The Owls Nest

The Church and the Homosexual

The Church and the Homosexual


Originally published in 1976 with the Roman Catholic Church's official imprimi potest (permission to print) after more than three years' delay in Rome, approval was unexpectedly rescinded by the Vatican two years after publication. It was the first attempt by a reputed scholar and theologian to fully examine and challenge the Catholic Church's official traditional attitudes toward homosexuality.

This now classic book convincingly established that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality, examining in detail and refuting all the traditional arguments for condemnation of homosexuality in Scripture, tradition and philosophy. McNeill also examined the general misconceptions of human sexual development.

Now in its fourth and updated edition, The Church and the Homosexual remains one of the most widely discussed works in modern spiritual thought, "...a theologically and ethically enlightened attempt to demonstrate the intellectual baselessness of current attitudes and policies concerning homosexuality..." Publishers Weekly described McNeill's book as " important 'first', a rational yet compassionate reevaluation based on scriptural exegesis and current psychological research."

In the provocative new preface to this fourth edition, McNeill calls on the Vatican to make a public act of repentance for its homophobia.

The Church and the Homosexual is published by Beacon Press (Boston, MA).
It has also been published in:

In John McNeill's words..."my position is supported by new evidence, coming from biblical studies and from various empirical studies in the human sciences, especially psychology and sociology, that completely undermines the traditional understanding of homosexuality as a chosen and changeable state. New insights into psychosexual development leave no doubt that one has no choice about sexual orientation and that the only healthy reaction to being lesbian or gay is to accept it."

In The Church and the Homosexual, McNeill presents three theses refuting the traditional stances taken by the Christian community regarding lesbian and gay relationships:

  1. He opposed first of all, the view that God intends all human beings to be heterosexual, and that homosexuality therefore represents a deviation from God's divine plan. Based on years of intensive research and modern biblical scholarship, he demonstrates that there is no clear condemnation of loving homosexual relationships in Scripture. As McNeill explains... "Homosexual orientation has no necessary connection with sin, sickness, or failure; rather it is a gift from God to be accepted and lived out with gratitude... Human beings do not choose their sexual orientation; they discover it as something given."
  2. The second thesis of The Church and the Homosexual is that homosexuals, rather being a menace or threat to the values of society and the family, as right wing conservatives and politicians have assumed, have special gifts and qualities and a very positive contribution as a part of God's creative plan, to make to the development of society. "Indeed, if lesbians and gay men were to disappear, the further development of society toward greater humaneness would be seriously endangered."
  3. In the third thesis of the book, McNeill argues that the love between two lesbians or gay men, assuming that it is a constructive human love, is not can be a holy love, mediating God's presence in the human community as effectively as heterosexual love. "Every human being has a God-given right to sexual love and intimacy."

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Further insights into the major theses and purpose of the book are provided in the Preface to the Fourth Edition from The Church and The Homosexual reproduced here:

Preface to the Fourth Edition

I still remember our joy that Sunday in 1976 when I announced at the New York Dignity liturgy that I had received an official Imprimi Potest, the approval for the publication of my book The Church and the Homosexual from my superiors in the Society of Jesus. It was, I believe, one of the first theological works in recent times that called for a revision of the traditional Catholic Church teaching on homosexuality.

After more than four years of exhaustive research to write the book, the Imprimi Potest was obtained only after an additional two years of intense review by leading moral theologians both in the United States and in Rome. They were unanimous in recommending that the book be published. I naively assumed that by granting me an Imprimi Potest, the Church, in the liberating spirit that followed Vatican II, was ready and willing to reexamine its teaching on homosexuality and that approving my book for publication was the first step in that process. The theologians who reviewed the manuscript believed, as I did, that the new evidence coming from the fields of scriptural studies, history, psychology, sociology, and moral theology seriously challenged every premise on which the traditional teaching was based. They anticipated, as I did, that my book would begin a public debate on Church teaching that would eventually lead to the Church's revision of its understanding of homosexuality. I had hoped that my book would lead to a revision of teaching on homosexuality not only in the Roman Catholic Church but also in the entire Christian community.

From the beginning, I envisioned the personal witness of gay and lesbian Catholics and other Christians to be an essential contribution to that debate. They could testify about what happened to them when they strove to live both as gays and according to Church teachings. My own work in the gay community as priest and psychotherapist and as one of the founders of Dignity/New York, an organization for gay and lesbian Catholics, made me keenly aware of the enormous amount of pain, psychological trauma, and potential emotional breakdown there. Because this unnecessary suffering was caused by the interiorization of Church teaching, I felt a certain urgency for the need of public debate. What was bad psychology had to be bad theology and vice versa.

Our early joy was short-lived, however. One year later, in 1977, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) ordered the removal of the Imprimi Potest from my book. Because of my appearances on popular television programs such as "Today" and "The Phil Donahue Show," they accused me of violating a nonexistent agreement that the public discussion would take place only among my peers in the theological community. A blanket silence was imposed on me by the CDF and I was forbidden to discuss the issue of homosexuality and morality in the public arena.

Instead of allowing public debate on homosexuality, the Church fell back on its "creeping infallibility," claiming that its teaching was based on "divine revelation" and, therefore, was not open to change, regardless of any new evidence to support that change. (In fact, no moral teaching on sexuality is infallibly defined.) They justified their silencing me by claiming that I had created the false impression that the Church had cbanged or was about to change its teaching on homosexuality. The CDF hastened to assure the world that no matter how much evidence supported the argument for change, the Church would never alter its teaching in this matter. "This is true because we say it is true. Don't bother us with the facts!"

From that day to this, for nearly seventeen years, the hierarchical Church has used its power and influence to silence any critic of its teaching on homosexuality. The dismissal of Charles Curran from the theology faculty at the Catholic University of America is another example. The debate has continued, however, among the laity. There has been such a massive shift of opinion in the pews that now more than 84 percent of Catholics support gay civil rights.

For ten years, until 1987, I observed the silence imposed on me by not speaking in public. During that period, my book was published around the world in five different languages. I had agreed to observe the silence, again in the hope that over time the Church would consider the evidence and begin a process of reevaluation. The American bishops did take several progressive steps toward liberalizing pastoral practice based on the distinction between homosexual orientation, which is neither chosen nor changeable, and homosexual behavior, which they continued to judge as contrary to God's will. They also called for legislation protecting the civil rights of gay people. But every time any move was made toward a better understanding and spiritual care of gay people, the Vatican intervened demanding that the Catholic Church in the United States maintain a homophobic stance on all gay issues. The best example of that interference is the Vatican demand in 1987 that all Dignity chapters be denied their right to meet on Church grounds.

One major event in the struggle between gay Catholics and the Vatican was the release of the Vatican "Halloween" letter by Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on 31 October 1986: "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons." Rome took a giant step backward when it asserted that homosexual orientation was not a natural condition but represented an "objective disorder" and was an 'orientation to evil." Since most gay people experience their homosexual orientation as a part of creation, if they accept this Church teaching, they must see God as sadistically creating them with an intrinsic orientation to evil. Most gays would prefer to see the Church teaching as wrong, rather than believe God is sadistic.

The Vatican document went so far in its hatred of all things gay as to assert that if homosexuals continue to claim "unthinkable" civil rights, then they should not be surprised by the violence inflicted upon them by gay-bashers and have only themselves to blame. This statement has been interpreted in some quarters as encouraging violence against gay people. Cardinal Ratzinger's letter even suggested that it is gay activists and the professionals who try to help gays achieve self-acceptance who are responsible for the AIDS epidemic: "Even when the practice of homosexuality may seriously threaten the lives and well-being of a large number of people, its advocates remained undeterred and refused to consider the magnitude of the risks involved."

In my more than twenty years' experience of pastoral care with thousands of gay Catholics and other Christians, the gay men most likely to act out their sexual needs in an unsafe, compulsive way and, therefore, to expose themselves to the HIV virus, are precisely those persons who have internalized the self-hatred that their religions impose on them. They are precisely the ones who, while they find it impossible to suppress and deny their sexual needs totally, cannot enter into a healthy and committed intimacy with anyone because of this self-hatred.

In a recent letter to the New York Times (2 September 1992), Richard Isay, chairman of the American Psychiatric Association committee on gay, lesbian, and bisexual affairs, points out that the suppression of sexuality, whether by religion, the state, or therapists who claim they can change homosexuals into heterosexuals, significantly damages the self-esteem of gay men and lesbians. It subverts their capacity to express their sexuality in mutually loving relationships. Interiorized self-hatred contributes to the extraordinan]y high suicide rate of gay and lesbian youth, estimated at more than 30 percent of all youth suicide. ..................

In perhaps one of the strongest statements ever against a Vatican document, the Major Superiors of Religious Men said:

We view ["Some Considerations Concerning... Homosexual Persons"] as a hindrance
to the Church leaders of the United States in this most difficult and sensitive area
of human living. It is particularly open to misrepresentation and confusion during the
present political campaign in the United States.
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 documents will cause in the psychic life of young Catholic gays, and of the violence they will provoke against all gay people. 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?

At this point, the ignorance and distortion of homosexuality, the use of "stereotypes and falsehoods" in an official Vatican document, leads us who are gay Catholics to issue the Vatican a serious warning. Your ignorance can no longer be excused as inculpable; it has become of necessity a deliberate and malicious ignorance. In the name of all Catholic gays, and gays and lesbians everywhere, I cry out "Enough!" Enough of your distortions of Scripture that make homosexuals the scapegoats of every disaster! Jesus himself in Luke 10:10 recognized the sin of Sodom as inhospitality to the stranger, yet you support the interpretation of that sin as homosexual activity. Through the centuries you have supported sodomy laws that have sent thousands of gays to their deaths. You continue to claim that a loving homosexual act is condemned in Scripture, when competent scholars are nearly unanimous in admitting that nowhere in Scripture is there a clear condemnation of sexual acts between two gay men or lesbians who love each other.

"Enough!" Enough of your effort to reduce all homosexual acts to expressions of lust, and of your refusal to see them as expressions of deep, genuine human love! Enough of your effort 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 and hate, and lose all hope in a God of love! Enough of your recent efforts to foster hatred and discrimination against us in the human community! Enough of an ignorance for which there is no excuse. Enough of driving us from the home of our mother, the Church, and denying us the fullness of human life and sexual love. Enough of fostering discrimination against us, even violence and gay-bashing. We cried out to you for bread, you gave us a scorpion instead!

Obviously, you could enter into dialogue with the rest of the human community, especially the gay members of that community, to search for the truth under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the complex issue of homosexuality. But never was there a mandate from Jesus Christ for you to create the truth by fiat.

At this point the words of Ezekiel apply to you Catholic shepherds:

Trouble for the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Shepherds ought to feed
their flock.... You have failed to make weak sheep strong, or to care for the sick
ones, or bandage the wounded ones. You have failed to bring back strays or look for
the lost. On the contrary, you have ruled them cruelly and violently. For lack of
a shepherd they have scattered, to become the prey of any wild animal; they have
scattered far.... Well then, shepherds, hear the word of Yahwey. As I live, I swear it
-it is the Lord Yahwey who speaks.... I am going to call my shepherds to account.
I am going to take back my flock from them and I shall not allow them to feed my
flock.... I shall rescue my sheep from their mouths; they will not prey on them anymore.
We gay and lesbian Catholics pray daily that the Holy Spirit will lead you into a spirit of repentance. Just as you apologized to the Jews for supporting anti-semitism for centuries, so today you must repent and apologize for the centuries of support you have given homophobia. We pray that the Holy Spirit will strengthen you so that you can let go of the hubris that does not allow you to admit past errors. We pray that the Holy Spirit will lead you to search humbly for the truth concerning homosexuality through dialogue with your gay brothers and lesbian sisters.

The only consolation I can offer gays and lesbians in the meantime is the profound hope that the very absurdity and hateful spirit of the Vatican documents will lead lay Catholics to refuse them and to recognize the contradiction between their message and that of Jesus, who never once spoke a negative word concerning homosexuality.

I work, hope, and pray that lesbian and gay Catholics and other 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 defang the poisons of pathologically homophobic religion, accepting the good news that God loves and accepts them as gay and refusing to be caught in the vortex of self-hatred vis-à-vis a God of fear.

I am aware of hundreds of gay people who have found peace and self-acceptance in part because of this book. I hope and pray that God will continue to use my work as an instrument of peace and reconciliation for hundreds of others.

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