Pope Francis recently appointed three women for the first time to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an important advisory body to the Pope on matters of Catholic orthodoxy. He has also recently established a commission for studying the role of women deacons in the early Christian church. While encouraging for supporters of women’s ordination in the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has also made it clear that he is keeping the door firmly shut in terms of the possibility of women priests.
Elsewhere, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints excommunicated feminist activist Kate Kelly in 2014 for advocating for women’s ordination. At the same time, LDS leaders have also expanded roles for women in the faith’s semiannual conferences and global governing committees.
This ambiguity toward the role of women in American religious organizations is emblematic of wider conversations about gender equality and women’s roles in American society. Thus, understanding the dynamics of women’s ordination in religious congregations can reveal important insights into wider trends and the intersection of gender and leadership in America today.
Dozens of one-on-one interviews, as well as a nationally representative public opinion survey, have provided us with a contemporary snapshot of women’s ordination in American congregations, investigating two primary questions: 1) who supports female clergy in their congregations and why?, and 2) what effects do female clergy have on those in their congregations, especially young women and girls?
Here are ten things you should know about women’s ordination in the US:
A little over half (55%) of Americans who attend religious services at least occasionally say that their congregations allow women to serve as their principal leader, although only 9% currently attend a congregation where a woman is serving in that capacity. Thus, women’s ordination in America is more common in principle than in practice.
Religious traditions and denominations in the United States that generally permit female clergy in their congregations include American Baptists, United Methodists, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian (USA), the Episcopal Church, Buddhism, Reform/Conservative Judaism, and Unitarian Universalists. Those that generally prohibit female clergy include the Roman Catholic Church, Southern Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodox Judaism, Mormons, and Muslims.
Two of every five American worshipers say that they “strongly prefer” that their congregation allow women to serve as their principal religious leader. When added to the 32% who say they “somewhat prefer,” it makes for nearly two-thirds (72%) of American worshipers who say that they support women’s ordination. This includes 68% of Evangelicals, 85% of Mainline Protestants, and 70% of Catholics.
70% of female worshipers say that they support women’s ordination in their congregations. This is, however, nearly identical to the 69% of male worshipers who say the same. In other words, women are no more or less likely than men to support or oppose female clergy in their congregations. Contrary to what might be expected, gender does not structure attitudes toward women’s ordination in American society today.
Instead, those most supportive of female clergy in their congregations are theological modernists who believe that their traditions should adapt to modern sensibilities, those who identify politically as liberals and Democrats, those that currently attend congregations that allow for female clergy, and those who attend religious services less frequently.
When asked about their support or opposition to female clergy in their congregations, the most common reasons included scriptural authority, personal experiences, and gender stereotypes. These three issues were cited by both those in favor and those against female ordination, selectively applying arguments and experience to support their positions.
While support for female clergy is high, only 9% of worshipers report that they would personally prefer that their own congregation’s leader were female. This might help partially explain the persistent gender gap in the leadership of American congregations, even among those that have gender-inclusive leadership policies in place.
While many people are quick to say that it “doesn’t matter” whether their congregation’s principal leader is male or female, they are quick to point a variety of ways in which they have personally seen that it does matter in their own lives. Specifically, they tend to focus on ways that gender affects what type of counseling clergy are able to provide (in talking about issues such as rape or abortion, for instance), as well as the ways that female clergy can often successfully attract young people and families to their congregations.
In our survey, women who had influential female clergy growing up have higher levels of self-esteem as adults, as well as higher levels of education and full-time employment, compared to those who had only male leaders. They are also more likely think about God in more graceful/loving terms instead of a more authoritarian/judgmental way. This is important because self-esteem, education, and one’s view of God have all been linked to psychological and emotional health and well-being. Thus, female clergy can indirectly improve future levels of health, well-being, and economic empowerment of young women and girls in their congregations.
Politics structures attitudes toward and responses to women’s ordination more than gender. Political liberals, both men and women, are most supportive of female clergy and are also the most likely to disengage from their religious communities if their congregations maintain male-only leadership policies. This is yet another example of how politics is driving religious identity and affiliation much more often than the reverse in contemporary American society.
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”.
Weekly church attendance has declined among U.S. Catholics in the past decade, while it has remained steady among Protestants.
From 2014 to 2017, an average of 39% of Catholics reported attending church in the past seven days. This is down from an average of 45% from 2005 to 2008 and represents a steep decline from 75% in 1955.
By contrast, the 45% of Protestants who reported attending church weekly from 2014 to 2017 is essentially unchanged from a decade ago and is largely consistent with the long-term trend.
As Gallup first reported in 2009, the steepest decline in church attendance among U.S. Catholics occurred between the 1950s and 1970s, when the percentage saying they had attended church in the past seven days fell by more than 20 percentage points. It then fell an average of four points per decade through the mid-1990s before stabilizing in the mid-2000s. Since then, the downward trend has resumed, with the percentage attending in the past week falling another six points in the past decade.
This analysis is based on multiple Gallup surveys conducted near the middle of each decade from the 1950s through the present. The data for each period provide sufficient sample sizes to examine church attendance among Protestants and Catholics, the two largest religious groups in the country, as well as the patterns by age within those groups. The sample sizes are not sufficient to allow for analysis of specific Protestant denominations or non-Christian religions.
Less Than Half of Older Catholics Are Now Weekly Churchgoers
In 1955, practicing Catholics of all age groups largely complied with their faith’s weekly mass obligation. At that time, roughly three in four Catholics, regardless of their age, said they had attended church in the past week. This began to change in the 1960s, however, as young Catholics became increasingly less likely to attend. The decline accelerated through the 1970s and has since continued at a slower pace. (See tables at the end of this article for all trend figures.)
Meanwhile, since 1955, there has also been a slow but steady decline in regular church attendance among older Catholics. This includes declines of 10 points or more in just the past decade among Catholics aged 50 and older, leading to the current situation where no more than 49% of Catholics in any age category report attending church in the past week.
To maintain consistency with earlier Gallup polling when the sample population was age 21 and older, this analysis defines the youngest age group as those aged 21 to 29 rather than the 18- to 29-year age range typically examined in modern polling.
Attendance Holding Up Among Protestants of All Ages
U.S. Protestants’ church attendance was not nearly as high as Catholics’ in the 1950s — but it has not decreased over time. Protestants’ church attendance dipped in the 1960s and 1970s among those aged 21 to 29, but it has since rebounded. Among those aged 60 and older, weekly attendance has grown by eight points since the 1950s. (See tables at the end of this article for all trend figures.)
Currently, the rate of weekly church attendance among Protestants and Catholics is similar at most age levels. One exception is among those aged 21 to 29, with Protestants (36%) more likely than Catholics (25%) to say they have attended in the past seven days.
Protestants’ Pie Is Shrinking Faster Than Catholics’
While attracting parishioners to weekly services is vital to the maintenance of the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations alike, so too is maintaining a large base of Americans identifying with each faith group.
Although the rate at which Protestants attend church has held firm over the past six decades, the percentage of Americans identifying as Protestant has declined sharply, from 71% in 1955 to 47% in the mid-2010s. Since 1999, Gallup’s definition of Protestants has included those using the generic term “Christian” as well as those calling themselves Protestant or naming a specific Protestant faith.
By contrast, while the Catholic Church has suffered declining attendance in the U.S., the overall percentage of Catholics has held fairly steady — largely because of the growth of the U.S. Hispanic population. Twenty-two percent of U.S. adults today identify as Catholic, compared with 24% in 1955.
A troubling sign for both religions is that younger adults, particularly those aged 21 to 29, are less likely than older adults to identify as either Protestant or Catholic. This is partly because more young people identify as “other” or with other non-Christian religions, but mostly because of the large proportion — 33% — identifying with no religion.
After stabilizing in the mid-2000s, weekly church attendance among U.S. Catholics has resumed its downward trajectory over the past decade. In particular, older Catholics have become less likely to report attending church in the past seven days — so that now, for the first time, a majority of Catholics in no generational group attend weekly. Further, given that young Catholics are even less devout, it appears the decline in church attendance will only continue. One advantage the Catholic Church has is that the overall proportion of Americans identifying as Catholic is holding fairly steady. However, that too may not last given the dwindling Catholic percentage among younger generations.
Protestant church seats may also be less full, but for a different reason. Although weekly attendance among Protestants has been stable, the proportion of adults identifying as Protestants has shrunk considerably over the past half-century. And that trend will continue as older Americans are replaced by a far less Protestant-identifying younger generation.
All of this comes amid a broader trend of more Americans opting out of formal religion or being raised without it altogether. In 2016, Gallup found one in five Americans professing no religious identity, up from as little as 2% just over 60 years ago.
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.
On March 13, Pope Francis will complete his first five years as head of the Roman Catholic Church. Since his election, Pope Francis has engaged the estimated 1.2 billion Catholics and innumerable non-Catholics worldwide with his frank, inclusive talk on issues as diverse as poverty and homosexuality. In fact, many observers seem confused by the church’s apparent willingness to reconsider traditions regarding some contentious issues, such as divorce.
Based on the Gospels of Mark and Luke, it is apostolic succession that specifies how the Catholic Church acquired its authority and its ability to save souls. God gave the power of salvation – to “bind and loose” souls – to Christ who shared it with 12 male apostles. When the apostles chose their successors, the first bishops, they passed the power of salvation to those bishops through the sacrament of ordination. Through ordination, bishops have endowed priests with God’s authority up to the present day.
The origins of apostolic succession can be traced to the first centuries A.D. – a time when Christianity was illegal. Jesus had left his followers with no obvious blueprint for any type of formal church or priesthood. Christians were, thus, free to worship in their own ways, trying not to get caught.
This troubled Christian leaders such as Clement, a first-century bishop of Rome, and Irenaeus, a second-century bishop of Lyon. They believed it unlikely that such a diversity of practices could lead to heaven. Jesus, they wrote, must have left one true path to salvation. In the absence of clear direction, they traced this one path through the apostles and their recognized successors, the bishops.
This became a pivotal development in early attempts to organize a uniform Christian “church,” creating a formal clergy. Only ordained priests were authorized to celebrate the sacraments, a key source of God’s grace.
Anyone, for example, could pronounce ritualistic words over bread and wine, but unless that individual had been given the authority of the apostles through ordination, that bread and wine would remain mere bread and wine. There was no true sacrament, no saving grace. Such unauthorized persons, Irenaeus charged, were thieves, stealing the chance of salvation from the Christians they duped.
Although the church no longer supports such reasoning, it does still exclude women from the priesthood by virtue of their sex. In its 1976 declaration, “Inter Insigniores,” the church proclaimed its loyalty to the model left by Christ to his followers – in other words, apostolic succession.
Since Christ was incarnated as male and all 12 original apostles were male, the church declared that God meant for males alone to exercise the priesthood. The church, in other words, does not consider the extension of ordination to women to be an issue of human rights but one of fulfilling the divine will, with which there can be no compromise nor accommodation.
“The Church that preaches the equality of women but does nothing to demonstrate it within its own structures … is … dangerously close to repeating the theological errors that underlay centuries of Church-sanctioned slavery.”
These Catholics allege the refusal to ordain women is not God’s intent, and neither scripturally justified nor the original practice of the church.
Yet the field on which such battles are fought is far from level, and those on the side of apostolic succession have the upper hand.
Although Francis is unlikely to allow women into the priesthood, it is within reason that he could lead in ordaining women to become deacons, as this would not necessarily violate apostolic succession. Deacons – along with bishops and priests – are one of the three ordained “orders” of ministers in the Catholic Church. Deacons are not priests, but they may preach, teach and lead in prayer and works of mercy.
The diaconate is often a stage on the road to ordination to the priesthood for men. During the Vatican’s Synod on the Family in 2015, Canadian Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher of Quebec encouraged his colleagues to expand women’s opportunities for leadership, including ordination to the diaconate, “to clearly show the world the equal dignity of women and men in the Church.”
Pope Benedict XVI suggested this almost a decade ago. Durocher, like Benedict, was careful to clarify that deacons are directed “non ad sacerdotium, sed ad ministerium,” meaning “not to priesthood, but to ministry.” While Francis has been firm in protecting doctrines such as apostolic succession, this is a move he could legitimately make.
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’.”