Taking A Chance On God
Brendan Fay's documentary "Taking A Chance on God" examines the pastoral and political life of a respected gay Jesuit priest and theologian, John McNeill, who has faced censorship and expulsion from the Roman Catholic Church--a faith currently headed by a pope who, during his days as a cardinal, issued the so-called "Halloween Letter," a ghastly edict issued in the height of the AIDS crisis that called gays "disordered" and essentially said that anyone working for GBLT equality deserved whatever punishment, including physical violence, they got.
McNeill's message is considerably different. God loves everyone, McNeill preaches, and that is no less true of gays than of anybody else. Moreover--and this is what sticks in the Church's craw--sexually intimate relationships between life partners of the same gender are every bit as sacred and just as much a part of God's plan as any mixed-gender pairing. For the Catholic orthodoxy, this is an outrageous claim; to the persistently anti-gay culture entrenched in the Catholic hierarchy, sex is about procreation, and when it comes to same-sex couples, "the parts don't fit," as one priest interviewed for this documentary puts it. McNeill, the same priest claims, is "articulating something which is counter-Catholic."
None of this dissuades McNeill, who was 85 years old when the film was made. McNeill has enjoyed a long-term partnership of his own with Charles Chiarelli, and he has recently completed a book on the subject of same-sex love and partnership. The title of the new work is "Sex As God Intended," and, McNeill's notes, the book "presents a simple and straightforward answer to the question: What did God invent sex for? The answer, derived from an incisive investigation of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, is that God intended sex as a source of pleasure, joy and love."
McNeill is also the author of the seminal book "The Church and the Homosexual," a scholarly work that examines Catholicism and homosexuality and concludes that gays--and gay relationships--should be welcomed by the Church. McNeill stepped up and spoke up at a time when gays were regarded with general suspicion and hatred. As Ginny Appuzzo (equality activist and founding president of Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center) puts it, "[E]very institution in society [was] out to get you. The medical [establishment] say you're sick; the law says you're a criminal; and the Church says you're a sinner."
McNeill tells the filmmaker that he himself knew none of this to be true, and he knew it from his own first-hand experiences of being in love with other men. His insistence on speaking up for what he knew to be true, and on providing pastoral care for GLBT people of faith, brought the hammer of the Catholic Church, as wielded by then-Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) square onto him. From McNeill's website: "One year after the publication of 'The Church and the Homosexual,' McNeill received an order from the "Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith" under Cardinal Ratzinger in the Vatican, now Pope Benedict, ordering him to silence in the public media. He observed the silence for nine years while continuing a private ministry to gays and lesbians which included psychotherapy, workshops, lectures and retreats.
"In 1988," the text at McNeill's website continues, "he received a further order from Cardinal Ratzinger directing him to give up all ministry to gay persons which he refused to do in conscience. As a result, he was expelled by the Vatican from the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) for challenging the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on the issue of homosexuality, and for refusing to give up his ministry and psychotherapy practice to gay men and lesbians. McNeill had been a Jesuit for nearly 40 years."
McNeill is a founding member of Dignity, a gay-supportive group made up of Catholics who are forced to meet in Protestant churches because the centralized authority of their own faith has ejected the organization from official Catholicism.
The film has no third-person narration; it consists of commentary from its interview subjects and images culled from archival sources, including clips that show anti-gay figures such as Anita Bryant and Jimmy Swaggart giving voice to their homophobic rhetoric. (Bryant compares gays to "prostitutes" and "thieves," while Swaggart declares that if any man looks at him with sexual desire, "I'm gonna kill him and tell God he died.") The film has a choppy feel to it, but the story it tells is unmissable: As openly gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson summarizes early on, "There is nothing so powerful as one person living his life with integrity."
The film's title is drawn from McNeill's comment about the sort of epitaph he'd like to see on his tombstone, but there's a deeper meaning to be found here. Both sides of the debate are firmly convinced they know what God wants and expects of humankind; but the wager McNeill's has taken is not about God's will. Rather, what McNeill (and any other openly gay individual) takes a chance on is the ability of his fellow human being to offer respect, civility, and compassion in everyday life. In short, we rely on other people to grant us what we already believe God has endowed--namely, equality.