The church has always been a place where sinners are welcomed and offered refuge.
By William McGurn
What might Oscar Wilde have made of the new exhibit meant to honor him as “one of the earliest forebears of gay liberation”? The Oscar Wilde Temple opened last week in a former Methodist chapel in South London, complete with an altar featuring a statue of the Irish playwright.
Wilde’s own life and tastes, after all, were more complicated. When he arrived in Rome in 1900, he found himself attracted to both the Eternal City’s pagan past and its Catholic present, extolling the beauty of the young men he paid for even as he haunted the Vatican for a blessing from the pope. Six months later in Paris, on his deathbed, he was welcomed into the Catholic church.
Wilde wasn’t unusual for his time. To today’s generations, Catholicism may be the Church of Intolerance. But in Wilde’s day, the church was still the Scarlet Woman, home for the disreputable and deplorable. In his play “A Woman of No Importance” the title character, who has a secret past—an illegitimate son—explains why she spends so much time in church.
“Where else could I go?” she asks. “God’s house is the only house where sinners are made welcome.” Sin and grace in a broken world. How many who shared Wilde’s sexual attractions found similar refuge and equality at the altar rail of Rome?
Wilde was no stranger to sexual scandal. Nor, for anyone familiar with its history, is the Catholic church. Today the face of scandal is Theodore McCarrick, the former cardinal accused of molesting an 11-year-old boy as well as regularly inviting seminarians to his bed.
Notwithstanding its unpopularity, church teaching on homosexuality hasn’t fundamentally changed since St. Paul. What has changed is that the orthodoxy dominating civilization is no longer set by even a residually Judeo-Christian ethos.
This new orthodoxy comes with a new enforcer, too. When it comes to rooting out heresy and dissent, what the Inquisition once accomplished with torture and dungeons today’s media does far more efficiently with relentless promotion of voices and ideas it wants amplified, and equally relentless neglect of voices and ideas it wants ignored. Mockery and contempt are reserved for anyone who won’t sign on.
It isn’t without its contradictions. On the one hand, the keepers of the new sexual orthodoxy are rightly indignant at the lack of consent and exploitation inherent in the sexual abuses by priests, bishops and cardinals who preyed upon those to whom they were supposed to be fathers and shepherds. On the other hand, this same orthodoxy continues to play down that most of the abuse has been committed by men against other men and boys.
Take former Cardinal McCarrick. We’re told “everyone knew” what “Uncle Ted” was up to. Yet knowledge of his behavior didn’t stop him from attaining the archbishopric of the nation’s capital, a cardinal’s hat and welcome in the highest and most fashionable circles.
Even now, it’s illuminating to compare his treatment with the vitriol directed at John Nienstedt, who resigned in 2015 as archbishop of Minneapolis after prosecutors charged the archdiocese with failing to protect children from a sexually abusive priest. Archbishop Nienstedt has also been investigated for inappropriate sexual behavior, though nothing has been proved, no charges were ever filed, and he maintains his innocence.
Certainly no one could claim that Archbishop Nienstedt’s handling of reports of sexual abuse in his diocese was anything but a disaster. And if credible proof emerges he himself was an abuser, by all means let him answer for it. Still, it’s hard not to notice that what really seems to distinguish Archbishop Nienstedt from former Cardinal McCarrick is that the former spoke out publicly for his church’s teaching by supporting a Minnesota ballot measure to ban same-sex marriage.
In so doing, Archbishop Nienstedt challenged the prevailing secular orthodoxy in a way Cardinal McCarrick never did. Which may explain why until recently a media that otherwise delights in bringing down Catholic prelates was decidedly uninterested in investigating the many rumors that swirled around Cardinal McCarrick while he was still active in church life.
It should go without saying that not every gay priest is a predator, that many are holy men, and that the church doesn’t need a witch hunt to root out anyone suspected of being gay. But when the main study on sex abuse by American clergy reports that 81% of victims were male—and largely postpubescent—how tenable is the proposition that homosexuality hasn’t a thing to do with priestly sex abuse?
“I can resist everything but temptation,” Wilde once quipped. What might he have made of the new orthodoxy trying to impose itself on the church he ultimately called his own—and of pope, cardinals and bishops so plainly embarrassed by their own teaching?
With the sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church reaching a critical mass, Pope Francis has issued an unprecedented call to the world’s top bishops to meet with him in Rome, next February, to discuss “the protection of minors.” But the pressing question for leaders of the Catholic Church no longer concerns abusive priests or complicit bishops, because the Church has forfeited the credibility necessary for such investigations, and has been replaced by civil authorities, such as the state attorneys general—six, as of last week—who are following Pennsylvania’s lead into this morass.
The question for the Church now, given the astounding scale of the dysfunction, arching from the Americas to Europe, Africa, the Philippines, and Australia, is: What in Catholic culture caused this debauchery? The proximate cause concerns essential mistakes of moral theology, including the stigmatizing of normal erotic longing and the sanctifying of prejudice against women and homosexuals. Those errors have roots in the ancient Church, when fundamental options in favor of male power and against sex for pleasure and love were made.
But the immediate cause of the crisis is more recent. The Second Vatican Council, which met in the course of three years, beginning in October of 1962, began as an attempt to redress the old problems. The Council fathers seriously undertook to empower the laity, replace the negative attitudes toward sex that underwrote a deep-seated Catholic neurosis, reform the doom-laden moral theology, democratize the form of the Mass, and transform the self-protecting clerical culture. The pushback began even before the Council adjourned, especially once Pope John XXIII died, in 1963. It is likely that Church disciplines on contraception and priestly celibacy would have begun to change were it not for the panicked intervention of the new Pope, Paul VI, in the Council’s procedures.
After the Council ended, in December of 1965, a full rollback of the reforming impulse was quickly launched. The laity were never meaningfully empowered. The clerical culture was protected. The natural pluralism of theological inquiry was stifled. Women were kept in their place. Perhaps most symbolically, in 1968, Pope Paul condemned the use of birth control among Catholics. The centralized authority of the papacy became stronger than ever. The avatars of this conservative reaction were John Paul II and his enforcer, Joseph Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI, but the agents of backlash, shaping Catholic attitudes for the past generation, have been the very bishops whom Pope Francis has now summoned to Rome. Even the so-called liberals in the hierarchy would not have been promoted if they had not readily accommodated Ratzinger’s squelching of reform.
One wishes that, in this critical hour, the Church could turn to a cohort of independent-minded Catholic lay people, women and men alike, who have experience in Church administration at the senior-most levels, but there is no such cohort. A devoted legion of volunteers serve the Church, but they exercise no meaningful authority. If the promise of the Vatican Council had been even minimally fulfilled, this would not be the case. Abusive priests would not have been blithely set loose, and the enabling bishops would not have been able to absolve them—or themselves.
It is deeply ironic that the dilemma facing Pope Francis, while caused in part by his own clerical myopia, is made exponentially more pressing by his conservative opponents’ weaponizing of Church confusion about homosexuality. They are doing this precisely to eliminate, once and for all, what little remains of the reform impulse that began at Vatican II. The alarm signal of danger that Francis posed for conservatives was his early refusal to condemn homosexuals. That a bishop like Theodore McCarrick is credibly alleged to be a homosexual harasser—he is accused of, among other things, using his power to prey upon vulnerable seminarians, a charge that he has denied—has given the Pope’s critics the opening that they need. This is in addition to the fact that leading figures among the disgraced have been supportive of Francis, including McCarrick and Cardinal George Pell, of Australia, who will be tried for “historical sexual assault offenses,” to which he has pleaded not guilty; and Cardinal Donald Wuerl, of Washington, D.C., who last week announced that he will ask Pope Francis to accept his resignation following accusations that, when he was the bishop of Pittsburgh, he was involved in the coverup of the abuse in Pennsylvania. With this lethal brew being stirred by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who has called on Francis himself to resign, the charges are flying, and homosexuals as a group are being scapegoated. Among conservatives, to have tolerated gay priests is now being equated with having tolerated sexual harassment and, in some cases, the rape of children. But even this murkiness is a mark of an incoherent Catholic morality about all kinds of sexual expression.
It once seemed certain that Pope Francis, grounded in the spirit of Vatican II and possessing an ample trove of common sense, was equipped to lead the Catholic Church in its recovery from this disaster. Two things have dimmed that prospect. The first is Francis himself. He is woefully in the grip of male-dominated, celibate clericalism, even though he criticizes it. He still puts his trust in gestures of good will and in bromides of shame, as he did last month, on his trip to Ireland, instead of launching the massive institutional reform that the crisis demands. He seems to think that a meeting of bishops is a solution when, as a class, they are themselves the problem. And, apparently, he regards next February as a timely response to a bankruptcy that has already been declared.
The second factor is the recent accumulation of new evidence showing that the depth of Church corruption wildly surpasses any previous estimate. Every week brings a new bolt of accusation. Last week, the Pope accepted the resignation of Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, of West Virginia, amid allegations that he had sexually harassed adults (he has denied allegations against him), and the news that a report to be issued by the Church this week will reveal that more than three thousand minors were abused by more than a thousand priests in Germany. On Saturday, a Dutch newspaper investigation found that, between 1945 and 2010, more than half of the bishops and cardinals of the Netherlands had protected priest abusers instead of victims.
This cascade of accusation, revelation, and indictment will keep flowing. That Pope Francis responds with a business-as-usual meeting of bishops next winter shows how far he is from grasping the stakes of this crisis. His enemies exploit it, while Catholics and non-Catholics alike recognize the utter collapse of Church morality.
The grand jury report of Catholic priests’ predations in Pennsylvania is enough to make one vomit. The terrifying fact that hundreds of priests were preying upon over a thousand victims in that state alone makes one shudder at the thought of how many hundreds and thousands of abusers there are elsewhere in the nation, elsewhere in the world. It is time to stop waiting for more reports to accumulate, hoping that something will finally be done about this. Done by whom? By “the church”? If “the church” is taken to mean the pope and bishops, nothing will come of nothing. They are as a body incapable of making sense of anything sexual.
A wise man once told me that we humans are all at one time or another a little crazy on the subject of sex. A little crazy, yes. But Catholic priests are charged with maintaining The Big Crazy on sex all the time. These functionaries of the church are formally supposed to believe and preach sexual sillinesses, from gross denial to outright absurdity, on the broadest range of issues—masturbation, artificial insemination, contraception, sex before marriage, oral sex, vasectomy, homosexuality, gender choice, abortion, divorce, priestly celibacy, male-only priests—and uphold the church’s “doctrines,” no matter how demented.
Some priests are humane or common-sensible enough to ignore some parts of this impossibly severe set of rules, which gives them reason to be selective about sexual matters. Since scripture says nothing about most of these subjects, popes have claimed a power to define “natural law.” But the nineteenth-century English theologian John Henry Newman was right when he said, “The Pope, who comes of Revelation, has no jurisdiction over Nature.” That would be true even if the natural law being invoked had some philosophical depth, but Catholics are asked to accept childish versions of “natural law.” For instance, since the “natural” use of sex is to beget children, any use apart from that is sinful, and mortally sinful. Masturbate and you go to hell (unless, of course, you confess the sin to a priest, which gives an ordained predator the chance to be “comforting” about masturbation).
Contraception prevents the “natural” begetting? Condoms are a ticket to damnation. Homosexuality gives no “natural” progeny? Straight to hell! This is like saying that the “natural” aim of eating is for maintenance of life, so any eating that is not necessary for bodily preservation is a sin. Toast someone with champagne and you go to hell. “The church” adopted this simpleton’s view of natural law only after it had to abandon an equally childish argument from scripture. Pope Pius XI in his 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii noted that Onan was condemned to death for coitus interruptus with his brother’s widow, when “he spilled it [his seed] on the ground” (Genesis 38: 9-10). Dorothy Parker said she called her parrot Onan because it certainly spilled its seed on the ground. When Bible scholars pointed out that the Genesis passage concerned levirate marriage, later popes had to invent a lame natural law argument to replace the lame scriptural argument.
Priests are set apart, by celibacy, by sacramental powers. They are privileged, and they do not want to give up such influence. When dangers to their status come up, they must mute or minimize the dangers. After all, they do perform good work. Catholic charities are impressive. Priests cannot give people counsel and comfort if their position is compromised. This leads to a long-tacit bargain, a devil’s deal. If you do not challenge the priestly mystique, which bishops mean to use for good purposes, they will not reveal the vile treatment of boys. The priesthood itself is at stake.
And other things are at stake, too. Property, for instance. The first thing bishops have done when charged with abuse is to lawyer up. And lawyers advise their clerical clients not to show sympathy for victims, since that will strengthen their claim. If one has to recognize some responsibility, by all means do it quietly, paying victims but with an agreement that the victim will not talk about the payment. In order to buy this silence, church property must be protected.
To be a priest is to be a company man, the company being the pope and the hierarchy. The farther one rises in the hierarchy, the higher the stakes. Pope Francis probably does want to do something about the priest mystique; but he is surrounded by loyalists of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and he is trammeled by his predecessors’ many years of priest-mystique maintenance, which is the principal task of many in Rome. Waiting for the pope to do something is to hope that the protector of the mystique will forswear the mystique.
Many victims of abuse by priests have made the mistake of reporting their charges to a bishop. They should have gone straight to a secular authority. To expect from the celibate clergy either candor or good sense on sexual matters is a fool’s game. The Vatican II Council proclaimed that the church is the people of God, not their rulers. The hierarchy, when it opposes the laity, makes itself the enemy of the church, not its embodiment. There are no priests in the Gospels (except Jewish priests at the Temple). Peter and Paul never called themselves or anyone else a priest. Jesus is not called a priest in the New Testament apart from a goofy claim in the late and suspect “Letter to the Hebrews,” in which Jesus is said to be a priest not in any Jewish line, but in that of a non-Jewish, so-called priest named Melchizedek, who can never die.
The laity should reclaim its centrality in the church. It has begun to do that in silent ways: for instance, by widespread disuse of the confessional (a medieval invention), by ignoring the ban on contraception (how otherwise could the birth rate of Catholics have declined so far, so fast?), by the number of Catholic abortions (registered by the Kinsey Institute), and by the drop in church attendance (after the pedophile scandals). Some Catholics, of course, have abandoned the church over one or more of these matters—as can be seen in the decline of the church in Ireland. But people like Bill Donohue of the Catholic League are upset at those who still consider themselves Catholic while ignoring “church teaching” on sexual matters, who go to communion without going to confession, who mock the absurdities called “natural law.”
Those who still want to stand with their Catholic brothers and sisters should not merely dissent in private ways, but should also speak up and demand what opinion polls show they really want for the church as the people of God. It is mandatory celibacy and male-only priesthood that is “unnatural.” Even an admired spiritual leader like Thomas Merton, who thought he could get away from temptation by sealing out “the world” in a monastery, fell madly in love with a young nurse when he had to go to a hospital. It was a love that Kaya Oakes, in a new book of tributes to Merton, thinks made him fully human for the first time.
That story is worth contemplating when we think of all the gay priests studied by the late monk, psychotherapist, and author Richard Sipe who were forced into a dishonesty by the church teaching against homosexuality that condemned them and sometimes made them cover up for other, pedophile priests committing vile acts against children because they had their own little hierarchy-imposed secret. They could resort to dodges like the claim that priests could not be bothered by the married life, with the problems of children, when their whole attention was on spiritual matters. We do not ask whether a surgeon or a pilot or even our family doctor is celibate for fear that, if not so, he will pay us less attention than he ought. In fact, it may be a recommendation for a family doctor that he knows what we all go through.
Rot and dishonesty are hard to claw out, especially when given centuries to embed themselves in the traditions of the church. We can only hope that, this late in the game, they can be cured. There is no way of knowing but to try.
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.
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”.
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’.”
Gay sex is a sin. The New Testament makes that abundantly clear.
Or does it?
According to one of the UK’s most prominent evangelicals, if Christian scholarship engages with archaeological evidence from the rediscovered ancient city of Pompeii, much of St Paul’s teaching on sexuality must be radically reinterpreted.
In a new online video for the Open Church Network, Revd. Canon Steve Chalke argues that by studying the remains of Pompeii, and understanding the ancient Roman world’s highly sexualised culture, we can find new meaning in chapters such as Romans 1, which have traditionally been misinterpreted to condemn same-sex relations.
Revd. Canon Steve Chalke says, “For too long the remains of Pompeii have been little known to members of the general public, but when the chance to examine them is taken, it becomes abundantly clear that in ancient Rome, sex was everything. 80% of the artwork recovered from Pompeii and its sister town of Herculaneum is sexually explicit and also reveals a fascination with the image of the stiff, erect penis – a symbol of power and pleasure. This is the context into which the New Testament was written.
“If you were a man in Roman culture, so long as someone was your social inferior – a slave, a gladiator, a woman etc. – it was considered socially acceptable and respectable to penetrate them. A married man would have a mistress for pleasure and a non-Roman boy for ecstasy. They called these people ‘infames’; those utterly lacking in social standing and deprived of most protections accorded to citizens under Roman law. There is also much evidence that Roman women also engaged exploitative sex – typically with female slaves, gladiators or male castrated slaves – whose testicles had been removed or rendered inoperative, so that they could not produce sperm and lost their desire for sex but still had the ability to perform it. Juvenal, the poet, tells us that bored Roman women took these eunuchs as lovers.
“So engrained was this way of thinking and behaving that it became incorporated into religion. Drug and alcohol fuelled orgies featuring men sleeping with women, men sleeping with men and women sleeping with women and men were even classed as acts of worship.”
Chalke argues that against this backdrop, verses such as the often quoted Romans 1 v 27 (“In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error”) should be understood to condemn the power-driven sexual hierarchy and abuse so common to Roman life, with the rest of the chapter condemning their sex-driven approach to worship and idolatry.
“Every Christian believes God to be a God of love. It is no wonder that these abusive practises are condemned by inspired scripture. But, it is a disingenuous misreading of the text to conclude that what Paul describes in Romans 1 can be used to prevent people forming loving, faithful and nurturing relationships with people of the same-sex.”
The video, containing graphic images that were discovered in Pompeii, which also deals with the three other passages in the New Testament that have traditionally been used to condemn any kind of homosexual activity or even orientation has been released and is available at openchurch.network.
Chalke continues, “The content of the video is so graphic that we’ve had to place a parental warning label on it – however I have not released this out of any desire to provoke or shock for the sake of it. Because of widespread ignorance of the ancient world and Greco-Roman culture in churches across the West, we throw Bible verses around without understanding their context. We misunderstand Paul’s criticism of rituals that exploit power and abuse people and then, out of ignorance, use them to try to prevent people of same-sex orientation from finding loving, committed and fulfilling partnerships and of entering into, what I believe is, the holy institution of same-sex marriage. For the Church, the Bible is the corner stone of faith and practise. It is time we took it more seriously. The Church has a duty to use every tool of modern scholarship available in this task.”
The ancient city Pompeii was buried – although not, as we now know, destroyed – when the nearby, supposedly extinct, volcano Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, covering it and the nearby town of Herculaneum and their inhabitants in many tons of pumice and volcanic ash. Although the disaster remained in people’s minds for many years it was eventually forgotten, until the exploration of the ancient site started in 1748.
However, work to excavate the city still continues today and it is only in relatively recent years that there has been sufficient public access to allow the findings to influence theological and cultural scholarship.
Biblical arguments for LGBTQ rights and a queer Jesus may seem like new ideas, but they were pioneered about 200 years ago by an influential British philosopher — in writings that were published only recently.
Philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832) presented Biblical evidence for Jesus’ homosexuality as part of his theological defense for same-sex love in “Not Paul, but Jesus Vol. III.” It was published for the first time in 2013 and is freely available to download or view online. He died on June 6, 1832.
Bentham didn’t dare publish it during his lifetime because he feared being labeled a “sodomite” himself. At the time “buggery” was punished with death by hanging in England.
This champion of sexual freedom was far, far ahead of his time. “Not Paul, but Jesus” lays out many of the same arguments that are still used today by LGBTQ
Christians and our allies: debunking the scriptures typically used to condemn LGBTQ people and pointing out that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality. Bentham goes on to present an idea that many still consider blasphemous. He suggests that Jesus had male-male sexual relationships.
Bentham wrote the book so long ago that the word “homosexuality” had not been invented yet. Instead he has a chapter titled “The eccentric pleasures of the bed, whether partaken of by Jesus?” His language may sound quaint, but his ideas are right on target for today. Bentham himself struggled with words for what we call homosexuality, deliberately creating new vocabulary so he could avoid the negative connotations associated with the terminology of his day (sodomy, buggery, perversion, etc.).
Bentham is best known as the founder of Utilitarianism, a philosophy that advocates “the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people” A respected thinker during his lifetime, Bentham was also far advanced on a wide range of other legal, economic and political issues. He coined the word “international.” He was one of the first proponents of animal rights. He supported women’s equality and opposed slavery and capital punishment. He corresponded with various world leaders, including US presidents Jefferson and Madison. Several South and Central American nations sought his advice in creating their constitutions and legal codes. Born and raised in a devout Anglican family in London, he became an agnostic who believed that religion was an instrument of oppression. His solution was separation of church and state.
In the third volume of “Not Paul, but Jesus Vol. III,” Bentham corrects false interpretations of what would later come to be called the “clobber passages.” He identifies the sin of Sodom as gang-rape. He puts the sexual prohibitions of the Hebrew scriptures into historical context, pointing out that many of the other taboos are no longer enforced.
Bentham dismisses Paul’s condemnations of homosexuality as an asceticism not shared by Jesus himself. He sees romantic love between Old Testament heroes Jonathan and David — and possibly between Jesus and his beloved disciple John, noting that the Bible reports their loving touch without condemnation.
Bentham goes on to analyze the account in Mark’s gospel of “the stripling in the loose attire” (now usually known as “the naked young man”) at the arrest of Jesus — a passage that continues to fuel 21st-century speculations in the LGBTQ community. He urges readers to consider the most “probable interpretation” for the nakedness. (In a different manuscript he made it clear that the youth was probably a male prostitute loyal to Jesus.) Bentham even hints that Jesus was killed for homosexuality, asking readers to consider what interaction with a naked man could be “so awful” that it leads to cruel execution.
Pro-LGBTQ Christians today often note that Jesus never said anything against homosexuality. Bentham makes the same point in his own elaborate way, with sentences such as: “In the acts or discourses of Jesus, had any such marks of reprobation towards the mode of sexuality in question been to be found as may be seen in such abundance in the epistles of Paul—in a word, had any one decided mark of reprobation been so to be found as pronounced upon it by Jesus, in the eyes [of] no believer in Jesus could any such body of evidence as hath here been seen [to] present itself be considered as worth regarding.”
Indeed Bentham’s main purpose in all three volumes of “Not Paul, but Jesus” is to show the error in following the ascetic Paul instead of the true Christianity of the more tolerant Jesus, who accepted the human pursuit of pleasure. This concept is introduced in the first volume of “Not Paul, but Jesus” was published in 1823. Fearing hostile reactions, Bentham used the pseudonym Gamaliel Smith. The second volume, which deals with the early church, and the third volume, which focuses on sexual morality, remained unpublished.
Bentham wrote more than 500 pages explaining his liberal views on homosexuality during the last 50 years of his life. Some of these documents may have circulated among his followers, but none of it was published during his lifetime.
The first Bentham writings on homosexuality to be published were primarily secular. His 1785 essay “Offences Against One’s Self: Paederasty” is considered the first document arguing for decriminalization of homosexuality in England. He reasoned that consensual sex between same-sex partners should not be punished because it does not harm anyone. The essay was not published until 1931, when a fragment first appeared in print. The full essay was finally published in 1978.
Only now are Bentham’s writings on Jesus and homosexuality coming to light. The third volume of “Not Paul, but Jesus” was not published in any form until 2013. It was released last year by the Bentham Project at University College London, which counts him as its spiritual father.
A section on “Jesus’s Sexuality” is also included in the 2012 article “Jeremy Bentham: Prophet of Secularism” by Philip Schofield, director of the Bentham Project. He draws on the “Not Paul” book and another set of manuscripts to draw powerful conclusions such as this:
Bentham claimed that, unlike Paul, Jesus did not, according to any account that appeared in the four Gospels, condemn either the pleasures of the table or the pleasures of the bed. On the contrary, Jesus’s opposition to asceticism was shown in his condemnation of the Mosaic law in Matthew 9: 9–17…. Bentham pointed out that Paul’s most forceful condemnation was directed towards homosexuality. Bentham responded that not only had Jesus never condemned homosexuality, but that he had probably engaged in it. There were, moreover, many females in Jesus’s immediate circle, and again Bentham saw no reason why Jesus might not have engaged in heterosexual activity as well.
Although Bentham doggedly defended consensual sexual activity between same-sex couples for half a century, his own love life remains a mystery. The son of a wealthy lawyer, he was a child prodigy who grew up to be a brilliant and eccentric recluse, living alone in London in what he called “a state of perpetual and unruffled gaiety.” He referred to his home as his “hermitage.” He lived there with a “sacred teapot” called Dicky, a favorite walking stick named Dapple, and a beloved tom cat addressed as the Reverend Doctor John Langborn. He declared, “I love everything that has four legs,” and allowed a colony of mice to share his office. One study concludes he had Asperger Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. Check this link for an 1827 description of Bentham’s eccentricities.
The philosopher’s influence continued to grow after his death as his supporters spread his ideas. Most of what is now known as liberalism is rooted in Bentham’s philosophy. His diverse followers included economist John Stuart Mill and feminist firebrand Frances “Fanny” Wright, who once exclaimed in a poem, “Oh had I but the Lesbyan’s lyre, / Blue-eyed Sappho’s fervid strain, / Then might I hope thy blood to fire…”.
Contemporary queer theologians such as Robert Shore-Goss have recognized him too. Shore-Goss writes a section about Bentham in the chapter on “Christian Homodevotion to Jesus” in his book “Queering Christ: Beyond Jesus Acted Up.”
During his 84 years Bentham wrote manuscripts totaling more than 5 million words, and many remain unstudied and unpublished. The Bentham Project is busy recruiting volunteers worldwide to transcribe them. More words of wisdom are likely to emerge from this prophet of LGBTQ rights who once summed up his approach to life by saying: “Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove.”
Growing up in a conservative Christian church, I was taught that the gospel was one, complete, and indestructible whole — particularly as it applied to human sexuality. But it’s not that simple.
The idea that is still taught in some churches today is that the Christian sexual ethic came to earth fully formed, straight from heaven, about 2,000 years ago. Throughout all that time, there was exactly one way for Christians to express their sexuality — by staying abstinent until they got married to a person of the opposite gender. And then, you could have at it all you wanted.
But what I wasn’t taught in Sunday School is that the Bible’s teachings on sex have been interpreted in many different ways. I didn’t know that the early Christians actually started practicing celibacy because they were convinced the end of the world was near. No one told me that marriage wasn’t always defined and controlled by the church. And that even within marriage, sex wasn’t always something that Christians were taught to enjoy and cherish.
And the truth is that the standards on what it means to be a sexual person and live a Christian life have changed. A lot. Here are 6 facts to prove it.
1. Jesus had very little to say about sex.
Other than a some heavy admonishments against lust and against divorce, the Jesus of the Bible didn’t have a lot to say about issues of sexuality. (My guess is that he was too busy hanging out with the poor and healing the sick to care. Just a guess). He also had nothing at all to say about homosexuality or sexual identity as we understand it today.
Most of the instruction about sex comes from Christian leaders who started spreading the religion after Jesus’ death.
2. To be a truly devoted Christian during the earliest days of the church, you needed to stop having sex altogether.
Early Christians’ belief that Jesus’ second coming was imminent created an environment that exalted celibacy over marriage. It was a radical departure from Jewish teachings that the disciples would have been familiar with. But it makes sense — what was the point of getting tied up with worldly responsibilities, like taking care of a spouse, children and a household, when the end of the world was near?
The church got involved in regulating marriage much later on, as its influence began to increase in Western Europe. It wasn’t until 1215 that the Church formally put a claim on marriage and hashed out rules about what made children legitimate.
4. For much of the church’s history, sex within a marriage was only tolerated because it produced children.
Christian leaders didn’t just disapprove of premarital sex. Sexual desire itself was seen as the problem.
After St. Paul, one of the most prominent Christian early church leaders who had an impact on the way Christians view sex was St. Augustine. Influenced by Plato’s philosophy, he promoted the idea that untamed sexual desire was a sign of rebellion against God. It only became honorable when it was placed in the context of marriage and the possibility of children.
Augustine was one of a long line of theologians to promote the idea of sexual desire as a sin. Other Christian leaders have argued that being too passionately in love with a partner, or having sex just for pleasure, was also a sin. This idea would continue to gain momentum over the next few centuries. And it wasn’t long before things got really, really weird.
5. The Church developed some rules about sex that would seem strange to even the most conservative American Christians today.
In medieval times, the church became deeply involved with controlling people’s sex lives. Virginity and monogamy were still prized, while homosexuality could be punished by death. The church also had very specific requirements for what type of sex married couples could have. Since all sex was supposed to be for the purposes of procreation, certain positions were banned (no sex standing up, the woman shouldn’t be on top, no doggy style, oral, anal, or masturbation). And then there were restrictions on what days of the week people could have sex (not on fast days, or feast days for a saint, or on Sundays, for example).
Sex was also discouraged when a woman was menstruating, pregnant, or breastfeeding, (which considering there was no birth control, could have been a good deal of the time). All of these prohibitions meant that on average, sex between married couples was only legal about once per week, if that.
6. Despite these varying standards for sex, love, and marriage, Christians have usually ended up doing their own thing.
In the Middle Ages and now, many Christians have admired and strived towards these standards and ended up looking the other way. It took centuries for the church to enforce a ban against priests getting married. The Middle Ages was also a “golden era” for gay poetry, especially between members of the clergy.
It’s time to get real: There is no such thing as a traditional Christian sexual ethic.
I wish I’d known this earlier. The problem with teaching kids that the Bible is infallible and that Christian teaching has never changed is that the second they crack open a history book, or have sex, or fall in love with someone of the same gender, the carefully constructed house of faith that they’ve inherited from their parents starts crumbling apart. And that’s when doubt can come rushing in.
But that’s a good thing. It’s what I feel is missing in the way some Christians talk about sex today. If your faith calls you to abstinence before marriage, that is fine and good. But the problem for me is when people start preaching that their interpretation is the only way or the holiest way or the right way. From what I’ve witnessed, the fruit that this kind of teaching produces is often overwhelming guilt, anger, and pain.
On the other hand, acknowledging Christianity’s complexity can be life-changing. It can turn a faith assembled like a delicate house of cards into a faith that you worked hard to build from the ground up.