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Boswell Reviews





Los Angeles Times, Jun 11, 1994

Did the Roman Catholic church ever bless homosexual unions in ritual ceremonies resembling the sacrament of marriage?

The question, explosive by nature and certain to excite ideological reflexes among gay-rights advocates and their opponents, has acquired new urgency this week with the publication of Yale University history professor John Boswell's latest book on human sexuality and the church.

"Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe," from Villard Books, asserts that from the eighth to the 18th centuries, the Catholic Church sanctioned same-sex unions and offered ceremonies complete with prayers for the couple's union, Holy Communion and rubrics directing the couple to kiss a book of the Gospel, the priest and one another.

Publication of the book -- and installments of the "Doonesbury" cartoon strip that touch on Boswell's findings -- are already causing a stir within the Roman Catholic Church in the United States and in Eastern Orthodoxy. The "Doonesbury" strips will be published through today in newspapers, including the Mercury News.

Although "Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau refers to the Catholic Church in the strip as blessing same-sex unions, most of the Boswell claims point to rituals and practices associated with Eastern Orthodoxy, which arose among early Christians in Greece and Eastern Europe, rather than the Western Christians in Rome.

Boswell bases his conclusion on a 12-year study of 55 ancient manuscripts, mainly in Greek, that he says point unmistakably to an attitude of tolerance and charity toward homosexuality among some earlier Christians, far different from the theological polemics that tear at the church today.

The reader who prefers the book to the comic strip version will discover a picture that is both more fascinating and more puzzling. There is no question that Boswell has found records of ceremonies consecrating a pairing of men, ceremonies often marked by similar prayers and, over time, by standardized symbolic gestures: the clasping of right hands, the binding of hands with a stole, kisses, receiving Holy Communion, a feast after the ceremony.

Some of these ritual actions also marked heterosexual marriages, but there remained differences in both actions and words between the two ceremonies.

Boswell's book will certainly provoke a sharp debate about what these same-sex ceremonies were solemnizing. From the spread of Christianity through the ancient world to the late Middle Ages, different Christian cultures stretching from Syria to Ireland featured a variety of social bonds not even vaguely paralleled in modern society.

Was this ritual, for example, a form of fraternal adoption, or something resembling blood brotherhood? Was it a commemoration of undying friendship or a strictly spiritual bonding? To what extent, in short, was it the equivalent of heterosexual marriage, either in the contemporary sense or in medieval ones?

In the book's introduction and a chapter on the vocabulary of love and marriage in ancient and medieval times, Boswell opens the eyes of anyone who thinks it simple for scholars today to decode terms that arose in very different contexts, when marriages between men and women -- at least at their beginning -- were matters more of family alliance, property and offspring than of romantic love.

He whittles away at all the alternative translations and interpretations of these ceremonies that would preclude a romantic and erotic dimension to the unions being celebrated.

His book is an imposing achievement, with texts in Greek, Latin, Old Church Slavonic, Hebrew and Arabic. He provides plenty of material for other scholars to decide for themselves.

Ultimately, however, there is a problem. As Ralph Hexter, a professor of the classics and comparative literature at the University of Colorado in Boulder, put it, "We don't know what they did in bed."

What they did in bed, however, is a central issue if Boswell's findings are going to play a part in the debate over recognizing same-sex unions legally or religiously.

Boswell won acclaim in 1980 with the publication of his first book, "Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality." A review in the New York Times called it revolutionary and said it set "a standard of excellence" in scholarship. It won the American Book Award for history.

That book provided a major intellectual framework for the drive by gay men and lesbians for spiritual equity in Christian churches. They cite the book when arguing for the blessing of same-sex unions and the admission of gay men to the Roman Catholic priesthood and gays to the ranks of Protestant clergy.

Conservative Catholic theologian Richard John Neuhaus, writing in the March issue of the Catholic journal First Things, complained: "The influence of that book is truly remarkable; it has become a kind of sacred text for those who want to morally legitimize the homosexual movement."

Now with Boswell's claim that the church at one time performed gay marriages, his detractors are even more aghast and do not believe his evidence convincing.

A spokesman for the Greek Orthodox Church in New York hotly disputes Boswell's claims. "Boswell would not be acknowledged by any theologian or historian of Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Protestant persuasion," said the Rev. Milton Efthimiou, a church historian at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America in New York City.

Robert Wilkin, professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Virginia, said: "The basic principle in historical studies is that everything has to be contextualized. An isolated manuscript or an isolated reference means nothing unless it has corroboration."

"It seems to me improbable in the extreme that he can provide such evidence," he said. Wilkin and others say they suspect Boswell of engaging in "advocacy scholarship." They note that Boswell is gay.

Boswell was not available for an interview because of a serious illness, his publisher said. But a longtime friend and associate who read the book for Boswell before it was published came to his defense.

"If the suggestion is that the position came first and the scholarship followed, that is not the way he works," said Ralph Hexter, a professor of the classics and comparative literature at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "The arguments should rise and fall on their merits. If the only thing they can say against this work is that Boswell wants it to be so, from my point of view they must have no better argument."

Hexter said Boswell did not set out to find same-sex rituals. After his first book was published, someone contacted Boswell with a tip about where he might find the telltale manuscripts. Some had been known within scholarly circles, but their source was lost, Hexter said.

"Then Boswell stumbled onto a collection of Eastern liturgies that had these (rituals) in them. And then he found many of them. He found them all over the place," from the Vatican to Mount Athos in northern Greece, Hexter said. Other manuscripts were located in London, Paris and Rome.

The New York Times contributed to this report

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