John McNeill, a Roman Catholic theologian and priest who fought for acceptance of LGBT people in his church even though it resulted in his expulsion from the Jesuit order, has died at age 90.
McNeill died Tuesday while in hospice care in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., The New York Times reports. His death was announced by the LGBT Catholic group DignityUSA; he had helped found Dignity’s New York chapter in 1972.
He authored the 1976 book The Church and the Homosexual, in which “he argued that a stable, loving same-sex relationship was just as moral, and just as godly, as a heterosexual one and should be acknowledged as such by church leaders,” the Times reports. The Vatican initially gave its stamp of approval to the book but soon withdrew it, as McNeill had come out as gay on national TV and become widely known as a gay rights activist.
McNeill came out in an interview with Tom Brokaw in 1976 on the Today show. “He’s the first priest to come out on national television,” Brendan Fay, who made a 2011 documentary film about McNeill, Taking a Chance on God, told the Times.
At the time, McNeill described himself as celibate, in keeping with his priestly vows, but he was actually living with Charles Chiarelli, his partner since 1965, the paper notes.
McNeill had been ministering to gay and lesbian Catholics and advocating for gay rights since the early 1970s, but with his increasing fame, in 1977 the Vatican ordered him “not to speak or write publicly on the subject,” the Times reports. He complied, although he privately continued his ministry to gays and lesbians.
In the 1980s, motivated by the AIDS epidemic and an increasingly hard-line antigay stance from the Vatican, he decided he had to speak out. He publicly condemned a 1986 Vatican document that called homosexuality “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil,” and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a high-ranking Vatican official who would later become Pope Benedict XVI, “responded by ordering him to keep silent on the subject, and to cease his pastoral work with gays and lesbians, or risk expulsion from his order,” as the Times puts it.
McNeill opted for expulsion from the Jesuits, the order in which he had been ordained a priest in 1959. He technically remained a priest but could perform few duties related to the position. He devoted himself to a psychotherapy practice focused on LGBT clients, along with activism, teaching, and writing. In 1987, the year of his expulsion, he was grand marshal of New York City’s Pride parade.
Many LGBT rights advocates praised McNeill’s efforts. “It is not an overstatement to say that any of the pastoral, political, theological, and practical advances that LGBT Catholics have made in recent years could only have been brought about because of John’s groundbreaking work,” Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, told the National Catholic Reporter.
“John was really the first major prophet of the Catholic LGBT movement,” noted a statement from DignityUSA executive director Marianne Duddy-Burke. “Every DignityUSA president has consulted him for insights into the emerging issues of the Catholic LGBT community. His groundbreaking bravery in daring to question official church doctrine was truly liberating to so many people.”
“He was a gay man who was a Jesuit priest — and being a gay man who is a Jesuit priest, by the way, is not an unusual thing,” Mary E. Hunt, a Catholic feminist theologian and friend of McNeill’s, told the Times. “The difference is that John McNeill was honest, and he was honest early. And being honest early meant that he paid a large price.”
McNeill was motivated to go into the priesthood partly because of his experiences as a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany in World War II — starving, he was furtively given food by a fellow captive who made the sign of the cross. He continued to consider himself a priest until the end of his life. During his final hospital stay, he asked that a sign be posted on the door of his room reading, “I am a Catholic priest.”
He is survived by Chiarelli, whom he married in 2008 in Toronto, and several nieces and nephews. His family has established a memorial fund to preserve his writings for use by scholars and activists.