No text has had a greater influence on attitudes toward gay people than the biblical book of Leviticus, which prohibits sex between men. Before Leviticus was composed, outright prohibitions against homosexual sex — whether between men or women — were practically unheard-of in the ancient world.
Chapter 18 of Leviticus contains a list of forbidden incestuous acts, followed by prohibitions against sex with a menstruating woman, bestiality and various other sexual acts. In Verse 22, we find its most famous injunction: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Leviticus 20:13 repeats this law, along with a punishment for those who violate it: “They shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”)
Like many ancient texts, Leviticus was created gradually over a long period and includes the words of more than one writer. Many scholars believe that the section in which Leviticus 18 appears was added by a comparatively late editor, perhaps one who worked more than a century after the oldest material in the book was composed. An earlier edition of Leviticus, then, may have been silent on the matter of sex between men.
But I think a stronger claim is warranted. As I argue in an articlepublished in the latest issue of the journal Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel, there is good evidence that an earlier version of the laws in Leviticus 18 permitted sex between men. In addition to having the prohibition against same-sex relations added to it, the earlier text, I believe, was revised in an attempt to obscure any implication that same-sex relations had once been permissible.
The chapter’s original character, however, can be uncovered with a little detective work.
The core of Leviticus 18 is the list of incest laws, each of which includes the memorable phrase “uncover nakedness.” This is typically understood as a euphemism for sexual intercourse, so “you shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister” would mean something like “do not have sex with your father’s sister.”
Most of the incest laws are presented in a straightforward manner, but two are not. The first exception is: “The nakedness of your father and the nakedness of your mother you shall not uncover; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness” (emphasis mine). At first, this verse appears to outlaw sex between a man and either of his parents. However, the italicized explanation, or gloss, suggests that the law actually addresses only one parent: the mother. It is difficult to reconcile the two parts of this sentence.
The same thing happens again a few verses later: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother.” Simple enough, right? The following gloss, however, may give you whiplash: “you shall not approach his wife, she is your aunt.” By the time we’ve finished reading the gloss, a prohibition against intercourse between a man and his paternal uncle has transformed into a law about sex between a man and that uncle’s wife.
Each verse in Leviticus 18’s series of incest laws contains a similar gloss, but the others are merely emphatic, driving home the point. (For example, “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your daughter-in-law; she is your son’s wife, you shall not uncover her nakedness.”) Only in these two cases — the father and mother, and the father’s brother — do the glosses alter our understanding of what is prohibited. A law prohibiting sex with one’s father fades away, and a law against sex with one’s uncle is reinterpreted as a ban on sex with one’s aunt.
What we have here is strong evidence of editorial intervention.
It is worth noting that these new glosses render the idiom “uncover nakedness” incoherent. The phrase can no longer denote sex if uncovering the nakedness of one’s father is an act that also involves one’s mother — as the gloss implies.
But more strikingly, the two exceptional verses are the only ones that address incest between men — all the others involve women. Once the new glosses were added to the text, the prohibitions in Leviticus against incest no longer outlawed any same-sex couplings; only heterosexual pairs were forbidden.
If a later editor of Leviticus opposed homosexual intercourse, you might wonder, wouldn’t it have made more sense for him (and it was probably a him) to leave the original bans on homosexual incest intact?
No. The key to understanding this editorial decision is the concept of “the exception proves the rule.” According to this principle, the presence of an exception indicates the existence of a broader rule. For example, a sign declaring an office to be closed on Sundays suggests that the office is open on all other days of the week.
Now, apply this principle to Leviticus 18: A law declaring that homosexual incest is prohibited could reasonably be taken to indicate that non-incestuous homosexual intercourse is permitted.
A lawmaker is unlikely to specify that murdering one’s father is against the law if there is already a blanket injunction against murder. By the same token, it’s not necessary to stipulate that sex between two specific men is forbidden if a categorical prohibition against sex between men is already on the books.
It seems that with the later introduction in Leviticus of a law banning all male homosexual intercourse, it became expedient to bring the earlier material up-to-date by doing away with two now-superfluous injunctions against homosexual incest — injunctions that made sense when sex between men was otherwise allowed.
This editor’s decision to neutralize old laws by writing new glosses, instead of deleting the laws altogether, is serendipitous: He left behind just enough clues for his handiwork to be perceptible.
One can only imagine how different the history of civilization might have been had the earlier version of Leviticus 18’s laws entered the biblical canon.
Almost 20 years ago, the writer and director Phillip McMahon took a year out to travel, to discover and to party. For a young gay man of 20, it was a liberating, heedless and, by the sounds of it, curiously blessed time.
“I really wasn’t sure if I would tell this story,” he says, sitting under the shade of a tree with director Rachel O’Riordan, in the grounds of a Methodist church where his new play is being rehearsed. “But it’s a fascinating and important story.”
Such is the sensitivity of the story, he would prefer not to name the city where it took place, and where a friend of a friend owned a beautiful, unoccupied apartment on the waterfront. Would McMahon like to live in it, he was asked, rent free, for six months? He decided that he would. There was one stipulation, though. Every Monday, two middle-aged friends of the apartment’s owner would stay overnight, keeping to themselves in the spare bedroom. It seemed like a small price to pay.
In the end, though, the visitors treated McMahon like their guest. “I was 20,” he remembers. “I had just left Ireland. I was discovering all sorts of things. But mainly I was living my best life and wasting away from the epic party I was on.” To sustain him, each Monday the men shared a good meal and red wine with him at the table. Eventually McMahon asked what they did. “Oh, we’re Catholic priests,” they told him. They were also a committed couple. Monday nights were their nights together. McMahon was stunned.
“For a yet-to-start-recovering Catholic, that was very confronting,” he says. At the time, he was still a believer and they talked about the seemingly irreconcilable forces of faith and sexuality.
“They really felt that they could change the Catholic Church from the inside,” he says. “That their belief was so strong. They also said the education was not to be underestimated and the job itself was fabulous. And they were part of a much wider circle, a community of gay priests.”
Over the years, McMahon discovered just how wide and far-flung that community is: the drag act Fanny and Pearl, whom he once directed, got their names while training to become priests. “Everyone had girls’ names in the seminary,” they told him.
When stories about gay priests emerge in the media, they tend to erupt with voltage of either religious hypocrisy, farcical comedy or quiet tragedy. Take the Vatican male prostitution scandal of 2010, or the Grindr scandal at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth in 2016. (“I hadn’t heard that,” says McMahon of a more recent story, “and I’ve got ‘Gay Seminarians’ on my Google alerts.”)
They told me I was special, and I believed them. I was swept up in it
In interviews, McMahon learned that the truth was usually less salacious. “They came to my small town, where I thought there was no way out,” he was told of religious recruitments. “There was a Marian parade through town, and it was the only glamour I’ve ever seen here. They told me I was special, and I believed them. I was swept up in it.”
At seminaries, no less than any given college, people quietly discovered their sexuality in private, often with each other. “Then, when it became too much – and what was too much could be decided on a whim – they were often asked to leave.”
Trove of stories
Here, McMahon considered, was a trove of stories about faith, repression, identity and sexuality – in short, about Ireland. “So, I was like, do I write the drama first, or the musical first?”
If you know McMahon’s work, as a playwright, director and one half of the uproarious Thisispopbaby, this is not an unimportant question.
His most recent works, such as Tara Flynn’s affecting Not a Funny Word, Thisispopbaby’s world-conquering cabaret Riot, the delicate lament of Town is Dead, and the stage production of Emmet Kirwan’s Dublin Oldschool all addressed matter with music.
“When we did Alice in Funderland,” he says, of the 2012 Abbey Theatre musical, its first in more than 20 years, “the reason music was so important was to allow Irish people to sing out, it felt, for the first time in a long time”.
When he came to write Come On Home, though, inspired by the secret world behind holy orders, the form couldn’t have been more traditional. It is a two-act play, set in the family home of three grieving brothers in rural Ireland, reunited for the funeral of their mother. Here, bitter arguments, long-held shames and painful secrets flare over Aristotelian unities of time and space, against the sturdy details of stage realism. “It came out as a living room drama,” McMahon nods. “I was as surprised as anybody.”
The idea that something was being outed interested me
When Rachel O’Riordan first read the play, in Wales where she now leads the acclaimed Sherman Theatre, she did so in a single sitting and agreed to direct it the next morning. “I like making work that has bite,” she tells me. “Which looks at the tough corners of our social interactions, things spoken and unspoken. The idea that something was being outed interested me.”
Both collaborators can relate personally to other concerns of the play: exile, homecoming and the death of a parent. McMahon’s protagonist is Michael, a one-time seminarian who lived most of his adulthood in London, leaving behind a punishing father, a resentful brother, a besotted woman who married his feckless younger brother, and, poignantly, his former lover, Aidan, who remained in the priesthood.
The complexity of home has long occupied McMahon, who was born in London to Irish parents and moved back when he was 10. O’Riordan’s upbringing was even more peripatetic: born in Cork and educated in England, she established herself professionally in Belfast, with the celebrated new writing company Ransom, before leaving to run the Perth Theatre in Scotland and now the Sherman in Wales. Remarkably, Come on Home counts as her Abbey theatre debut.
“We talked about how Irish we feel or not,” O’Riordan says, “and how difficult that can be sometimes.” She admits to “a strange sense of loss even when I’m here. Because the Republic isn’t where I’ve made my career. I think there’s an instinct in Irish people to go away.”
Coming back carries its own tensions. McMahon recalls of his childhood, “There was this sense that we were too Irish for England and not Irish enough for Ireland. There’s a sense of never being at home. Then, of course, when you discover in your early teens that you’re a queer, you’re suddenly not at home again. You watch how easily other boys walk through life, and wonder, how are you doing that?”
Come On Home was commissioned some years ago, under director Fiach MacConghail, and comes to the stage under his successors, Graham McLaren and Neil Murray. That makes it a rare inherited commission, but also a play emerging into an Ireland that no one could have imagined 20, 10 even five years ago; one in which the church has vastly diminished influence, and progressive sexual and gender rights have been enshrined by landslide public vote.
The characters in Come On Home seem to straddle the fault line of such a tectonic shift, caught between staying and going, in a new nation where many struggle to catch up. “I look around and I see the kids,” says the young priest, Aidan. “The boys – holding hands. And it tortures me. The freedom.”
Madness of grief
If this is a time of celebration, it is still riven with grief, in which long-buried traumas await their reckoning. “We talked a lot about how grief makes you feel,” says O’Riordan. “Bereavement and the madness that descends, and the damage to the whole family. That heartbreak,” says O’Riordan.
“But there’s also licence to say so much in that space,” adds McMahon. “Emotions are high. Drink is taken. In reality, a lot of shit goes down.” That recalls similar situations in the plays of Tom Murphy, riven with grief, exile, mourning and alcohol, and O’Riordan isn’t slow to claim a dramatic kinship. “But it’s also ‘queered’,” says McMahon, “and I hope that there’s something of today, or of my Ireland in there.”
That’s especially true of a family, however fractious, automatically performing funeral rituals together, where authority figures are tellingly absent. At one point, for instance, someone downloads the rosary.
Religion and spirituality can be quite separate. But when you reject one, you often reject the other
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot,” McMahon tells me. “Religion and spirituality can be quite separate. But when you reject one, you often reject the other. That leaves you a little bit at sea about how we can plug into a communal spirituality. I feel the absence of that: a connection.”
Some people find that connection in other ways, whether blissed out on a dancefloor or moved in a theatre, or in the overwhelming results of historic referendums. McMahon may worry still about making drama from private stories. “You can’t treat gay priests as a joke. When you shine a light in these corners, you have to do so sensitively.” But the play is neither an exposé, nor a confession. In bringing people together, whatever the circumstances, it comes closer to a communion.
The Vatican this month is showing unprecedented, if symbolic, outreach on issues of human sexuality, using for what’s believed to be the first time the term “LGBT” in a planning document for a huge upcoming bishops meeting. Vatican officials also invited to speak at a second global meeting a prominent advocate for LGBT people, something some gay Catholic groups say has never been done.
The two moves, announced in the past 10 days, are being seen by church-watchers as largely an effort to speak in a more respectful way with a younger generation of Catholics who are confronting the church on topics from female priests and abortion to sexuality — but who are clearly not ready to totally walk away from the faith.
The efforts related to the Synod of Bishops on Young People (in October) and the World Meeting of Families (in August) are part of an explicit push by Pope Francis’s church to say “we have to pay attention to this whole LGBT reality, especially for those who have chosen to remain in the church,” said the Rev. Thomas Rosica, who has often served as an English assistant to the Vatican press office.
On Tuesday, the Vatican released the details of the bishops’ synod, or meeting, the third in major global gatherings about the family. The others were in 2014 and 2015. While the document was released only in Italian, the National Catholic Reporter noted it was the first time the acronym was used. The Catholic Church “has in the past formally referred to gay people as ‘persons with homosexual tendencies,’ ” the Reporter said.
Rosica agreed it was a first, but said “they’re just using the lingo young people use. There’s nothing earth-shattering.” Vatican spokeswoman Paloma Garcia Ovejero declined to comment on the reason for the adoption of the acronym beyond saying, “I guess there’s no specific answer … it’s just the result of so many proposals and will be used as a ‘tool’ for discussion.”
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke did not respond to a request for comment.
Hundreds of bishops will attend the meeting in Rome to discuss how they can serve young people better. Their meeting will touch on topics from lack of job opportunities for young people in some places and migration to digital addiction and the struggle for reliable news.
In a section of the synod outline called “the body, affectivity and sexuality,” reports the Catholic Reporter, “It states: ‘Sociological studies demonstrate that many young Catholics do not follow the indications of the Church’s sexual moral teachings. … No bishops’ conference offers solutions or recipes, but many are of the point of view that questions of sexuality must be discussed more openly and without prejudice.’ ”
“There are young Catholics that find in the teachings of the Church a source of joy and desire ‘not only that they continue to be taught despite their unpopularity, but that they be proclaimed with greater depth,’ ” the Catholic Reporter quotes the document as saying. “Those that instead do not share the teachings express the desire to remain part of the Church and ask for a greater clarity about them.”
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways ministry, which aims to connect gay Catholics and their church, said the use of the term LGBT is very significant — especially compared with past language, such as people with “homosexual inclinations.”
“That said, there is nothing in this new document that indicates a change in church teaching. It simply indicates a new openness to discuss these issues more respectfully. How they actually conduct the synod, and, more importantly, what the final synod document will say, is much more important than these developments,” he wrote in an email to The Washington Post.
The second development involves the World Meeting of Families, a massive, Vatican-run event the Catholic Church holds once every three years. The last time it was held, in 2015, Francis was in Philadelphia. The church faced criticism from LGBT advocates when the only sign of gay families amid a days-long display of family issues was a gay man and his mother talking about celibacy.
Eight days ago, the Vatican announced details of the next World Meeting, Aug. 21 to 26 in Dublin. Among many other speakers will be the Rev. Jim Martin, a New York City Jesuit popularly known as Stephen Colbert’s pastor — but within the church as a fierce advocate for positive images and engagement with gay Catholics. Martin will be the first speaker at a World Meeting “on positive pastoral outreach to LGBT people,” the Associated Press reported“Building a Bridge,” about Catholic outreach to the LGBT community, has had several talks canceled in the United States in recent months because of pressure from conservative groups who oppose his call for the church to better accompany gay Catholics, the AP reported.
A survivor of clerical sexual abuse has said Pope Francis told him that God had made him gay and loved him, in arguably the most strikingly accepting comments about homosexuality to be uttered by the leader of the Roman Catholic church.
Juan Carlos Cruz, who spoke privately with the pope two weeks ago about the abuse he suffered at the hands of one of Chile’s most notorious paedophiles, said the issue of his sexuality had arisen because some of the Latin American country’s bishops had sought to depict him as a pervert as they accused him of lying about the abuse.
“He told me, ‘Juan Carlos, that you are gay does not matter. God made you like this and loves you like this and I don’t care. The pope loves you like this. You have to be happy with who you are,’” Cruz told Spanish newspaper El País.
Now 87, Fernando Karadima, the man who abused Cruz, was found guilty of abuse by the Vatican in 2011.
Greg Burke, the Vatican’s chief spokesman, did not respond to questions about whether Cruz’s statement accurately reflected his conversation with the pope.
It is not the first time it has been suggested Francis has an open and tolerant attitude toward homosexuality, despite the Catholic church’s teaching that gay sex – and all sex outside of heterosexual marriage – is a sin. In July 2013, in response to a reporter’s question about the existence of an alleged “gay lobby” within the Vatican, Francis said: “Who am I to judge?”
The new remarks appear to go much further in embracing homosexuality as a sexual orientation that is designed and bestowed by God. It suggests that Francis does not believe that individuals choose to be gay or lesbian, as some religious conservatives argue.
Austen Ivereigh, who has written a biography of the pope, said Francis had likely made similar comments in private in the past, when he served as a spiritual director to gay people in Buenos Aires, but that Cruz’s public discussion of his conversation with Francis represented the most “forceful” remarks on the subject since 2013.
It did not, however, represent a shift in church teaching, Ivereigh said, since the church had never formally made any pronouncements on why individuals were gay.
Christopher Lamb, the Vatican correspondent for the Tablet, said the comments were remarkable and a sign of a shift in attitudes taking place. “It goes beyond ‘who am I to judge?’ to ‘you are loved by God,’” said Lamb. “I don’t think he has changed church teaching but he’s demonstrating an affirmation of gay Catholics, something that has been missing over the years in Rome.”
The remarks come as several high profile members of the clergy have sought to publicly make inroads with gay Catholics, many of whom have felt shunned and unwelcome in the church and have been ostracised.
Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest in New York who has nearly 200,000 Twitter followers, has led the outreach effort and was chosen last month to serve as a consultor to the Vatican’s secretariat for communications.
Martin has argued in his book Building a Bridge that the onus is on the church to make LGBT Catholics feel welcome in the church and to stop discriminating against people based on their “sexual morality”.
A contemporary Jesus arrives as a young gay man in a modern city with “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” by Douglas Blanchard. The 24 paintings present a liberating new vision of Jesus’ final days, including Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, and the arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection.
“Christ is one of us in my pictures,” says Blanchard. “In His sufferings, I want to show Him as someone who experiences and understands fully what it is like to be an unwelcome outsider.” Blanchard, an art professor and self-proclaimed “very agnostic believer,” used the series to grapple with his own faith struggles as a New Yorker who witnessed the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
High-quality reproductions of Doug Blanchard’s 24 gay Passion paintings are available at: http://douglas-blanchard.fineartamerica.com/ Giclee prints come in many sizes and formats. Greeting cards can be purchased too. Some originals are also available.
[T]he most human response to the death of Scotland’s shamed cardinal came from the journalist whose articles forced his resignation. Catherine Deveney spoke with compassion and pity as she expressed the hope that Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien had found peace and forgiveness at the end. Deveney’s articles for the Observer in 2013 revealed that O’Brien had, for many years, conducted a series of inappropriate relationships with young priests under his jurisdiction.
Like others, she had been aware of a whiff of scandal surrounding this widely admired man who, unlike many of his predecessors and contemporaries, seemed to possess something that endeared him to people. It was only when O’Brien began to front an ill-advised and nasty campaign against same-sex marriage that three priests who had been in sexual relationships with him felt they had to speak out and subsequently approached Deveney with their stories.
A few months before this, I was informed by the editor of the Catholic Observer that O’Brien had chided her for publishing an article of mine in which I had criticised his attitude to gay people and the use of the word “grotesque” in describing their sexuality. Yet I didn’t derive any delight at his public outing, only a sense of deep sadness that a man with great qualities of leadership and compassion had been brought low by a lie that had probably stalked half his adult life. What misery and self-loathing must he have endured as he preached his fables about human sexuality. And yet what damage had he caused to the faith of thousands not by being revealed as a sinner but as a hypocrite.
Ironically, the term “grotesque” can be more accurately applied to a bitter and vile band of ultramontane Scottish Catholics who have been permitted to roam the country, spreading fear and hatred within the Catholic church. These haters barely deserve to be called human, such is their contempt for those who do not adhere to their distorted form of Christianity. They have conducted a reign of terror among priests they suspect of being gay by threatening to “out” them lest they recant and repent. On other occasions, they have stalked successful young single women in the church and asked inappropriate questions about the status of their relationships.
In some corners of Catholic Scotland a special level of suspicion is still reserved for Catholic women who have reached their 30s “without a man”. If Dante had existed today he would have reserved a special circle of pain and torment for this band of latterday inquisitors and social misfits.
Catholic leaders are in denial about sexuality and especially the “grotesque” form of it that they fear more than anything else. Latterly in his ministry, something caused O’Brien suddenly to begin deploying more militant and unpleasant language in describing gay people.
This would all be hilarious if it weren’t so tragic. The Catholic church is absolutely hoaching with gay priests and bishops. There are so many residing within the Vatican that they could probably form their very own order. I’ve been contacted by several in Scotland over the past few years, simply for highlighting the hypocritical oath that holds sway in the Catholic church and that has made their lives miserable.
It’s not difficult to understand why so many gay Catholics are attracted to the priesthood. In many traditional Catholic households, homosexuality is simply not allowed to be mentioned. In such an environment, a Catholic adolescent male who is encountering issues around his sexual identity might be told to take some headache pills and go for a lie down until the feeling goes away. Indeed, that pretty much sums up the entirety of Catholic teaching on this matter. These young men, already hating a part of themselves, are then drawn to the priesthood that offers them a state where they can embrace celibacy and subjugate their sexuality. It is an ecclesiastical and bizarre set-up with disastrous consequences.
Some of this has been evident in the decades of sex abuse by Catholic clergy in Scotland. Sadly, too, it has been evident in the lamentable response of the hierarchy and the reactionary praetorian guard of lay civil servants that surrounds it. The week before O’Brien’s death, Father Paul Moore, an 82-year-old retired priest, was convicted of sexually abusing three children and a student priest over a period spanning more than 20 years. Without going into the details, the abuse was as bad as it gets. His bishop knew about this many years before, yet chose to park the issue by moving him on. He was only doing what other bishops are told to do.
The principal victim who gave eight days of evidence has fought for many years to bring his violator to justice. During this time, he has been treated with a level of contempt and disdain by his own church which was astonishing to behold and utterly callous. There are thousands like him, stretching back decades, and yet the church now boasts of having the right safeguards in place to prevent future abuse. I’d be interested in examining these safeguards and asking why they were constructed without talking to any of the groups of people who survived widespread clerical sexual abuse.
Pope Francis will visit Ireland in August, where he will preach to the converted. It is a home game for the pontiff where he will encounter few protests. I’d encourage him to visit Scotland and find out for himself why tens of thousands of the faithful have abandoned the church. He might also wish to conduct a review of a hierarchy that, with a few exceptions, is no longer fit for purpose.
It might have been the first academic textbook that greeted the masses via the medium of Garry Trudeau’s comic Doonesbury. In a series of strips in June 1994, recently outed gay character Mark Slackmeyer attempts to pick up a fundamentalist Christian married man, and tells him that the church had, for a millennium, performed gay-marriage ceremonies. “Where did you hear such garbage?” the man replies, irate.
“It’s in a new book by this Yale professor,” answers Slackmeyer. “His research turned up liturgies for same-sex ceremonies that included communion, holy invocations and kissing to signify union. They were just like heterosexual ceremonies, except that straight weddings, being about property, were usually held outdoors. Gay rites, being about love, were held INSIDE the church!”
That week, at least two Illinois newspapers refused to print the strips, while a few dozen readers rang the distributor to ask “why Garry Trudeau exists to make their lives unhappy.” If the strip provoked controversy, the book, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, incited outrage both within and outside of the academic community. Its author, scholar John Eastburn Boswell, known as Jeb, died six months after the comic strips ran at the age of 47, of AIDS-related complications.
In barely 20 years at Yale, Boswell’s work as a historian managed to set the cat among the pigeons to stupendous effect, through years of meticulous scholarship that, if correct, undermined the very foundation of much modern homophobia. In the introduction to his 1980 American Book Award-winning Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, he observed that gay people were “still the objects of severe proscriptive legislation, widespread public hostility, and various civil restraints, all with ostensibly religious justification.” Boswell’s work suggested, however, that this “religious justification” might, in fact, be bogus—a latter-day alteration, introduced hundreds of years after Christianity was founded.
The book argued that the Roman Catholic Church had not always been as hostile to gay people, and indeed, until the 12th century, had thought homosexuality no more troubling than, say, hypocrisy—or even celebrated love between men. The response to the book was explosive, if polarized. “I would not hesitate to call his book revolutionary,” Paul Robinson, a Stanford University historian, wrote in the New York Times Book Review in 1981. But other critics felt that, despite its attention to detail, its central thesis—that Christianity and homosexuality had not always been such uneasy bedfellows—was not only false, but a failed attempt by Boswell, gay and Catholic, to square two aspects of his identity they felt could not be reconciled.
Boswell was young and brilliant, blond and boyishly handsome, with an incredible facility for languages. His work might at any time draw on any of 17 dead and living examples—among them, Catalan, Latin, Old Iceland, Syriac and Persian. As a teenager growing up in Virginia, writes the researcher Bruce O’Brien, he had converted to Catholicism from Episcopalianism. This conversion was precipitated by a show of tolerance and strength: “because, in large part, the archdiocese of Baltimore had voluntarily desegregated its schools, without a court order, solely because it was the right thing to do.” Here, he saw a Catholic church that was intrinsically moral and would be a beacon of light against intolerance—one that might lead the charge on other struggles for equality in a country whose sensibilities were shifting at great pace.
Many saw the book, therefore, as a chance for a reckoning—Boswell giving the church the opportunity to welcome the gay community. As his sister Patricia, who spoke at his funeral, puts it: “Jeb’s love of God was the driving force in his life and the driving passion behind his work. He did not set out to shake up the straight world but rather to include the gay world in the love of Christ… to acquaint all with the fearsome power of that love, the wildness, the ‘not tameness’ of it.”
Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality is a 442-page journey through around 1,000 years of gay history. Assiduously researched, it jumps from country to country, instance to instance, drawing on examples of love between specific men, and generalized cases of societies in which sex between men was quite normalized.
Boswell spends some time delving into the relationship between the 4th-century Ausonius, a Roman poet living in Bordeaux, France, and his pupil Saint Paulinus, later the Bishop of Nola. Whether or not the relationship was a physical one is impossible to say—but the passionate affection the two had for one another seemed to transcend ordinary platonic friendship.
In whatever world I am found,
I shall hold you fast,
Grafted onto my being,
Not divided by distant shores or suns.
Everywhere you shall be with me,
I will see with my heart
And embrace you with my loving spirit.
“It would be inaccurate to suggest any exact parallel between such relationships and modern phenomena—as it is to compare medieval marriage with its modern counterpart,” Boswell wrote. But the idea that the concept of friendship has simply changed rang hollow to him—especially given that in many ancient societies, homosexuality was conventional and so might well have been part of a normal friendship. “Friends of the same sex borrowed from the standard vocabulary of homosexual love to express their feelings in erotic terms,” he wrote.
Saint Augustine, writing at the same time, described a friendship thus: “I felt that my soul and his were one soul in two bodies, and therefore life was a horror to me, since I did not want to live as a half; and yet I was also afraid to die lest he, whom I had loved so much, would completely die.” Elsewhere, however, he claims to have “contaminated the spring of friendship with the dirt of lust and darkened its brightness with the blackness of desire”—yet this is a denigration not specifically of homosexual lust and desire, but of sexuality more generally.
In the same period in Antioch, an ancient Greco-Roman city sometimes called “the cradle of Christianity,” Boswell described how Saint John Chrysostom visited the town, in what is today Turkey. Chrysostom was surprised to see the men of the city “consorting” not with prostitutes, but “fearlessly” with one another. Boswell quoted him: “The fathers of the young men take this in silence: they do not try to sequester their sons, nor do they seek any remedy for this evil. None is ashamed, no one blushes, but, rather, they take pride in their little game; the chaste seem to be the odd ones, and the disapproving the ones in error.” In this early Christian city, Chrysostom found homosexuality to be so very common and accepted that “there is some danger that womankind will become unnecessary with the future, with young men instead fulfilling all the needs women used to.”
Boswell shored up example after example of homosexual love and sex in the early Christian world over the course of almost 1,000 years. There were occasional laws against them, he pointed out, but they were not usually religious ones, but civil, where homosexual acts were fined as a way to increase tax coffers. Indeed, often the people being taxed in this way were not ordinary members of society, but bishops and clerics. “Purely ecclesiastical records usually stipulate either no penalty at all or a very mild one,” he wrote. Under Pope Saint Gregory II, for instance, lesbian activities carried a 160-day fasting penalty, likely under the same terms as Lent. A priest caught going hunting, on the other hand, would be in comparable trouble for three years.
In the 1980s, at a time when laws against sodomy remained in place in many American states, the book was a bombshell—especially for Catholics. The United States, at that time, was still a place of extreme homophobia and prejudice. In 1978, the openly gay politician Harvey Milk had been assassinated in San Francisco; a year earlier came Anita Bryant’s organized opposition to gay rights, with its rhetoric about saving children from gay “recruitment.” Queer studies remained a very niche part of academic study—Yale’s Lesbian and Gay Studies Center, which Boswell helped to found, emerged only in the late 1980s.
Criticism of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, therefore, came on a variety of fronts. In some parts of the academic community, it came from historians like the R. W. Southern of the University of Oxford, who believed that “gay history” was not an interesting or important part of historical research. (Southern, O’Brien notes, was largely influenced by having grown up in “a repressed age where homosexuals were criminals [a word he used when talking about homosexuality.]”) In others, it came from theological scholars who picked apart Boswell’s thesis and found it undermined by the scholar’s deep, deep desire to be right. In the Catholic magazine Commonweal, after the book’s release, Louis Crompton wrote: “It is a pity that [the book] is … vitiated by a determination to construe all its voluminous evidence in the light of an untenable leading idea.” Some of its harshest criticism came from members of the gay community, who accused Boswell of being an apologist for the church’s atrocities against gay people. In the Gay Books Bulletin, Wayne Dyne wrote, decisively: “Christianity is definitely guilty of the stigmatization and persecution of same-sex relations in our civilization. It has served as a redoubt for bigotry of all sorts, and until those who call themselves Christians are ready humbly to acknowledge this, they are coming to us with dirty hands.”
Boswell, for his part, seemed to take the response in his stride. To the many critics who argued that such categories as “gay” and “straight” were modern conceptions, Boswell responded: “If the categories ‘homosexual/heterosexual’ and ‘gay/straight’ are the inventions of particular societies rather than real aspects of the human psyche, there is no gay history.” The book had caused controversy, but it had also won multiple awards and cleared important ground in developing this largely uncharted territory of gay studies.
Today, Boswell is remembered for two things—by those who didn’t know him, for his contributions to his field; and by those who did, for his unwavering kindness and generosity. A 1986 video of Boswell giving a talk shows a man who was at once dazzlingly bright and brilliantly charismatic. He’s likeable, urbane, often very funny. On and off campus, he was adored—by undergraduates, who clamored to be in his classes, and undergraduates; gay and straight members of faculty alike; and by many members of the Catholic community. At Harvard, where he had completed his PhD, he counted among his devoted friends John Spencer, rector of the Jesuit community of Boston, and Peter J. Gomes, the Plummer professor of Christian morals, after he came out publicly in 1991. “At a time of great public trauma for me, he wrote me out of the blue a lovely letter of support,” Gomes told the Harvard Crimson, shortly after Boswell’s death. “He gave me courage.”
When he passed away in December 1994, Boswell had been in the Yale infirmary for some months. The music historian Geoffrey Block recalled visiting him in his hospital room, where, despite having only recently emerged from a coma, he was “brilliantly and miraculously holding court,” quoting lines from films and singing “Cause I’m a Blonde” from the musical Earth Girls Are Easy. Admirers and friends drifted in and out of the infirmary—friends he had helped through crises; a devoted graduate student; his father; the newly installed President of Yale, Richard Levin, who cried freely and readily. “A young barber who came to the infirmary room to give Jeb a haircut moved us to tears when he refused payment.”
Boswell died on Christmas Eve, surrounded by family, friends, and his partner of many years, Jerry Hart. In the months leading up to his death, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, which had been previewed in Doonesbury, incited similar levels of controversy to Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Comprised of the study of more than 60 manuscripts from the 8th to the 16th century, it was a full investigation into the history of same-sex unions. These he described as relationships that were “unmistakably a voluntary, emotional union of two persons,” and “closely related” to heterosexual marriage, “no matter how much some readers may be discomforted by this.” Again, critics argued that he was looking for something that he dearly wanted to be there. Block, in his 2013 memorial, wrote how delighted and thrilled Boswell would have been to have been able to legally marry Hart. “I came across a sign on a lawn that would have made Jeb, a devout Catholic—perhaps paradoxically considering this institution’s take on his sexual identity—extremely happy. It simply said, ‘Approve R-74. My Church Supports Marriage Equality’.”
Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich and Freising, told Bavarian State Broadcasting “there can be no rules” about whether clergy can bless such relationships. Rather, the decision should be made on a case by case basis.
“One must encourage priests and pastoral workers to give people in concrete situations encouragement,” said the 73-year-old. “It’s about pastoral care for individual cases, and that applies in other areas as well, which we can not regulate, where we have no sets of rules.”
Marx, president of the German Bishops’ Conference, was responding to a question about why the Church is slow in moving forward on progressive causes like the ordination of women, blessings for homosexual couples, and the abolition of compulsory celibacy.
The important question, he said, was how “the Church can meet the challenges posed by the new circumstances of life today?”
Priests must take “the situation of the individual… their life story, their biography… their relationships,” into account, he added, rather than offer blanket regulations. The language and liturgical format of such blessings or other forms of “encouragement,” though, would require further consideration.
Marx previously called on the Church to apologize for centuries of anti-LGBT persecution.
“The history of homosexuals in our societies is very bad, because we’ve done a lot to marginalize [them],” he said in a 2016 talk at Dublin’s Trinity College. Calling the legacy of institutionalized homophobia “scandalous and terrible,” he added that, “As a Church and a society, we have to say ‘Sorry, sorry.’”
In 2014, Marx shocked attendees of the Synod of Bishops when he argued the Church couldn’t simply dismiss longtime same-sex relationships as worthless.
“We have to respect the decisions of people,” he said at the time. “You cannot say that a relationship between a man and a man and they are faithful [that] that is nothing, that has no worth.”
As we inch toward Christmas, it’s no surprise to hear that Americans are miserable. Any amount of time spent in line at a Target as the holiday approaches will swiftly reveal that we’re a mess. Not only has our happiness been steadily declining since the 1970s, we feel more physical pain than citizens of other nations. Seventy-two percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the direction our country is going in, and between anxiety disorders, depression, social phobias, OCD and PTSD, millions of Americans navigate every day in a sea of mental illness.
On top of this, women in America are alternating between relief at the outing of sexual harassers in the #MeToo movement, rage at the patriarchal thinking that enabled the problem in the first place, and worry about the inevitable backlash. And American religious institutions have their own miserable reckonings to contend with. When Boston’s Cardinal Law died this week, victims of clergy abuse expressed both relief that one of its greatest enablers was no longer a danger, and frustration that his funeral, like that of every other Cardinal, would still be held in St. Peter’s Basilica, and that during the funeral, Pope Francis would deliver a blessing.
In this epoch of unhappiness, Pope Francis has delivered unto us a new book. Happiness in this Life, a series of snippets from his public addresses, is not the in-depth sort of theological tome he’s written along the lines of his exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, or his encyclical on the environment, Laudauto Si. Instead, it’s the kind of book readers can pick up at random and pull bits and pieces from. Divided into subsections with titles like “Your Search For a Meaningful Life” and “They Who Pray Live Serenely,” this is Francis in pastoral mode rather than theological mode.
For American readers, however, the question of whether we even know how to be happy remains. And books like this also beg the question of whether or not religion can make us happy in the first place. Gen Xers like myself have increasingly turned away from institutional religions like Catholicism, Mainline Protestantism, and evangelical churches, and the Millennial and post-Millennial cohorts have done the same thing at even higher rates.
The often-quoted Pew survey on Nones from 2012 revealed that people who leave religion behind do so because American religion is “too concerned with rules” and “too tied up in politics.” Politics, and the rules of politics, have especially made us miserable lately, and our obsessive scrolling through news feeds and social media to keep up with the latest political disasters isn’t making us feel any better. Twitter use is correlated with greater rates of anxiety, and Facebook contributes to depressive mind states.
So what does the Pope tell us to do in order to be happier? Mostly, it involves praying more. To be fair, Francis’ emphasis on the marginalized comes through even in his ideas about happiness. Of the Beatitudes, which tell us the most blessed are those who suffer most, Francis says that these sayings of Jesus “are a new and revolutionary model of happiness that contradicts what is usually communicated by the media and prevailing wisdom.” For Americans trapped in a capitalist cycle of thoughtless consumerism, Francis offers some advice. “According to this worldly logic, those whom Jesus proclaimed blessed are regarded as useless, as ‘losers.’ On the other hand, success at any cost is glorified, as are creature comforts, the arrogance of power, and self-absorption.”
Francis, never shy about his critiques of capitalism, also writes that our suffering might be bound up in our notions of what liberation really means. “In our existential journey,” he writes, “there is a tendency to resist liberation; we are afraid of freedom and, paradoxically, we unconsciously prefer slavery.” In his Christian world view, this is bound up in notions about this life versus the “world without end” referenced in the Catholic Doxology. “Slavery, on the other hand, reduces time to a single moment: It severs each moment from both the past and the future, and that makes us feel safer. In other words,” he adds, “slavery prevents us from truly and fully living in the present, because it makes our past empty and cuts off our future, separates us from eternity.”
But a great deal of this book is about relationships. Joy, the pope tells us, doesn’t come from material possessions but from “encounter,” a word he often uses to talk about what the church should be doing. His Jesuit background means that Francis has both spent much of his life living in community, and that he comes from a religious order with a strong missionary background, one that goes “to the margins,” as he often repeats. But this book is not cut and pasted from his addresses to his fellow Jesuits; rather, most of these talks were given at events like World Youth Day or meetings on family life.
Francis, single and celibate, has a lot of advice for families. Marriage, for example, “is a way to experience faith in God, mutual trust, profound freedom, and even holiness.” The family of Jesus is there to “help us rediscover the mission and purpose of family.” None of this is earth-shattering advice, and in a country like America with such high divorce rates on the one hand and increasing numbers of people in interfaith and same-gender marriages on the other, very few of the families around us look a Christmas crèche.
Strawberries on a theological cake
Francis devotes an entire chapter to “The Blessings and Challenges of Womanhood.” His statement that “the role of women in the Church is more than maternal, more than being the mother of a family,” gets us off to a good start, but the repeated emphasis on John Paul II’s notion of a “feminine genius” is where the trouble begins. How can a woman be happy when her worth is reduced to her “feminine” qualities?
Women have a “special attention” that we “bestow on others” often “expressed in maternity.” “A woman who cares for every aspect of her family life,” Francis says, “is making an incomparable contribution to the future of our society,” but women are also “weary and nearly crushed by the volume of their many duties and tasks.” History, he says “is rife with an excess of patriarchal cultures,” yet in the same sentence he condemns the use of surrogate mothers. And there is a danger, according to the pope, that women who are emancipated “ignore the precious feminine traits that characterize womanhood.”
Complementarianism is often given props in Francis’ talks on the role of women in both the church and family. Men and women are “made very differently,” and therefore, we should beware of “machismo in a skirt.” And women should “try not to be angry” because it’s been proven that we are the “champions,” not men. What would solve the problem of women’s oppression would be a “profound theology of women,” but just a year ago, Francis reiterated that the door to women’s ordination remains closed. So is this profound theology of women therefore supposed to come from men?
A friend jokingly referred to this chapter of the book as “Popesplaining,” but in any patriarchal institution, the silencing and disempowering of women goes beyond rape and physical sexual harassment and into women being interrupted, treated contemptibly, or iced out of decision-making processes. Women in Argentina, Francis’ home country, have condemned its culture of machismo, which they say is connected to a rise in everything from street harassment to domestic violence to women being set on fire, chopped up, and shoved into garbage bags. Argentinian feminists even have a word for this continuum of male violence against women. They refer to it as femicido, or femicide.
Complementarianism has also infected the American Catholic church, and it can be witnessed in the American bishops’ recent letter “Created Male and Female,” which tells parents of transgender kids that they should not “sow confusion and doubt” by allowing their trans kids to take hormones in order to “uphold the truth of a person’s identity as male or female.” And complementarianism in American Catholicism may have its patron saint in Paul Ryan, who says that the solution to a robust American economy is simply for women to have more babies, and even went so far as to mansplain Catholic social teaching to a nun.
Many American Catholics can’t forget either that American Catholic orders of religious investigated for “radical feminist themes” just a few years ago were all women’s orders, nor can we forget that the most prominent American theologians censured by the Vatican have also beenwomen. Yes, those investigations took place under the previous pope, but the root causes behind them—a fear and suspicion of women—remain seemingly intractably in place.
Many American Catholic women are very often unhappy. This past summer, I attended a conference on Catholic writing at the University of Notre Dame. The speaker list was full of women and the panels were full of women, many of them remarkably gifted writers with armloads of literary prizes. At the opening Mass for the conference, a visiting male bishop led the service, assisted by four male Holy Cross priests, two male altar servers, a male cantor and several male lectors. The optics, as we like to say, were not great.
But that is the church we belong to, and until we make the same decision many of our fellow Catholics have, shake the dust off, and depart, we will remain sitting unhappily in those pews in our unhappy parishes listening to unhappy homilies from unhappy priests. And like each of us standing in line at Target burdened by the amount of shit we buy in order to find happiness, we make a choice to stand in that line, and we make a choice to show up at church.
We choose our unhappiness. But in its decision to exclude women from serving as priests and in its insistence that, at best, women can be “strawberries” on a theological cake, the Catholic church also chooses unhappiness for us. And that is something no pope, no matter how happy he might be, seems to be willing to change.