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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 2, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 40
Fr. John McNeill dies at 90 'The first major prophet of the Catholic LGBT movement'
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Fr. John McNeill dies at 90 'The first major prophet of the Catholic LGBT movement'

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Fr. John McNeill, former Jesuit priest and pioneer of the Catholic LGBT movement, died September 22 at the age of 90. His long-time partner Charlie Chiarelli was at his bedside.

McNeill was one of the organizers of the Catholic LGBT organization Dignity USA in 1969, and founded the group's New York chapter in 1972. He also founded the Upper Room AIDS Ministry, which assisted homeless HIV-positive residents of Harlem.

In 1976 McNeill published a groundbreaking book, The Church and the Homosexual, and in 1998 he published his memoirs, Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair: My Spiritual Journey.

McNeill was a hero to LGBT Catholics, 'the first major prophet of the Catholic LGBT movement,' according to Dignity USA's executive director Marianne Duddy-Burke, and an antagonist of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - later Pope Benedict XVI.

McNeill was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1925 and served in Europe during World War II, where he was captured by German troops and confined in a POW camp. After the war, he returned to the United States with his spiritual outlook transformed, he said later.

In 1948 McNeill joined the Jesuit order and was ordained as a priest in 1959. He got his PhD from the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, in 1964. While there, he fell in love with another man.

McNeill met Chiarelli in 1969 and the two formed a relationship that would last 46 years until McNeill's death.

In 1976 McNeill published The Church and the Homosexual with the permission of his Jesuit superiors, who had it translated into several languages. That same year, McNeill came out as Gay on national TV, in an interview with NBC's Tom Brokaw.

McNeill was then ordered by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, to stop speaking about sexuality or risk expulsion from the church.

While he complied with Ratzinger's orders, McNeil continued to minister quietly to LGBT Catholics for many years.

However, when the Vatican issued its letter 'On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons' in 1986, he felt he could no longer keep silent.

Authored by Ratzinger and approved by the Cardinal's ally, Pope John Paul II, the document described Gay people as having a 'tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.'

McNeill spoke out against the document in statements given to the National Catholic Reporter and the New York Times and Ratzinger retaliated by ordering him to give up all ministry to LGBT people. McNeill was also expelled from the Jesuits and forbidden to say Mass, although he technically remained a Catholic priest.

McNeill took his expulsion from the Jesuits as an opportunity to speak out freely against homophobia in the Catholic Church without fear of further discipline, and he continued to be an advocate for LGBT Catholics for the rest of his life.

In 2012 McNeill was the subject of the documentary 'Taking A Chance On God' in which he spoke of having tried 'with the help of the Holy Spirit to free Gay Christians from the lies of a pathologically homophobic religion.'

In a statement announcing his death, Dignity USA executive director Marianne Duddy-Burke remembered McNeill as a pioneer activist for LGBT Catholic rights.

'His groundbreaking bravery in daring to question official Church doctrine was truly liberating to so many people. The Church and the Homosexual was really the 'coming-out' Bible for LGBT Catholics,' Duddy-Burke said.

'We offer our deepest condolences to Charlie and commend him for his faithful companionship and care-giving to John over so many years.'

McNeill's family has established a Father John J. McNeill Legacy Fund in his memory to preserve his books, articles, and interviews, and continue his work for LGBT Catholics around the world.

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