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Spiritual Transformation: Guest Post by Theologian John McNeill

Open Letter to Pope Benedict XVI

In my three areas of expertise; spirituality, psychotherapy and theology, I am aware of a desperate need for spiritual transformation in the culture, the nation, and the Church. I will do my best to make a contribution to that need from my perspective as an older man with many years of involved experience.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

An Open Letter to Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Levada, Cardinal George and all Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in the World on the Issue of Homosexuality:

My initial open letter of November 2000 was addressed to the American Bishops at their annual conference. In the past ten-plus years, the contents of the letter have taken on greater relevance and force in the light of new scientific discoveries concerning the nature of homosexual orientation and the psychological and spiritual needs of GLBT people, as well as recent statements from the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching authority out of touch with those discoveries.

As a result, I would like to readdress the letter to the following: Pope Benedict XVI; Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF); Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and his fellow American bishops and, finally, to all the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in the world.

Catholic gay and lesbian people demand that, if the Church wants to be seen as their loving mother, mediating to us God’s unconditional love, the Church has no choice except to enter into dialogue with its gay members. In 1974, the delegates of DignityUSA’s first national convention requested in a letter that a dialogue be opened between the American bishops and the members of the Catholic gay and lesbian community. With very few exceptions that letter was ignored. 

Now, 38 years later, once again in the name of my Catholic lesbian siters and gay brothers I call for open dialogue. For over 38 years, I have ministered as priest and psychotherapist to lesbians and gays. I helped found Dignity/New York to provide a safe and loving community within the Catholic Church for gay people. For over 33 years, I have given retreats for lesbians and gays at Kirkridge, an ecumenical retreat center. I have written four books on gay spirituality: The Church and the Homosexual, Taking a Chance on God, Freedom, Glorious Freedom and Sex: As God Intended: A Study of Human Sexuality As Play. I also published an autobiography on my own spiritual journey as a gay priest.

As a result of my experience, I have come to the conclusion that what is at stake at this point in time is not only the spiritual and psychological health of many gay and lesbian Catholics and other lesbian and gay Christians. What is at stake is your moral authority to teach on the issue of homosexuality. In the past, when you undertook a listening process to hear what the Holy Spirit was saying through the People of God, you won our respect. We respected you when you made your statements on the economy, on nuclear warfare and, especially, your aborted effort to draw up a letter on the role of women in the Church. You listened carefully to what women had to say, and drew up your statements responding to what you heard from women. These actions gave us gay and lesbians reason to hope that the Holy Spirit would lead you into a spirit of willingness to listen to us gay and lesbian Catholics.
What is at stake now is your own moral authority! Unless we gay and lesbian Catholics receive the message that you take us seriously and are willing to listen carefully to what the Holy Spirit is saying to you through our lives and our experience, your judgments on homosexuality will be ignored, for the most part, and you will lose what authority you have left to deserve to be listened to with respect on this issue.

I have never heard the same level of courage from the American bishops in dealing with the Vatican as that shown by the Major Superiors of Religious Men in response to the egregious document issued by The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, entitled, “Some Considerations Concerning Homosexual Persons” as follows:

“We view (this document) as a hindrance to the Church leaders of the United States in this most difficult and sensitive area of human living. —We are shocked that the statement calls for discrimination against gay men and lesbian women. We find the reasoning for supporting such discrimination to be strained, unconvincing and counterproductive to our statements and actions to support the pastoral needs and personal dignity of such persons. Far from a help to the Bishops and other religious leaders in the United States Catholic Church, the statement complicates our already complex ministry to all people.
“Moreover we find the arguments used to justify discrimination based on stereotypes and falsehoods that are out of touch with modern psychological and sociological understandings of human sexuality. We regret such actions by the CDF and we reaffirm our support for the human rights of all our brothers and sisters.”

As a gay Catholic theologian and psychotherapist, I am fully aware of the enormous destruction recent Vatican and USCCB documents, and news items, as well as actions taken by the USCCB and several state Catholic Conferences in the U.S. leading up to the November 2008 elections, have caused in the psychic life of young Catholic gays, and of the violence they will provoke against all gay people. This is compounded further by the initial Vatican reaction and opposition to the United Nations proposal sponsored by France and backed by 27 European Union nations which seeks to end the practice of criminalizing and punishing people for their sexual orientation—their very human nature and spiritual being. I find myself in a dilemma; what kind of faith and trust can I place in a teaching authority that I see clearly acts in an unloving, hateful and destructive way toward my gay family and is more interested in defending its institutional interest than it is in truth and justice? In the name of the thousands of gay and lesbian Catholics and other Christians to whom it has been my God-given privilege to minister, I make this statement:

At this point, the ignorance and distortion of homosexuality, and the use of stereotypes and falsehoods in official Church documents, forces us who are gay Catholics to issue the institutional Church a serious warning. Your ignorance of homosexuality can no longer be excused as inculpable; it has become of necessity a deliberate and malicious ignorance. In the name of Catholic gays and lesbians everywhere, we cry out “Enough!”

Enough! Enough of your distortions of Scripture. You continue to claim that a loving homosexual act in a committed relationship is condemned in Scripture, when competent scholars are nearly unanimous in acknowledging that nowhere in Scripture is the problem of sexual acts between two gay men or lesbian women who love each other, ever dealt with, never mind condemned. You must listen to biblical scholars to find out what Scripture truly has to say about homosexual relationships.

Enough! Enough of your efforts to reduce all homosexual acts to expressions of lust, and your refusal to see them as possible expressions of a deep and genuine human love. The second group you must listen to are competent professional psychiatrists and psychotherapists from whom you can learn about the healthy and positive nature of mature gay and lesbian relationships. They will assure you that homosexual orientation is both not chosen and unchangeable and that any ministry promising to change that orientation is a fraud.

Enough! Enough of your efforts through groups like Courage and other ex-gay ministries to lead young gays to internalize self-hatred with the result that they are able to relate to God only as a God of fear, shame and guilt and lose all hope in a God of mercy and love. What is bad psychology has to be bad theology!

Enough! Enough again, of your efforts to foster hatred, violence, discrimination and rejection of us in the human community, as well as disenfranchising our human and civil rights. We gay and lesbian Catholics pray daily that the Holy Spirit will lead you into a spirit of repentance. You must publicly accept your share of the blame for gay murders and bashing and so many suicides of young gays and ask forgiveness from God and from the gay community.

Enough, also, of driving us from the home of our mother, the Church, and attempting to deny us the fullness of human intimacy and sexual love. You frequently base that denial by an appeal to the dead letter of the “natural law.” Another group to whom you must listen are the moral theologians who, as a majority, argue that natural law is no longer an adequate basis for dealing with sexual questions. They must be dealt with within the context of interpersonal human relationships.

Above all else, you must enter into dialogue with the gay and lesbian members of the Catholic community. We are the ones living out the human experience of a gay orientation, so we alone can discern directly in our experience what God’s spirit is saying to us. And for the first time in history, you have gay and lesbian Catholic communities of worship and prayer who are seeking individually and collectively to hear what the Spirit is saying to them in their gay experience—what experiences lead to the peace and joy of oneness with the Spirit of God and what experiences lead away from that peace and joy! God gave you the commission of discerning the truth. But there is no mandate from Jesus Christ to “create” the truth. We pray daily that the Holy Spirit will lead you to search humbly for the truth concerning homosexuality through dialogue with your lesbian sisters and gay brothers.

The only consolation I can offer gay and lesbian Catholics in the meantime is the profound hope that the very absurdity and hateful spirit of recent Vatican and USCCB documents, news items and political actions will lead gay Catholics to refuse them and recognize the contradiction of their message, and that of Jesus, who never once spoke a negative word concerning homosexuals.

I work, hope and pray that lesbian and gay Catholics and other gay Christians will exercise their legitimate freedom of conscience, discerning what God is saying to them directly through their gay experience. I hope, too, that they will be able to de-fang the poisons of pathologically homophobic religion, accepting the good news that God loves them and accepts them as gays and lesbians and refusing to be caught in the vortex of self-hatred vis-à-vis a God of fear.

I believe that we are at the moment of a special “kairos” in this matter. The Holy Spirit is “doing something new.” I was the guest at a gay ecumenical community that established homes for adult retarded people in the city of Basel in Switzerland. The extraordinary spirit of love and compassion that permeated that community was a foretaste of what lies in the future. I believe there is a vast reservoir of human and divine love that has remained until now untapped because of prejudice and homophobia. The Spirit is calling on you to help release that vast potential of human and divine love through your actions.

The worldwide prayerful vigils in December 2008 were to raise our concerned voices over the stance taken by the Vatican to perpetuate the criminalization, incarceration and death sentences towards people of a homosexual orientation. It is not only counter – productive, it violates your own teaching that all persons are due dignity and respect and that homosexual persons should not suffer violence, injustice and discrimination. Furthermore, that they should be welcomed as full and equal members of the Church and society. We pray and hope that the same Holy Spirit who has graciously liberated us who are gay to self-respect and self-love will liberate in you, our Catholic leaders, a profound love for your gay brothers and lesbian sisters and melt away all prejudice and judgmentalism in your hearts.

May you make us welcome as full members in your family in Christ.

May God bless your efforts!

Sincerely in Christ
John J. McNeill

Comments from the Editor of Dignity’s Quarterly News Journal:
The open letter to the USCCB of November 2000 is currently popping up on several Internet user groups and blogsites, and appears in the Appendix in John’s latest book, Sex as God Intended:A Reflection on Human Sexuality as Play.

Since the release of John’s open letter, there have been numerous documents and communications promulgated by the Pope, Vatican offices and USCCB on matters related to homosexuality. Even more so during 2008. Except for minor nuances, they contain the same repetitive rhetoric. Repetition of falsehoods, erroneous interpretations and bad logic doesn’t make for “the truth” and mitigates our trust and respect of “the teaching authority.”

I was in communication with John from the last week of December 2008 through early January 2009 . I learned he had but one response from a bishop of the United States in response to his initial open letter. John has issued this update and said that while announced as an open letter to the Pope, Cardinals Levada and George and the bishops of the world, it was also directed to ordinary gay Catholics for their discernment and investigation of personal and collective lived experience.
John suggests that the more out of touch the hierarchy of the Catholic Church get, “…the more we learn in a painful way to let go and grow up spiritually”.  He calls it “…the blessing of fallibility. We are witnessing the birth pangs of the Church of the Holy Spirit.”

One Response

  1. [...] as he speaks truth to power.  His letter, reprinted below in its entirety (with a hat tip to Open Tabernacle blog), is nothing less than a warning that what is presently at stake is the very moral authority of the [...]

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