A highlight of 2009 was, for me, reading Catholic theologian John McNeill’s latest book, Sex As God Intended (Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe Press, 2008). In what follows, I’d like to offer some reflections on a book that, in my view, will richly reward anyone who reads it. Because I have much to say about John McNeill’s book and his significance as a pioneer of gay theology, I will write this review in stages. Part one consists of a personal testimony to the power of John McNeill’s theology, as a prelude to my discussion of his latest book.
Sex As God Intended gathers a lifetime of prophetic thought by therapist-theologian John McNeill about the vocation of gay persons in church and society. At a point at which a theological discourse by and about the gay experience was almost non-existent in Christian churches, John McNeill crafted such a discourse—in part, out of his own joyous, painful experience as a gay believer, in part, out of his experience working with other gay believers as a therapist. In doing so, he opened a path for many of us who continue to think it important to try to hold our gay experience together with our experience of faith.
I well remember my first encounter with John McNeill’s work. I read his pioneering statement The Church and the Homosexual as a young theologian just finishing graduate school and beginning a teaching career in church-related universities. Though I had lived in a committed gay relationship throughout my years of graduate study—one that reached back, in fact, to my last years of undergraduate study—neither my life partner Steve nor I was ready to make any public statement about our identity, as we launched into our vocational lives as theologians.
We were not ready to make such a statement because we had not made it to ourselves, despite our longstanding relationship (and what I knew to be the truth inside myself, though I would not own that truth). We saw no way to do so. There was no path—quite simply, quite starkly—for theologians like us, in the churches. There was no place for us in the churches, period. The only way was the way of denial, a denial of oneself that clove one’s being into painful shards, in which the ground and source of one’s creative and intellectual life—a life shared in love—could not be spoken, examined, claimed as the entry point for an entire vocational life in the church.
Living split hurts. It damages. It produces turmoil that runs through one’s whole life. From the outset of my career as a theologian-scholar, I experienced crippling panic in public settings, which I can now identify as one of the prices I paid for believing that I could cleave my life into public and private domains, and keep my private life separate—and closeted—from my life as a teacher in a Catholic university. It was only when this performance anxiety became so debilitating that I could barely face being in the classroom, that I began to face honestly the cause of my panic—and who I was. And the meaning of my life and my vocation.
During several years of hard struggle with the question of coming out, first to myself, then to friends and family, and then publicly, I contacted John McNeill. His book The Church and the Homosexual had pointed a way to me. This was the way of self-acceptance. I wanted to believe in that way. I wanted to believe in his deep spiritual insight that we who are gay are created as we are for a reason, that we have a place in God’s salvific plan.
But believing in that way and seeing it open before one are not the same thing. There was (and there remains, in my life: coming out is an ongoing and continuous process) the problem of living what one knows to be true in one’s heart of hearts—living one’s vocation as a gay believer, and, in my case, a gay theologian—and existing within churches that refuse to validate the graced insights of gay believers. That refuse to accept gay believers, at all. That open no doors for openly gay believers working in church institutions.
I wrote John McNeill in crisis, then. And he responded graciously, as a priest (although one who had been removed from ministry due to his open admission of his sexual orientation) and a therapist. He assured me of my place, of God’s calling that ran through my life. His words opened that place for me, first and foremost inside myself, even as the church itself slammed door after door in my face and Steve’s.
It was important to hear those words in my coming-out period, as I struggled with both personal and vocational questions, with the impossibility of being true to myself and my vocation and securing a job of any kind in a church-related university. Those words gave me life—literally—as I struggled to deal with the many and forceful (if ultimately empty) claims that bogus therapeutic and salvific organizations make on the lives of gay Christians, with an astonishing sense of entitlement as they single us out among all other sinners to whom they might direct their ministry.
I did, briefly and painfully, flirt with the thought of the “ex-gay” option. I contacted one of the leading ex-gay organizations, asked for help. When I read the literature the group sent me and began a correspondence with a counselor the group assigned me, I realized that I was repulsed not merely by the group’s theologically and scientifically fraudulent claims: I was repulsed most of all by its assurance that, not even knowing me, it had the right to reach into my life and the lives of others and dictate. To tell us what God wanted for our lives, without even knowing us.
When I told the group I did not want to pursue its oh-so-tenderly-offered therapy, I saw the mask fall away. I received threatening letters informing me I was and would forever be damned, that I must contact the savior group immediately or risk all kinds of divine punishment, that the group would appear on my doorstep and make a fuss if I did not accede to its demands.
All the while, I was also seeking to avail myself of the ministerial offerings of my own Catholic church. I was going to confession at the drop of a hat and hearing . . . unbelievable . . . counsel and theological balderdash from priests, some of whom I knew, some of whom had taught me as Jesuit professors at Loyola University in New Orleans.
One former professor did all he could to peer through the screen of the confessional as I confessed. He warned me that, if I did not leave behind my sinful ways, I would one day step out of the church following confession, be hit by a bus, and go straight to hell. And then where would I be?
Another confessor hissed in a loud voice that my “sins”—committed, as I always scrupulously informed each confessor, with the same person with whom I had then lived in a longstanding relationship for over a decade—were the sins that brought God’s wrath down on the world. Another soberly told me my only choice, if I wanted salvation, was to go home, lock the door to my partner in sin, and never open it to him again.
The best pastoral advice I was offered by confessors at this anguished point in my life—the best, shockingly—was to understand that God had given me a unique cross to bear, and that if I bore it faithfully, returning to confession each time I fell, I would assist both my salvation and that of many others. The Jesuit who offered that advice encouraged me to come only to him as a confessor, not to any of his confreres. The others, he said, did not fully understand this gift I had been given.
Eventually, all this began to seem, well, simply silly. After years of theological education, how could I return my psyche and my intellect to the infantile (and exceedingly dim) state that such confessional advice, and the maleficent solicitude of the ex-gay saviors, required me to adopt? I did want salvation: who doesn’t? But at such a price? At the price of pretending that falsehoods were true and that my deepest, sanest sense of who I was, who God is, what God calls us to, were all wrong?
Eventually, some center of sanity and health deep inside my battered psyche was able to hear John McNeill’s words through the loud, destructive cries many followers of Christ pound me and other gay brothers and sisters with at this point in history, and I was able to claim my identity. And my vocation, though that vocation remains mysterious to Steve and me within the framework of churches and church-related schools that have no place for us, and that attack us and use us as symbols of evil to deflect attention from the shortcomings of the churches themselves and of their leaders.
I apologize to readers (and to John McNeill) for this lengthy prologue to my review of his book. It is a story I feel compelled to tell, though, because it illustrates what a powerful, invaluable service John McNeill has done to gay Christians of our time, in providing a way for us to come to self-acceptance within the structures of a church that wants anything but self-acceptance for us. It is a story that creates a frame for a discussion of ideas that have life-and-death significance for many of us, as we struggle to live our vocation as gay believers in churches that are generally hostile and anti-Christian to us.
(Crossposted from Bilgrimage, 27 March 2009, with slight editorial changes)