When I read Sex as God Intended by Fr. John McNeill, an ordained Jesuit priest, I thought of another Jesuit, Malachi Martin of New York, author of the New York Times bestseller Hostage to the Devil and (the novel) Windswept House. Both McNeill and Martin admit that the Catholic Church is in crises, but each priest has a different reason for believing this to be the case.
Fr. Martin, who died in 1999, sees the crises in the Church as stemming from the Second Vatican Council. In his numerous books, Fr. Martin posits that a group of Freemasons within the Church organized Vatican II in order to de-Catholicize it. Furthermore, Martin claims that these enemies of the Church came disguised as Cardinals and Bishops, and that their sole aim was to secularize Catholicism. The implementation of liturgical innovation (the so called Novus Ordo Mass) and the abolition of other ancient liturgical rites in the name of ecumenism or modernism, set the Church, Martin claims, on a downward spiral.
Fr. McNeill, on the other hand, believes that, “The Catholic Church with its all male celibate priesthood rapidly dying out, its insistence on hierarchical and authoritarian rule and denial of any democratic process or dialogue…is fighting tooth and nail to hold on to the old.” ‘Old’ in this case does not refer to liturgical tradition, despite the return of the Traditional Latin Mass, but to the area of faith and morals where Church doctrine has remained steadfast, despite the so-called winds of change from Pope John XXIII’s Council.
McNeill, of course, was suspended from the Jesuit order shortly after the publication of his book, The Church and the Homosexual, when he refused to stop speaking out in defense of “active” gay and lesbian Catholics. While Martin blames the “Protestantization” of the Church for its present woes — its empty seminaries and its “Gucci nuns”— McNeill sees the downward spiral as the result of the Church’s betrayal of Vatican II. This configuration of opposing influences represents the two warring factions in the Catholic Church today. This struggle, or angst, was probably best exemplified in the pontificate of John Paul II, who evoked a stringent post-Vatican II ecumenism (this was the pope, after all, who met with Voodoo priests, kissed the Koran and called it a “holy book,” but who held the line at traditional Catholic morality, especially when it came to homosexuality).
In Sex, McNeill makes the standard case why same sex love can be just as blessed as heterosexual love, and why it should be recognized as such by the Church. The book offers a same sex interpretation of the lovers in Solomon’s Song of Songs, and quotes historian John Boswell on an ancient Eastern Church rite of male friendship, or “marriage.” He reviews the familiar story of Sodom in light of recent theological interpretations: that it was the sin of inhospitality, not homosexuality that caused the city to be destroyed. He sheds light on the story of the (possibly) gay centurion and “his beloved boy,” (Matthew 8:5-13) and in Luke (7:1-10), and he intones more striking examples when he recounts the story of Saints Sergius and Bachus, two Roman soldiers who refused to worship pagan gods, and who were martyred together, as lovers.
The reader is left with the feeling that the Catholic Church—the Church that Fr. Martin called the “loadstar of Christianity, without which the rest of Christianity, would fall apart”—is not listening to the new voice of the Holy Spirit, something McNeill calls “the experiences of the people of God, or the ongoing revelation of God’s truth.”
That truth, according to McNeill, is not manifest in the current Pope who, like his predecessor, will not budge when it comes to homosexuality. However fair minded McNeill’s pleas for a democratic Church, history points to a rude truth: The Catholic Church has never been a democracy. The notion of a democratic Church is fantasy, since orthodox Catholic doctrine points to the Bishop of Rome, the successor to St. Peter, and the supposed Vicar of Christ on earth, as the one “infused” by the grace and vision of the Holy Spirit.
McNeil’s writings on spirituality are inspirational. “We should see ourselves as equals and siblings to Church authorities and pray for them as they try to discern the Spirit of God in their lives,” he advises. While advocating a detachment from the institutional church, he is not above shaking a finger at some feminist Catholic thinkers, albeit in a good-natured way. I’m referring to McNeil’s reproach to feminist theologian Mary E. Hunt, who advocates “a feminist approach to death,” a concept way off the Catholic radar screen because of its denial of individual immortality. As Hunt writes in one of the laudatory essays in the second half of the book honoring McNeill for his lifelong mission of courage, “He [McNeill] fairly bounded to the podium to protest in a classically Catholic priestly manner, stressing individual immortality.” Even a front line queer priest can be orthodox.
SEX AS GOD INTENDED:
A Reflection on Human Sexuality as Play
By John McNeill
Paperback, $20.00, 268p
Journalist Thom Nickels is the author of eight books, including “Philadelphia Architecture” and “Out in History.” His novel “Spore” will be published this summer. He blogs regularly at thomnickels.blogspot.com .