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John McNeill’s Prophetic Gay Theology: Sex As God Intended, Part 1

John McNeill

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)

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8 Responses

  1. Thank you for sharing some of your story. You honor us with your honesty.

    • Regina, thanks. I’m glad to hear that the posting was useful, and thanks for your comment about my attempt to write with honesty. That’s something very important to me as I write, and it is very meaningful to have readers affirm it.

  2. […] John McNeill’s Prophetic Gay Theology: “Sex as God Intended Part 1” ( William Lindsey) […]

  3. […] more discussion of his published books, such as “Taking a Chance on God” and “Sex As God Intended” […]

  4. Our conscience is to be our guide. Why? Because God(Christ) speaks to us through our God given conscience. Our experience in the end forms our conscience. Church Teaching is the First Court as it were. But the Supreme Court must be our conscience; this conscience, to be sincere, must be “informed”. Hence we ought to consider all the evidence. Church Teaching is the first evidence we consider, but our experience must be considered as well. The chief part of our experience is “Our peace of Mind”. If we are active homosexuals, let’s be honest with ourselves. In a gay relationship or any other sexual activity based on our homosexuality, such as masturbation (performed with gay images in mind, such as shirtless men), if we can sincerely experience a closeness to Christ, especially in receiving the Eucharist, that is a very good sign that at least at this time in my circumstances, I remain united to Christ. If I feel my love for Jesus increasing, and my love and serving others is flourishing, I can be morally certain that my activity is truly good and healthy for me.
    Church Teaching & My Experience (of God’s love in my active sexual life) are somewhat like the relationship of Faith & Reason. If our “experience” gives strong signs (as cited above) that Jesus accepts our homosexual acts as good in his eyes, if we have peace of mind, if we can still pray sincerely and sense our closeness to Jesus, then we should proceed with gay sexual activity in joy and peace.
    All the while, in our prayer we ought to ask God for His guidance. We must not rule out the possibility that God will lead us to a better way to please Him and further deepen our love for Him & neighbour. A way which may transcend loving sexual acts. We are “slow learners” and must never say “case closed”. We must always be open to the continual learing process which makes progress only with and by the power of the Holy Spirit.
    Reception of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ is the chief source of our life. Only through the Eucharist can we continually live in Him and He in us. Seize any time that Christ draws near; welcome Him and be nourished by Him. Do not fear Christ; he comes to support and lead us to all Truth by His Holy Spirit. Thanks.

    P.S. I am a retired Catholic gay priest known for being conservative in such matters, but more recently I can see the constructive and healthy role that a gay relationship can play in our life. Of course my opinion above envisages a loving, not a selfish or destructive, relationship.

    • Wow, Any sexual act outside of marriage(Man and woman) is a selfish act. Masturbation is a selfish act. All of these perverse actions, must be offered in confession and then as Jesus said. ” Go and sin no more.”
      Any other thoughts are not in Gods Plan. The Church is the teaching arm of God. Whether or not you accept that is your choice. But only through Jesus will you be saved. Consecrate yourself to your mothers heart( Mary) allow her to lead you to her Son’s Divine merciful heart..

      • I see. So you’re willing to consign the majority of your fellow Catholics who practice contraception in their marriages to the outer darkness because . . . ? The church can’t be wrong? And can’t change its moral teachings?

        But the cases of usury and slavery prove otherwise.

        There seems to be a certain arrogance (not to mention, hard-heartedness) in your assumption that you have the superior vantage point and that you represent Catholic truth in a unique way, which allows you to condemn others to outer darkness.

    • Thank you for your reply.

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