The Church and the Homosexual: An Historical Perspective, 1979
Excerpts from the keynote address made by Prof. Boswell to
the Fourth Biennial Dignity International Convention in 1979.
"Homosexuality," Plato wrote, "is regarded as shameful
by barbarians and by those who live under despotic governments
just as philosophy is regarded as shameful by them, because it
is apparently not in the interest of such rulers to have great
ideas engendered in their subjects, or powerful friendships or
passionate love-all of which homosexuality is particularly apt
to produce." This attitude of Plato's was characteristic
of the ancient world, and I want to begin my discussion of the
attitudes of the Church and of Western Christianity toward homosexuality
by commenting on comparable attitudes among the ancients.
To a very large extent, Western attitudes toward law, religion,
literature and government are dependent upon Roman attitudes.
This makes it particularly striking that our attitudes toward
homosexuality in particular and sexual tolerance in general are
so remarkably different from those of the Romans. It is very difficult
to convey to modern audiences the indifference of the Romans to
questions of gender and gender orientation. The difficulty is
due both to the fact that the evidence has been largely consciously
obliterated by historians prior to very recent decades, and to
the diffusion of the relevant material.
Romans did not consider sexuality or sexual preference a matter
of much interest, nor did they treat either in an analytical way.
An historian has to gather together thousands of little bits and
pieces to demonstrate the general acceptance of homosexuality
among the Romans.
One of the few imperial writers who does appear to make some sort
of comment on the subject in a general way wrote, "Zeus came
as an eagle to godlike Ganymede and as a swan to the fairhaired
mother of Helen. One person prefers one gender, another the other,
I like both." Plutarch wrote at about the same time, "No
sensible person can imagine that the sexes differ in matters of
love as they do in matters of clothing. The intelligent lover
of beauty will be attracted to beauty in whichever gender he finds
it." Roman law and social strictures made absolutely no restrictions
on the basis of gender. It has sometimes been claimed that there
were laws against homosexual relations in Rome, but it is easy
to prove that this was not the case. On the other hand, it is
a mistake to imagine that anarchic hedonism ruled at Rome. In
fact, Romans did have a complex set of moral strictures designed
to protect children from abuse or any citizen from force or duress
in sexual relations. Romans were, like other people, sensitive
to issues of love and caring, but individual sexual (i.e. gender)
choice was completely unlimited. Male prostitution (directed toward
other males), for instance, was so common that the taxes on it
constituted a major source of revenue for the imperial treasury.
It was so profitable that even in later periods when a certain
intolerance crept in, the emperors could not bring themselves
to end the practice and its attendant revenue.
Gay marriages were also legal and frequent in Rome for both males
and females. Even emperors often married other males. There was
total acceptance on the part of the populace, as far as it can
be determined, of this sort of homosexual attitude and behavior.
This total acceptance was not limited to the ruling elite; there
is also much popular Roman literature containing gay love stories.
The real point I want to make is that there is absolutely no conscious
effort on anyone's part in the Roman world, the world in which
Christianity was born, to claim that homosexuality was abnormal
or undesirable. There is in fact no word for "homosexual"
in Latin. "Homosexual" sounds like Latin, but was coined
by a German psychologist in the late 1 9th century. No one in
the early Roman world seemed to feel that the fact that someone
preferred his or her own gender was any more significant than
the fact that someone preferred blue eyes or short people. Neither
gay nor straight people seemed to associate certain characteristics
with sexual preference. Gay men were not thought to be less masculine
than straight men and lesbian women were not thought of as less
feminine than straight women. Gay people were not thought to be
any better or worse than straight people-an attitude which differed
both from that of the society that preceded it, since many Greeks
thought gay people were inherently better than straight people,
and from that of the society which followed it, in which gay people
were often thought to be inferior to others.
If this is an accurate picture of the ancient world the social
structure from which Western culture is derived-then where did
the negative ideas now common regarding homosexuality come from?
The most obvious answer to this question, and the one which has
most generally been given in the past, is that Christianity is
responsible for the change. There is an historical coincidence
that seems to lend some credence to this idea- namely that when
Christianity appears on the scene that this tolerance spoken of
earlier disappears and that general acceptance of homosexuality
becomes much less common.
It should be obvious, however, that Christianity alone is not
likely to be responsible for this change. (One notes, for instance,
that the places in the world today where gay people suffer the
most violent oppression happen to be the very places where Christianity
is also least welcome.) First of all, I would like to dispose
briefly of the notion that the Bible had something to do with
Christian attitudes toward gay people. From an historical vantage
point, it is easy to do so, but I realize that for people who
live by the Bible more must be said about it than what an historian
can observe. An historian can simply note that there is no place
in the writings of the Early or High Middle Ages where the Bible
seems to be the origin of these prejudices against gay people.
Where any reason is given for the new hostility. sources
other than the Bible are cited. As a matter of fact, from an historical
perspective, the Bible would be the last source one would look
at after examining growing hostility toward gay people, but so
many people have a feeling that the Bible is somehow involved
that its teachings on the subject matter must be addressed in
Most serious biblical scholars now recognize that the story of
Sodom was probably not intended as any sort of comment on homosexuality.
It certainly was not interpreted as a prohibition of homosexuality
by most early Christian writers. In the modern world, the idea
that the story refers to the sin of inhospitality rather than
to sexual failing was first popularized in 1955 in Homosexuality
and the Western Christian Tradition' by D.S. Bailey, and since
then has increasingly gained the acceptance of scholars. Modern
scholars are a little late: almost all medieval scholars felt
the story of Sodom was a story about hospitality. This is indeed,
not only the most obvious interpretation of it but also the one
given to it in most other biblical passages. It is striking, for
example, that although Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned in about
two dozen different places in the Bible (other than Genesis 19
where the story is first told), in none of these places is homosexuality
associated with the Sodomites.
The only other places that might be adduced from the Old Testament
against homosexuality are Deuteronomy 23:17 and Kings 14:24, and-doubtless
the best know n places Leviticus 18:20 and 20: 13, where a man's
sleeping the asleep of women" with men is labelled ritual
impurity for Jews. None of these was cited by early Christians
against homosexual behavior. Early Christians had no desire to
impose the levitical law on themselves or anyone else. Most nonJewish
Christians were in fact appalled by most of the strictures of
the Jewish law and were not about to put themselves under what
they considered the bondage of the old law. St. Paul says again
and again that we must not fall back on the bondage of the old
law, and in fact goes so far as to claim that if we are circumcised
(the cornerstone of the old law), Christ will profit us nothing.
The early Christians were not to bind themselves to the strictures
of the old law. The Council of Jerusalem, held around 50 A.D.
and recorded in Acts 15, in fact took up this issue specifically
and decided that Christians would not be bound by any of the strictures
of the old law except for which they list - none of which is related
In the New Testament we find no citations of Old Testament strictures.
We do, however, find three places-I Corinthians 6:9, I Timothy
1:10 and Romans 1:2627which might be relevant.
Again, I'll be brief in dealing with these. The Greek word malakos in I Cor. 6:9 and I Tim. 1 :10, which Scholars in the 20th
century have deemed to refer to some sort of homosexual behavior,
was universally used by Christian writers to refer to masturbation
until about the 15th or 16th century. Beginning in the 15th century
many people were bothered by the idea that masturbators were excluded
from the kingdom of heaven. They did not, however, seem to be
too upset by the idea of excluding homosexuals from the kingdom
of heaven, so malakos was retranslated to refer to homosexuality
instead of masturbation. The texts and words remained the same,
but translators just changed their ideas about who should be excluded
from the kingdom of heaven.
The remaining passage - Romans 1:26-7 - does not suffer by and
large from mistranslation, although you can easily be misled by
the phrase "against nature." This phrase was also interpreted
differently by the early church. St. John Chrysostom says that
St. Paul deprives the people he is discussing of any excuse. observing
of their women that "they changed the natural use. No one
can claim, Paul points out, that she came to this because she
was precluded from lawful intercourse or that because she was
unable to satisfy her desire....Only those possessing something
can change it. Again he points the same thing out about men but
in a different way? saying they 'left the natural use of women.'
Likewise, he casts aside with these words every excuse, charging
that they not only had legitimate enjoyment and abandoned it,
going after another but that spurning the natural, they pursued
the unnatural." What Chrysostom is getting at, and he expounds
on it at great length, is the idea that St. Paul was not writing
about gay people but about heterosexual people, probably married
who abandoned the pleasure they were entitled to by virtue of
their own natures for one to which they were not entitled. This
is reflected in the canons imposing penances for homosexual activity,
which through the 16th century were chiefly directed toward married
persons. Little is said of single people.
Perhaps the most significant element of the passage is that it
introduced into Christian thought the notion that homosexual relations
were "against nature." What Paul, however, seems to
have meant was unusual not against natural law, as it is
so often interpreted The concept of natural law was not fully
developed until almost 1,200 years later. All that Paul probably
meant to say was that it was unusual that people should have this
sort of sexual desire. This is made clear by the fact that in
the same epistle in the 11th chapter, God Himself is in fact described
as acting "against nature" in saving the Gentiles. It
is therefore inconceivable that this phrase connotes moral turpitude.
One may well ask whether the thundering silence on the subject
in the New Testament does not indicate something about the attitude
of early Christians toward homosexuality? As an historian, I would
say no. Most of the literature of this period, especially legal
and moral guidance, is silent on the purely affective aspects
of human life. In the New Testament Jesus, St. Paul, and the other
writers are generally responding to questions regarding social
and moral problems posed to them by a predominantly heterosexual
society. People asked them questions about divorce, widows, property,
etch and they answered these questions. Most of Jesus' moral commentary,
especially about sexuality is in response to specific questions
put to him. Jesus does not appear to be giving detailed guidelines
on all aspects of human life, especially not affective life, but
rather to be offering general principles. There is almost no comment
anywhere in the Bible about loving your children; there are few
comments about friendship; and there is not a single comment about
what we know as "romantic love," although this is the
basis of modern Christian marriage in our own church as well as
the entire Christian community.
There are some reasons for the hostility toward homosexuality
which now seem characteristic of the Christian community,
and I want to mention them. First of all, I want to dispose of
what might seem the most likely primary reason for hostility toward
homosexuality-namely, general opposition to non-procreative sexuality.
There was indeed on the part of many early Christians a feeling
of hostility toward any form of sexuality which was not potentially
procreative. This cannot, however, be shown to stem from Christian
principles. Among other things, there is not a word within the
Old Testament or the New about non-procreative sexuality among
married persons, and, indeed, most Jewish commentators have agreed
that anything was licit between husband and wife. It is a well-established
principle in several social science disciplines that there is,
however, a classrelated prejudice against non-procreative
sexual acts, and one would expect to find this among lower class
Christians as among any lower class group of the society. Among
theologians, explicit rejection of all non-procreative sexuality,
does not relate directly to attitudes toward gay people. The theologians
of the early church were attempting to impress on all Christians
that they had to see every act of heterosexual intercourse as
the potential creation of a child. No effective means of birth
control was known in this world (except for abstinence)-not even
the rhythm method. The only way to avoid having children was to
kill or abandon them. Theologians therefore wished to persuade
Christian parents that they had to be responsible for the creation
of a child every time they had sexual pleasure. The only other
alternatives in their world-the world in which the early theology
of the church was formulated-were morally unacceptable. Now the
original aim of this approach, it appears, was only to protect
children. It was not to attack homosexuality. Indeed, it was a
very long time before this notion spilled over into homosexuality,
but it eventually did.
As late as the eleventh and twelfth centuries, there appears to
be no conflict between a Christian life and homosexuality. Gay
life is everywhere in the art, poetry, music, history, etc. of
the 11th and 12th centuries. The most popular literature of the
day even heterosexual literature, is about samesex lovers
of one sort or another. Clerics were at the forefront of this
revival of the gay culture. St. Aelred, for instance, writes of
his youth as a time when he thought of nothing but loving and
being loved by men. He became a Cistercian abbot, and incorporated
his love for men into his Christian life by encouraging monks
to love each other, not just generally, but individually and passionately
He cited the example of Jesus and St. John as guidance for this.
'Jesus himself," he said, "in everything like us. patient
and compassionate with others in every matter, Transfigured this
sort of love through the expression of his own love. for he allowed
only one - not al l- to recline on his breast as a sign of his
special love; and the closer they were, the more copiously did
the secrets of their heavenly marriage impart the sweet smell
of their spiritual chrism to their love."
After the twelfth century Christian tolerance and acceptance of
gay love seems to disappear with remarkable rapidity. The writings
of St. Aelred disappeared because they were kept locked up in
Cistercian monasteries until about eight years ago, when for the
first time Cistercians could again read them. Beginning about
1150, for reasons I cannot adequately explain, there was a great
upsurge in popular intolerance of gay people. There were also
at this time violent outbursts against Jews, Muslims, and witches.
Women were suddenly excluded from power structures to which they
had previously had access-no longer able, for example, to attend
universities in which they had previously been enrolled. double
monasteries for men and women were closed. There was suspicion
of everyone. In 1 180 the Jews were expelled from France.
The change was rapid. In England in the 12th century there were
no laws against Jews and they occupied prominent positions, but
by the end of the 13th century, sleeping with a Jew was equated
with sleeping with an animal or with murder, and in France Jews,
according to St. Louis, were to be killed on the spot if they
questioned the Christian faith. During this time there are many
popular diatribes against gay people as well, suggesting that
they molest children, violate natural law, are bestial? and bring
harm to nations which tolerate them. Within a single century.
between the period of 1250 and 1350, almost every European state
passed civil laws demanding death for a single homosexual act.
This popular reaction affected Christian theology a great deal.
Throughout the 12th century homosexual relations, had, at worst,
been comparable to heterosexual fornication for married people,
and, at best, not sinful at all. During the 13th century, because
of this popular reaction, writers like Thomas Aquinas tried to
portray homosexuality as one of the very worst sins, second only
It is very difficult to describe how this came about. St. Thomas
tried to show that homosexuality was opposed to nature in some
way, the most familiar objection being that nature created sexuality
for procreation and using it for any other purpose would violate
nature. Aquinas was much too smart for this argument. In the Summa
Contra Gentiles he asks, "Is it sinful to walk on your
hands when nature intended them for something else?" No,
indeed it is not sinful, so he shifted ground. This is obviously
not the reason that homosexuality is sinful; he looks for another.
First he tried arguing that homosexuality must be sinful because
it impedes the reproduction of the human race. But this argument
also failed, for, Aquinas noted in the Summa Theologica, "a
duty may be of two sorts: it may be enjoined on the individual
as a duty which cannot be ignored without sin, or it may be enjoined
upon a group. In the latter cases no one individual is obligated
to fulfill the duty. The commandment regarding procreation applies
to the human race as a whole! which is obligated to increase physically.
It is therefore sufficient for the race if some people undertake
to reproduce physically." Moreover, Aquinas admitted in the
Summa Theologica that homosexuality was absolutely natural
to certain individuals and therefore inculpable. In what sense,
then, could he argue that it was unnatural? In a third place he
concedes that the term "natural" in fact has no moral
significance, but it is simply a term applied to things which
are strongly disapproved of. "Homosexuality," he says,
"is called 'the unnatural vice' by the common people, and
hence it may be said to be unnatural." This was not an invention
of Aquinas'. It was a response to popular prejudices of the time.
It did not derive its authority from the Bible or from any previous
tradition of Christian morality, but it eventually became part
of Catholic theological thought. These attitudes have remained
basically unchanged because there has been no popular support
for change in the matter. The public has continued to feel hostility
to gay people and the church has been under no pressure to reexamine
the origins of its teachings on homosexuality.
It is possible to change ecclesiastical attitudes toward gay people
and their sexuality because the objections to homosexuality are
not biblical, they are not consistent, they are not part of Jesus'
teaching; and they are not even fundamentally Christian. It is
possible because Christianity was indifferent, if not accepting,
of gay people and their feelings for a longer period of time than
it had been hostile to them. It is possible because the founders
of the religion specifically considered love to transcend accidents
of biology and to be the end, not the means. It may not be possible
to eradicate intolerance from secular society, for intolerance
is, to some extent ineradicable; but I believe the church's attitude
can and must be changed. It has been different in the past and
it can be again. Plato observed of secular society nearly 2,400
years ago that "wherever it has been established that it
is shameful to be involved in homosexual relationships, this is
due to evil on the part of the legislatures, to despotism on the
part of the rulers and to cowardism on the part of the governed."
I don't think we can afford to be cowardly. We have an abundance
of ecclesiastical precedent to encourage the church to adopt a
more positive attitude. We must use it. As a gay archbishop wrote
in the 12th century, "it is not we who teach God how to love,
but He who taught us. He made our natures full of love."
A contemporary of his wrote, "Love is not a crime. If it
were wrong to love, God would not have bound even the divine to
love." These statements came from the Christian community,
from Christian faith. That community can and must be reminded
of its former beliefs, its former acceptance. And we must do the