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A thousand years ago, the Catholic Church paid little attention to homosexuality

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Pope Francis has spoken openly about homosexuality. In a recent interview, the pope said that homosexual tendencies “are not a sin.” And a few years ago, in comments made during an in-flight interview, he said,

“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

However, the pope has also discouraged homosexual men from entering the priesthood. He categorically stated in another interview that for one with homosexual tendencies, the “ministry or the consecrated life is not his place.”

Many gay priests, when interviewed by The New York Times, characterized themselves as being in a “cage” as a result of the church’s policies on homosexuality.

As a scholar specializing in the history of the Catholic Church and gender studies, I can attest that 1,000 years ago, gay priests were not so restricted. In earlier centuries, the Catholic Church paid little attention to homosexual activity among priests or laypeople.

Open admission of same-sex desires

St. Aelred.
Alexander Penrose Forbes

While the church’s official stance prohibiting sexual relations between people of the same sex has remained constant, the importance the church ascribes to the “sin” has varied. Additionally, over centuries, the church only sporadically chose to investigate or enforce its prohibitions.

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Prior to the 12th century, it was possible for priests – even celebrated ones like the 12th-century abbot and spiritual writer St. Aelred of Riveaulx – to write openly about same-sex desire, and ongoing emotional and physical relationships with other men.

Biblical misunderstandings

The Bible places as little emphasis on same-sex acts as the early church did, even though many Christians may have been taught that the Bible clearly prohibits homosexuality.

Judeo-Christian scriptures rarely mention same-sex sexuality. Of the 35,527 verses in the Catholic Bible, only seven – 0.02% – are sometimes interpreted as prohibiting homosexual acts.

Even within those, apparent references to same-sex relations were not originally written or understood as categorically indicting homosexual acts, as in modern times. Christians before the late 19th century had no concept of gay or straight identity.

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For example, Genesis 19 records God’s destruction of two cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, by “sulphur and fire” for their wickedness. For 1,500 years after the writing of Genesis, no biblical writers equated this wickedness with same-sex acts. Only in the first century A.D. did a Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, first mistakenly equate Sodom’s sin with same-sex sexuality.

Depiction of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
John Martin

It took centuries for a Christian consensus to agree with Philo’s misinterpretation, and it eventually became the accepted understanding of this scripture, from which the derogatory term “sodomite” emerged.

Today, however, theologians generally affirm that the wickedness God punished was the inhabitants’ arrogance and lack of charity and hospitality, not any sex act.

Religious scholars have similarly researched the other six scriptures that Christians in modern times claim justify God’s categorical condemnation of all same-sex acts. They have uncovered how similar mistranslations, miscontextualizations, and misinterpretations have altered the meanings of these ancient scriptures to legitimate modern social prejudices against homosexuality.

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For example, instead of labeling all homosexual acts as sinful in the eyes of God, ancient Christians were concerned about excesses of behavior that might separate believers from God. The apostle Paul criticized same-sex acts along with a list of immoderate behaviors, such as gossip and boastfulness, that any believer could overindulge in.

He could not have been delivering a blanket condemnation of homosexuality or homosexuals because these concepts would not exist for 1,800 more years.

Gay sex, as such, usually went unpunished

Early church leaders didn’t seem overly concerned about punishing those who engaged in homosexual practice. I have found that there is a remarkable silence about homosexual acts, both in theologies and in church laws for over 1,000 years, before the late 12th century.

When early Christian commentators such as John Chrysostom, one of the most prolific biblical writers of the fourth century, criticized homosexual acts, it was typically part of an ascetic condemnation of all sexual experiences.

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Moreover, it was generally not the sex act itself that was sinful but some consequence, such as how participating in an act might violate social norms like gender hierarchies. Social norms dictated that men be dominant and women passive in most circumstances.

If a man took on the passive role in a same-sex act, he took on the woman’s role. He was “unmasculine and effeminate,” a transgression of the gender hierarchy that Philo of Alexandria called the “greatest of all evils.” The concern was to police gender roles rather than sex acts, in and of themselves.

Before the mid-12th century, the church grouped sodomy among many sins involving lust, but their penalties for same sex-relations were very lenient if they existed or were enforced at all.

Church councils and penance manuals show little concern over the issue. In the early 12th century, a time of church revival, reform and expansion, prominent priests and monks could write poetry and letters glorifying love and passion – even physical passion – toward those of the same sex and not be censured.

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Instead, it was civil authorities that eventually took serious interest in prosecuting the offenders.

The years of hostility

By the end of the 12th century, the earlier atmosphere of relative tolerance began to change. Governments and the Catholic Church were growing and consolidating greater authority. They increasingly sought to regulate the lives – even private lives – of their subjects.

The Third Lateran Council of 1179, a church council held at the Lateran palace in Rome, for example, outlawed sodomy. Clerics who practiced it were either to be defrocked or enter a monastery to perform penance. Laypeople were more harshly punished with excommunication.

Thomas Aquinas.
Carlo Crivelli

It might be mentioned that such hostility grew, not only toward people engaging in same-sex relations but toward other minority groups as well. Jews, Muslims and lepers also faced rising levels of persecution.

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While church laws and punishments against same-sex acts grew increasingly harsh, they were, at first, only sporadically enforced. Influential churchmen, such as 13th-century theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas and popular preacher Bernardino of Siena, known as the “Apostle of Italy,” disagreed about the severity of sin involved.

By the 15th century, however, the church conformed to social opinions and became more vocal in condemning and prosecuting homosexual acts, a practice that continues to today.

Priests fear retribution today

Today, the Catholic Catechism teaches that desiring others of the same sex is not sinful but acting on those desires is.

As the Catechism says, persons with such desires should remain chaste and “must be accepted with respect and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” Indeed, Catholic ministries such as DignityUSA and New Ways Ministries seek to serve and advocate for this population.

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Yet gay priests are in a different category. They live and work under mandatory celibacy, often in same-sex religious orders. Pope Francis I has encouraged them to be “perfectly responsible” to avoid scandal, while discouraging other gay men from entering the priesthood.

Many fear retribution if they cannot live up to this ideal. For the estimated 30-40% of U.S priests who are gay, the openness of same-sex desire among clerics of the past is but a memory.The Conversation

Lisa McClain, Professor of History and Gender Studies, Boise State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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How Teach for America evolved into an arm of the charter school movement

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When the Walton Family Foundation announced in 2013 that it was donating $20 million to Teach For America to recruit and train nearly 4,000 teachers for low-income schools, its press release did not reveal the unusual terms for the grant.

Documents obtained by ProPublica show that the foundation, a staunch supporter of school choice and Teach For America’s largest private funder, was paying $4,000 for every teacher placed in a traditional public school — and $6,000 for every one placed in a charter school. The two-year grant was directed at nine cities where charter schools were sprouting up, including New Orleans; Memphis, Tennessee; and Los Angeles.

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Why do conservatives hate Oberlin College so much?

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When I was an undergraduate at Oberlin in the mid-Aughts, there was a student in my class year who was obsessed with 19th-century British Royal Naval culture. Every Friday evening, he would host a sing-along in a dorm lounge, for which he would bring xeroxes of historical sea shanty lyrics and pass them around so that we could sing along, waving our glasses of “grog.” This was a semi-established event — he had distributed flyers around campus advertising the weekly British Royal Naval sea-shanty singalong and grog-drinking event, which would extend late into the night. Though he was not a resident of the dorm where it took place, he was welcomed into the lounge by its members, and became a fixture of sorts.Like many well-endowed liberal arts schools in rural areas, Oberlin College functions as a sort of de facto social welfare state, and is designed to encourage and cultivate one’s passions, even if they are not strictly academic. Thus, after writing up a proposal for the student-run activities board, the same student, the British Royal Navy culture guy, was able to plan, organize and execute a ticketed Royal Naval Ball, held in the atrium of the science center. The event featured 20 dishes of authentic British era-appropriate cuisine, cooked by student chefs, several courses of wine and port, and a violinist present to play period-specific music. The whole affair culminated with a traditional, British partner line dance — its sole inauthenticity the fact that we didn’t pay attention to our dance partners’ genders the way the Brits would have.
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2020 Election

Here are 5 reasons why 2020’s down-ballot races could reshape America’s future

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The political press always tends to focus mostly on the marquee race for the White House but that's especially true this cycle, as Donald Trump runs for a second term. He demands attention and his antics enrage his opponents and delight his supporters in equal measure.

But national reporters risk missing the big picture by centering so much of their reporting at the top when many of the most important political battles in 2020 will take place further down the ballot.

Trump is catnip for reporters and their editors, but the dearth of coverage of downballot races didn't begin with his election. As the news media in general faces structural changes—with print circulation declining and much of their work moving into digital spaces that are more difficult to monetize--publishers have cut back on reporters assigned to the state and local government beat. Nevertheless, Trump has arguably worsened the trend by getting so much airtime— one estimate suggested that over the past four years, Trump has taken up, on average, 15 percent of the entire daily news cycle on the three leading cable networks, nearly three times what Obama did.

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