John McNeill, Lethe Press 2008.
I have just two small niggles about this book, so let me get them out of the way now. First, I was initally disappointed to find that this is not all new wrting by McNeill. Only half the book is by McNeill, and the rest is a collection of celebratory articles, a “Festchrift”, by others. This Festschrift is welcome, but even his own writing is not all new. I have not read all the previous works, but even so I recognised large chunks of the material as not just a restatement, but verbatim reprints, of sections of “Taking a Chance of God.” So big chunks of this are not new material.
Also irritating was the poor editing. McNeill appears to have gone to a new publisher, who have clearly made good use of a spell-checker – but paid insufficient attention to grammar. There were many instances where the flow of the text was interrupted by obvious missing words, with important parts of speech simply not present, leading to incomplete sentences or clauses that just did not hang together.
Celebrating John McNeill
But these were irritations only. It does not matter that this is not all new writing by McNeill, and should not be treated as such. The Festchrift is the clue: this is not a continuation, but a celebration, of the earlier work. Just running down the contributors, all of whom have made major contributions of their own to the continuing struggle of LGBT Catholics, is testimony to the importances of McNeill’s work as theologian, as writer, and as therapist. (One of the contributions is titled “You saved My Life” this is intended to be taken quite literally). Amongst the contributors, I was already familiar with the work of Toby Johnson, Mark Jordan, Robert Goss, Sister Jeannine Gramick and Daniel Helminiak. The contributions of others has left me wanting to explore their work too.
So what is this life work of McNeill, and why should we celebrate it?
“The Church and The Homosexual”, published back in 1976, was groundbreaking. Many writers since have testified to the liberating impact it has had on their own lives, and it has become a staple in the exploding bibliographies on the subject ever since. It was originally published with the blessing and ‘imprimi potest’ of his Jesuit order, but soon attracted the displeasure of the Vatican. Ordered to refrain from publication and teaching on the subject, McNeill initially complied, and fell silent for some years. In conscience though, he felt compelled to continue to write and to speak out. Like so many others, he left the priesthood and embarked on a precarious career as writer and psychotherapist. Subsequent books included “Freedom, Glorious Freedom”, “Taking a Chance on God”, and “Both Feet Planted Firmly in Midair.”
“Sex as God Intended”
In the current book, McNeill examines systematically the treatment of sexuality, particularly in same sex relationships, and finds conclusions rather different to those usually used against us. As he and others have done before, he dismisses the old interpretation of the story of Sodom as a gross misinterpretation The sin of Sodom was not that of sexual relationships between men, but the failure to offer hospitality to guests – an important traditional obligation in a desert society. Where McNeill differs from so many other writers who have made the same point, is that he is not content to simply argue against the old ‘clobber texts’. Rather, he goes further, arguing for the positive place of sexuality in the Old Testament. Highlighting Genesis 2 (the older version) rather than the more usual creation story in Genesis 1, he shows how Eve was created because Adam needed a companion, not just a mother for his children. This balances the procreative nature of marriage, so beloved by our opponents, with that of love and companionship.
An important piece of new writing in the book is a celebration of the Song of Songs, as a scriptural basis for sex as play. He also presents evidence that this may have been written to celebrate love been men. The gender of the protagonists, though is ultimately not important. The passion and ardour expressed is sufficiently powerful that the Song can be read with any interpretation you choose – but impossible to come away with the idea that sex is only about procreation.
Similarly, in examining the New Testament, McNeill’s focus is on the positive messages for LGBT Christians, rather than a repetition of arguments against the clobber texts. He shows for instance, that in his family of choice, Jesus is associating with same sex groups rather than with ‘traditional’ family groups. His analysis of the healing of the (male) ‘servant’ of the Roman centurion shows how this servant was almost certainly a sexual partner, even lover, of the centruiion. He also draws attention to the special attentions paid to John the Evangelist as “the apostle whom Jesus loved.” It has often been noted how Jesus in the Gospels has absolutely nothing to say about homosexuality. John McNeill has shown clearly that in His actions, the Lord goes much further than words in acknowledging and accepting such relationships.
Joy and the Holy Spirit.
The joy of McNeill’s writing is always his emphasis on the positive. His recurring refrains are a quotation from St Irenaus “The glory of God is humans fully alive”, an insistence that healthy psychology and healthy theology go hand in hand (and healthy psychology requires in turn healthy sexuality), and a strong underpinning of Ignatian Spirituality, in which we find God in all things – even in persecution and exclusion by the church. You can take McNeill out of the Jesuits, but you cannot take the Jesuits out of McNeill, and I thank the Lord for that.
Central to this thinking is that the Holy Spirit is constantly at work in our lives and in the world. In a context where official teaching on sexuality out of Rome is so obviously misplaced and psychologically unhealthy, it is too easy too lose one’s spiritual bearings. McNeill reminds us that where Rome fails, the Holy Spirit is permanently at hand for guidance – we need only ask.
He goes further. In an important address to Dignity, reprinted in this book, he speculates on the active participation of the Holy Spirit in the church of today, directly intervening in a ‘Kairos Moment ‘ to restore a proper balance between what has been the unbridled power of the papacy and the rest of the Church. (I am delighted that I have secured permission from McNeill to post this address in full on this blog, here.) At the time of writing, it was prescient. Given the turmoil in the church in recent weeks, and the resistance of so many to the series of Vatican fiascoes, I suspect we may now be seeing signs of just this intervention. As evidence, just see how Benedict has been forced to react to outrage over the most recent disaster concerning the SSPX by completing a nearly complete turnaround. What at one time appeared to be a slap in the face for the spirit of Vatican II has now become a firm endorsement of it!
This book may not contain significant new writing by John McNeill, but no matter. If you have not yet had the benefit of enjoying his exuberance, this will be an excellent introduction. If you have read the earlier books, then you should still buy it, read it, and circulate it, to join the celebration.
John McNeill, thank you.