by Peter Cajka

After the 1960s a group of Catholic intellectuals attempted to control the sexual revolution. By control I do not mean refute or resist, as Catholics are normally said to have done. Some historians even note that Catholic blowbacka culture war—may be seen as established narrative. Rather, control meant a type of management which entailed embracing sexual freedoms while channeling newfound liberties into acceptable ends. This particular intellectual project commenced in the 1970s, in the years just after the movement for gay liberation and the Church’s global debate over birth control and the “science” behind sexual morality. And, it was full of ironies. These Catholic scholars moved away from heterosexual marriage but maintained the importance monogamy. They accepted masturbation as reasonable but warned against its excesses. They criticized celibacy but recognized the value of sexual asceticism. Catholic scholars of this persuasion hoped to guide the sexual revolution to a safe outcome.

The two Catholic intellectuals I write about, the social scientist Eugene Kennedy and the philosopher-turned-activist John McNeill, lived and theorized these ideas at the crossroads of religion and sex. Both men were educated by religious orders and became clergymen but later left the priesthood. They chose long-term monogamous relationships over a life of celibacy. Kennedy parted ways with the Maryknoll order in 1979 and married a former nun. Kennedy parted ways with the Maryknoll order in 1979 and married Sarah Charles, a former Maryknoll nun with a PhD in psychiatry. Charles, along with Marianne Benkert, a former nun also with a PhD in psychiatry who married Richard Sipe (mentioned below), help to exemplify the lived relationship between religion and the sexual revolution. McNeill left the Jesuits in 1986 and maintained his long-term relationship with Charles Chiarelli, a partnership that began several years prior (James P. McCartin, “The Church and Gay Liberation: The Case of John McNeill”) These spiritual and romantic journeys reflect the ways these men thought post-1960s freedom ought to eventually settle into disciplined patterns of living.

Kennedy and McNeill are also two of the main figures in my latest book project. They—along with feminist ethicist Sister Margaret Farley, medieval historian John Boswell, and interdisciplinary sexologist Richard Sipe—created an intellectual movement that promised a middle path between sexual revolution and sexual conservativism. Working extensively in the archives of these five intellectuals with assistance from a Short-Term Fellowship at Yale’s Beinecke Library, I intend to dive deeply into the argumentation of one of the most unique moments of post-war American Catholic intellectual history.

In addition to the set of five American intellectuals above, the wider global circle of this movement includes Canadian ethicist André Guindon, Russian émigré Gregory Zilboorg, British historian Alan Bray, Dutch biblical scholar T. C. De Kruijf, and French psychoanalyst Marc Oraison (John McGreevy, Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis). Several American Catholic intellectuals, like psychoanalyst Leo Bartemeier and sociologist Andrew Greely, also made important contributions to this body of work. (As Brenna Moore has recently reminded the field of Catholic Intellectual History, we have many important thinkers waiting to be discovered through a novel framing and analyzed with a new language. On the one hand, because these Catholic thinkers used the tools of history, social science, sexology, and psychology, we might call them modernists. On the other hand, because they sat to the left of the Vatican but to the right of secular sexual revolutionaries, we might also label them non-radical reformers. Labels of course matter, but less so than explicating the desire at the heart of this movement: the careful management of the sexual revolution in a Catholic quest for a “true freedom.”

Many Catholic scholars sparred openly with the Vatican. Oraison, a priest in the Archdiocese of Paris, managed to get one of his works listed on the Index of Forbidden Books in 1966. Time magazine covered the story for an American audience. Farley and Guindon received official rebukes from the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, the investigative office of the Vatican. Kennedy managed to escape the notice of Church authorities (due, perhaps, to his status as a social scientist; he worked outside of the theology, the Church’s central academic discipline). But McNeill found himself silenced by Joseph Ratzinger in the early 1980s and later barred from ministering to gay Catholics in New York City. These censures prompted McNeill’s painful choice to leave the Jesuits in 1987.

With this historical climate in mind, I canvass two strategies Catholic intellectuals pursued to manage the sexual revolution. The first, demonstrated by Kennedy’s concept of “Sexual Fascism,” shows how Catholic intellectuals viewed a total and unrelenting sexual revolution as a threat to the individual person. Kennedy wrote at length about sexual authoritarianism in his 1972 book, The New Sexuality. Critiques of the sexual revolution place our story in line with a longer history of Catholic criticism of political modernity. Kennedy authored over 30 books and dozens of articles during his long career as a professor of psychology at Loyola University Chicago from 1969 to 1995. Sexuality occupied a place of importance in his many writings. His archives, can be found at the University of Notre Dame, my home institution.

The second strategy entailed the sublimation of sexual freedom into personal discipline. We can see this tactic clearly in the ways John McNeill wrote about love. McNeill understood love as the gift of Christian freedom but also the product of self-discipline and self-formation. McNeill spent the early part of his priesthood as a philosopher specializing in the works of nineteenth century French Catholic thinker Maurice Blondel. With the publication of The Church and the Homosexual in 1976, McNeill entered a new phase of his career as an activist. The book, receiving strong visibility in the gay liberation movement, proved to be both influential and controversial. I recently worked in the John McNeill and Charles Chiarelli Gay and Lesbian Liberation Collection in Berkely, California. The rich sources showed how McNeill transvaluated his readings of existentialism into a theory of Catholic gay liberation (Cf. Edward Baring, Converts to the Real, 2019).


A critique of perceived excesses of the sexual revolution underwrote the Catholic quest for a new sexual order. In fact, Kennedy offered a particularly stark denunciation of the sexual revolution when he called it “sexual fascism” in his 1972 book, The New Sexuality. Sexual fascism comprises “a blind and somewhat impersonal force generated by non-sexual kinds of commercial interest and enterprise” (The New Sexuality, 89). The free market ginned up myths about sex that became a domineering cultural pressure by way of a mass of people assuming the same uncritical ideas. Kennedy’s notions of fascism will look familiar to intellectual historians whose libraries include dog-eared copies of Horkheimer and Adorno’s The Dialectic of Enlightenment and David Reisman’s Lonely Crowd. The sexual revolution spawned its own “culture industry” that pumped out “other-directed” individuals eager to conform to social conventions.

Kennedy thought the primary myth Americans believed and imposed on one another was that sex could and should be de-personalized. Men and women who bought into the sexual revolution believed that more and more rounds of depersonalized sex meant more and more good sex (The New Sexuality, 10–12). As individuals de-personalized sex they obliged the idea on other segments of the population by touting it as a social advancement and the product of a wider sexual revolution. Everyone is doing it. You should too. Adult book stores served as training grounds where “rather pleasant-looking Americans who seem humorless and slightly anxious” became sexual fascism’s foot soldiers (The New Sexuality, 32). There, normal people began to decouple sex from emotion and render it mechanistic. Playboy emboldened men to de-personalize sex, casting the reaches of the myth even further.

Kennedy concluded in the early 1970s that the sexual revolution eclipsed the critical powers of ethical reasoning, making men and women into sex machines. Sexual authoritarianism “demands obedience from all” and expects a “uniform response” (The New Sexuality, 88). It abolished freedom and terminated personal responsibility. Sexual totalitarianism ignored “the context of genuine human relationships,” the “context of his personality,” and the “human context” (The New Sexuality, 90, 27 ,7). Turning a classic twentieth century Catholic phrase, Kennedy blasted sexual authoritarianism as lacking “compassion for the human person” (The New Sexuality, 36). Historians have recounted the use of personalism by Catholic intellectuals like Jacques Maritain and Yves Congar in the 1930s and 1940s to contest political totalitarianism.[i] After 1970, scholars like Kennedy invoked the term in discussions of sexuality.

What is striking about Kennedy’s approach is how he mobilized psychology and sexology to staunch the sexual revolution. The New Sexuality is stocked with insights from journals like The Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality and sexological classics such as Human Sexual Response by William Masters and Virginia Johnson. According to Kennedy, these studies offered evidentiary support for the rewards of monogamy and emotionally-meaningful sex between committed partners. Millions, under the sway of sexual fascism, misread such texts as countenancing repeated libidinal releases.

But sexual fascism’s ostensible conquest was ironically not total. It was not possible to de-personalize sex. Stated another way, the psychoanalyst in Kennedy thought a mechanized sexuality eventually resulted in a catastrophic psychic reckoning for the individual. Even as men and women became sex robots, Kennedy argued, the unconscious knew that sex in fact could never be de-personalized. “He is groaning rather than offering a revolutionary cry,” Kennedy wrote, “he just cannot tell us why it hurts even though he knows where.”[ii] Guilt ensued because depersonalized sex did not satisfy the cravings of the human person. Kennedy concluded that sexual fascism, then, proved incapable of accomplishing its own, most basic ends. It was bad for many reasons but chief among them is that sexual fascism prevented what Catholic intellectuals like Kennedy referred to as “integration” of sex with the “human personality.” As sexual totalitarianism moved sex outside the person, it left the individual unable to truly humanize sex. A truly Christian and socially scientific understanding of the person showed how an individual developed into a mature moral agent. Kennedy, like his confreres, wanted to have a sexual revolution, but on his own Christian and moral terms.


These Catholic intellectuals made love the most important criteria for making a sexual act moral. But the term, ubiquitous in John McNeill’s 1976 smash hit, The Church and the Homosexual, is in need of an extended analysis from the intellectual historian.

To understand love, or what McNeill thought it capable of, we can start with his use of the bible. McNeill, deploying the latest biblical scholarship, marshalled books from Genesis from to the Gospel to support his broader claims for the moral legitimacy of same-sex monogamy. As expressions of love, he argued, same-sex relations found support in the bible. If one strategy of Catholic sexual modernism was to condemn the sexual revolution, another was channeling its considerable energies to “proper” outcomes.

The creation story long served the Catholic Church’s argument for marriage as between a man and a woman, and the placement of sex into the parameters of heterosexual marriage. McNeill mobilized Dutch theologian T. C. De Kruijf’s 1966 book The Bible on Sexuality to suggest that God made Adam and Eve partners for a different reason: quite simply, so that nobody lived alone. According to McNeill, the bible did not offer a straightforward case for heterosexual marriage. “Mutual love and fulfillment” along with a “respect for the other person” stood as biblical norms for sexuality (The Church and the Homosexual, 63). Dishonoring a partner, rather than who you took as a partner, became a sin. For him, a sexuality motivated by love to create more love, and sex as a set of actions that recognized the dignity of the partner, found total support in the Old Testament. It is worth noting that American intellectuals often turned to Adam and Eve for reform. Enlightenment feminist Judith Sargent Murry and antebellum feminist Sarah Grimke adduced the creation story as evidence of the equality between men and women. McNeill, building on a generation of biblical scholarship, reinterpreted the creation story as an argument for same-sex monogamy.

The New Testament undid the imagined moral links between sex and procreation. McNeill understood the arrival of Christ, and his Resurrection, to have replaced the blood ties of the clan, customs, or family, with interpersonal love. McNeill viewed the application of interpersonal love to sexuality as a rather logical extension of Gospel values. Marriages between men and women did not possess a monopoly on love. “One can no longer identify the love between humans that makes them the likeness of God univocally with the heterosexual relationship in marriage,” declared McNeill (The Church and the Homosexual, 63). McNeill supports this conclusion by citing Christ’s inclusion of the eunuch in the Kingdom of God (Acts of the Apostles 8:26–39 and in Matthew 19:12). This version of Biblical love does heavy lifting for McNeill.

What made love so powerful was its status as the end-product of self-discipline and discernment. Love is a useful category for McNeill not only because of its obvious place in the Christian tradition but because it helped to make some modes of sexuality “good” by sidelining other modes of sexuality as “bad.” According to McNeill, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Paul’s Letters to Romans, offered a clear denunciation of lust. These books condemned “perverse homosexual activity” as lust, especially same-sex acts of pleasure indulged in by heterosexuals. Yet, rather importantly, these books did not condemn homosexuality if it is a form of love-based monogamy. McNeill argues that the bible “justified morally” those sexual actions that are “true expressions of human love” (The Church and the Homosexual, 65). Love distinguished between “perverse homosexuality” and “true homosexuality” (The Church and the Homosexual, 37–42). In order to corral sexuality, one should be sure to make it an expression of love.

McNeill ends in a fashion very similar to Kennedy. He focuses on upholding the dignity of the human persons in sexual relations. The individual must tame the self so that “their sexual drive can be totally at the disposition to achieve union in love with their fellow human beings and with God” (The Church and the Homosexual, 66). Sex then offers an “escape” from promiscuity and shows that the individual is growing as a “human being” (The Church and the Homosexual, 66). This type of sex upholds the dignity of the partner.


These Catholic reformers aimed to liberate the sexual from older norms while at least partially subduing this historic libido’s energy. I have suggested that they were adroit managers of sexuality. Scholars like McNeill and Kennedy drew upon a wide range of intellectual tools—sociology, psychology, sexology, ethics—to achieve this great sublimation. I am partial (I study Catholic thought, after all) but Catholic scholars deserve more consideration than the culture war depiction allows. They clashed with sexual revolutionaries and the Vatican but (perhaps) influenced the sexual ethics of millions of people.

[i] See Samuel Moyn, Christian Human Rights (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015); Piotr H. Kosicki, Catholics on the Barricades: Poland, France, and ‘Revolution,’ 1891-1956 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018);  James Chappel, Catholic Modern: The Challenge of Totalitarianism and the Remaking of the Church (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018); Sarah Shortall, Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021).

[ii] On the Protestant side of these debates, see Heather R. White, Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

Peter Cajka is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame, where he also serves as Director of Undergraduate Studies. He is the author of Follow Your Conscience: The Catholic Church and the Spirit of the Sixties (University of Chicago Press, 2021). He teaches classes on the Sixties, the Vietnam War, the Culture Wars, Catholicism, and Intellectual History.

Edited By Dennis Wieboldt III and Jacob Saliba

Featured image: Father John McNeill, center, Roman Collar, discusses his book The Church and the Homosexual with the audience of the Phil Donahue Show in 1976. The John J. McNeill and Charles Chiarelli Gay and Lesbian Liberation Collection, Box 8, Folder 4.