaviour as a choice motivated by lust by otherwise heterosexual men and, therefore, “subjectively disordered”. But when modern psychologists accumulated undeniable evidence that there is such a thing as homosexual orientation that is not chosen and is unchangeable, the Vatican was forced to concede that homosexual orientation, since it is not a matter of choice cannot be qualified as subjectively morally evil. To say that God created humans with an orientation to evil is blasphemy. In defence of its tradition the Vatican chooses to go the other way.  God intended all humans to be heterosexual. Homosexual orientation must represent then, some mysterious disruption of God’s original  plan possibly due to original sin. The orientation itself is an orientation to evil and any action flowing from such an orientation would be sinful.

(Here, McNeill develops a hypothesis that I found fascinating, but do not have the theological training to evaluate.  If he is right, it provides a stunning explanation for the reactionary stance of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI against any sensible approach to human sexuality:  it’s all about preserving power, in the form of neat, tight rules.)

There is a deeper reason why the Vatican seems so out of touch whenever it deals with sexual ethics. Paradoxically, the Vatican, which teaches the Christian position that God is love, has no adequate philosophical foundation for dealing with love, divine or human, or with the unique individual person and that person’s subjective consciousness.. In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, published in 1993, Pope John Paul II defended this choice because objective realism makes possible the formulation of absolute, universal laws essential to the power and absolute authority of the Church, whereas to introduce the human subject is to allow a kind of relativism, which would undermine the absolute authority of the Church. On several occasions Pope Benedict has identified this “relativism” as the worst intellectual enemy of church authority.

(McNeill now broadens his discussion, from the subject of sexuality, to the bigger topic of religious authority and our understanding of Revelation)

Jesus at the Last Supper told his followers, “It is necessary that I go away ….Because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.  Nevertheless, I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away. For if I do not go away, he Holy Spirit will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (John: 16: 6 -3?)

Jesus is expressing his need in some way to prove to be a fallible leader in order for his followers to mature and move on to the next stage in their spiritual life, where their authority is no longer just Jesus outside themselves but the Spirit dwelling in their hearts.

A central Christian teaching based on the indwelling of the Spirit, one that is without doubt of utmost importance especially to those who are gay or lesbian, is the teaching of freedom of conscience. This teaching was expressed anew in a powerful way in the documents of Vatican II:

“Every human has in his or her heart a law written by God.  To obey that law is the dignity of the human.  According to that law we will be judged.  There we are alone with God whose voice echoes in our depths.”

(The Pastoral Constitution of the

Church in the Modern World)

(And now McNeill becomes very Ignatian:  you can force the man out of the Jesuits, but you cannot remove Ignatius from the man.)

According to the teaching, where do you seek to find out what God wants of you? You turn inward in prayer and you listen carefully to discern what your heart is saying to you.  You ask God, if you are about to make a choice, if what you are about to do is in harmony with God’s spirit dwelling in your heart, to fill your heart with confidence, peace and joy. “Lord, give me the grace to know your will for me and the courage to do it.”  Note that God speaks to us primarily through our hearts, that is to say primarily through our hearts and only secondarily through our reason. This indwelling of the Holy Spirit was the grounds on which Ignatius of Loyola based his Spiritual Exercises, especially his Rules for the Discernment of Spirits. (This is the reason why the Vatican never trusted the Jesuits and preferred the rigidly authoritarian Opus Dei instead.)

Paul saw the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday as fulfilment of this prophecy of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:31 – 34). Again Paul quotes these words from the prophet Joel:

“In the last days ,it will be,” God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters will prophesy and your young men will see visions.  And your old men will dream dreams.  Even upon slaves, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit and they shall prophecy.”

(Acts 2: 16-17)

The hierarchy has no exclusive claim to discerning what the will of God is.  This power belongs to every baptized Christian who has received the Holy Spirit.

The Church is in need of a special transformation to become a Church of the Holy Spirit.  With the coming of the Spirit, we, like the Apostles, must give up the security of a provident leader. If we approach external Church authorities, it should not be to seek an approval they cannot, and frequently will not, give us.  Rather, it should be to witness to what the Holy Spirit is saying through our experience.

The Holy Spirit cannot be contained.  “The wind of the Spirit blows where it will”. Fr Jacques Perotti, a leader of David and Jonathan, the Christian gay movement in French-speaking countries, speaks of a declic, a special moment in history, “a revelation of a positive homosexual identity from the heart of the world.  After so many ages of rejection, destruction and intimidation, a wind of freedom has begun to blow!

Since this is the work of God , no human force can stop it.

The notes above, and those I posted previously, are no more than extracts.  I strongly recommend that you read, and regularly reread, the original chapters, and the rest of the book.  In addition to excellent material on the sound interpretation of religious faith and what it has to say about sexuality, this  also includes a “Festchrift”, a series of articles by important gay and lesbian theologians and spiritual guides celebrating John McNeill’s life and work as a gay Catholic pioneer, as a theologian, as a writer, and as a psychotherapist.

A central feature of McNeill’s work is this insistence of the continuing, unceasing work of the Holy Spirit in bringing God’s message anew.  (This same theme, incidentally, was also the key message of Pope Benedict’s Christmas message last year.  that message, sadly got drowned out in the deluge of responses to some incidental ill-chosen remarks on gays and climate change).  McNeill’s argument is not revolutionary, but entirely orthodox. We need to embrace it.

Further reading:

John McNeill’s Message of Hope for Queer Catholics




Books by John McNeill:

The Church and the Homosexual

Freedom, Glorious Freedom: The Spiritual Journey to the Fullness of Life for Gays, Lesbians, and Everybody Else

Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair

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

3 Responses to “The Vatican and “Objective Disorder”: John McNeill”

  1. Rev Dr John J McNeill Says:

    Another sincere thank you for helping to bring my message of God’s acceptence of gay love to a wider audience. If anyone wishes to explore my writings further I recommend my two websites: and I especially recommend to your readers article 9 on the Maurice Blondel site on doing therapy with LBGT people.

    • Terence@queerchurch Says:

      Thanks for the links to the two websites, both of which I ahve now added to my links. The first one I knew of (and thought I and added earlier – a stupid ommission now corrected.) the Maurice Blondel site I was not aware of, but will now explore.

  2. Mark from PA Says:

    Thanks again, this is very enlightening. I am learning quite a bit here. I read this with great interest. I hope that the Church hierarchy gets a clue soon. I feel sadness over what is going on. The abuse crisis has been a real wake up call for me. I am very lucky that I was not abused. The priest that taught me Religion in high school turned out to be a predator but I was lucky I suppose because the guy didn’t like me and had somewhat of a disdain for me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: