Review: Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair

by John McNeill

Reviewed by Daniel Helminiak

Surely, John McNeill is one of the great heroes of gay liberation, yet his name remains unknown to many. Quietly, persistently, powerfully, he carried on his work.

His 1976 book, The Church and the Homosexual, broke open the question of homosexuality in the Catholic Church. In 1978 at a Vatican meeting of the world's Jesuit leaders, Pope John Paul II denounced McNeill by name. A Jesuit priest, theologian, and ethicist, Fr. McNeill was subsequently silenced. In respectful obedience he maintained silence for nine years.

After the Vatican's "Halloween" letter of October 30, 1986--which called homosexual orientation "an objective disorder"--McNeill spoke out again. He was summarily ousted from the Jesuits. He restructured his life and livelihood and forged a new self-identity. Through it all, he relied on his partner of thirty-two years, Charlie Chiarelli.

At age seventy and still living with Charlie, McNeill continues to lecture and write, maintaining his ministry to lesbian and gay Christians. His autobiography, Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair: My Spiritual Journey, recounts all this and more. The title of the book is a quote from one of McNeill's demeaning seminary professors who went on to predict that McNeill would be nothing but "trouble, trouble, trouble." But what stirred up "trouble" for some in the Catholic Church and brought deep suffering to McNeill has been a blessing for the rest of us. Far from being without solid footing, McNeill's book makes clear that he placed his trust in unwavering faith. Experiencing a transforming religious conversion while a prisoner during World War II, the highly anxious McNeill vowed never to let fear keep him from doing what was right. Like the saints of old, he made God his grounding.

But as in those other hallowed cases, whether his foundation has been ethereal or substantial will depend on the eyes of the beholder. In the case of those who break new ground, it is often difficult to tell whether they are in the right or in the wrong. It is precisely the courage to act in good conscience amidst such ambiguity that makes people great and saintly. So, not just an autobiography, McNeill's book is a spiritual journal. It lays bare his soul.

In addition to that first and most famous of his books, McNeill also published Taking a Change on God and Freedom, Glorious Freedom. This trilogy is John McNeill's treatise on gay spirituality. His autobiography now lets us see the man behind that spirituality and the personal spirituality of that man. McNeill lived what he wrote. His story presents an inside picture of traditional Catholic piety. There are saints' days, priestly chaplaincy, favorite prayers, retreats, church obligations, obedience to authority. There is an in-depth account of agonizing over the decision to differ with church officials--"discernment of spirits." McNeill's story holds so many memories of the old church. Yet from that very traditional piety there emerges the very contemporary spirituality of fidelity to the Holy Spirit speaking in one's own heart.

Thus, McNeill's life story exemplifies one of his key principles: the experience of gay and lesbian people themselves must be the center of religious discussion about homosexuality. Likewise, repeatedly McNeill cites and exemplifies another of his key principles: good psychology is good theology, and vice versa. Clearly the product of a former age, McNeill also points the way to the global spirituality of the new millennium. In arguing for, and embodying, the reconciliation of sexuality and spirituality, McNeill brings psychology and theology, humanity and religion, together. He gives a powerful humanist cast to his very Catholic piety--but, of course, to do such a thing is very Catholic.

McNeill's autobiography also serves as a manual on spiritual growth. The spirituality that he portrays is so very down-to-earth. There are no visions, no heavenly voices, no ecstatic experiences, no altered states of consciousness. Oftentimes these are the things that people think make someone "spiritual." (Contemporary psychologists might call it by another name!) But no, McNeill's experiences are those of ordinary people: semi-dysfunctional family life, neurotic quirks, accidents of history, serendipitous encounters, prolonged psychotherapy, the struggle to maintain ideals. McNeill's spirituality is that of the solid Judeo-Christian tradition, that of the prophets, of Jesus Christ, of the social-reformer saints of Christian history. It is a spirituality of simple honesty, justice, service, and unrelenting trust despite opposition in the midst of this world. For the gay community that often despairs of religion yet desperately seeks solid spirituality, McNeill has made an important contribution. He provided a real-life example of this down-to-earth spirituality--and in the case of one of us, a gay man with a sexual partner!

In the process, McNeill has once again made history. With unusual candor, naming names, citing specific situations, pulling no punches, neither about himself nor others, he tells the story of his life and its tortuous intertwining with the Vatican, the Jesuits, and the gay Christian movement. Almost certainly, this story would not have been told if he had not told it. To the end, like all gay people, he had to advocate his own cause. After all, the plan was to silence him. The goal was to relegate him to oblivion. So the publication of his autobiography is itself a landmark in the history of gay liberation.

Thankfully, this book will now let us all know the unsung gay hero, John McNeill, who unnerved the Roman Catholic Church. Skillfully written, carefully documented, this book needs to be read.

Daniel A. Helminiak is a former Dignity priest, a psychotherapist, and religion scholar. He now lives in Atlanta.