Category Archives: Church history

“Not-a lesbian”, “Not a Saint”, Benedetta Carlini,Visionary Nun (1590 – 1661 )


Earlier this week, the Catholic Church marked the feast day of SS Martha and  Mary. In my post here, and in the comments thread for Kittredge Cherry’s corresponding post atJesus in Love Blog, there was some attention given to the nature of their relationship. Were they literally “just” sisters? Was the word a euphemism for a different kind of relationship? Is it fair to call them “lesbians”?  Does it matter?

I believe that the very attempt to force people into sexual categories is a trap. This is what has created the myth in the first place of a normative heterosexual identity within an opposite sex, monogamous marriage. The truth is that in nature and in human societies the world over and in all periods of history, relationships and forms of sexual expression are bewildering in their diversity. Trying to apply modern words to historic patters is particularly dangerous, as the attempt risks burying the past in the baggage carried by those words. This was clearly illustrated for me when I read this morning about Bernadetta Carlini, an Italian visionary whose description as a “lesbian nun” clouds more than it illustrates – even though the one thing that is not contested in her story is that it featured regular sex with a woman (sometimes described as the earliest recorded instance of lesbianism in modern history).

Much of Bernadetta’s story will be familiar to anyone who read volumes of hagiography during childhood in a Catholic school (as I did), or later. Near miraculous circumstances surrounding her birth, dedication by her mother to a life in the convent, a childhood of great “holiness”, eminence in the convent where she became  abbess, acknowledged for herintense spirituality (proven by the marks she bore of the stigmata )- that kind of thing.  It is the end of the story that is markedly different from the routine, and should cause us to sit up and ask some awkward questions: questions about the words we use, how do we define “lesbian” for earlier cultures, how do we recognize sanctity?

The thoughts I share with you here are prompted by a short essay by E. Ann Matter, “Discourses of Desire: Sexuality and Christian Women’s Visionary Narratives”, in “Que(e)rying Religion “(ed Gay Comstock), which in turn was prompted by recent studies by Judith Brown, who refers to Bernadetta as a lesbian nun in Renaissance Italy.”  Matter takes issue with the use of the word “lesbian” in this context, arguing that the undisputed sexual activity with a woman appears to be “lesbian” to modern eyes, but in the context of her life, had completely different connotations. To get directly to the  the crucial points, I shall say no more of her early life, until she started to win renown for her mystical visions and stigmata.

To a sceptical modern mind, such claims would be treated with great suspicion, but recall that in earlier times, they would have been taken entirely seriously. If not exactly commonplace, they were certainly not unheard of – they featured in the lives of many of the saints.

She became famed for her spiritual authority as a great visionary, claiming to be in regular communication with several angels (identified by name), and even with Jesus Christ himself. Within her community and the town of Pescia, her claims were not only taken seriously, they revered her for them. Paolo Ricordati,  her confessor, encouraged her in developing them.  It was that development that led to the dramatic climax, which we must interpret.

It is a standard metaphor of women’s dedication to the religious life that in their commitment to lifelong celibacy, they become “brides of Christ”. Benedetta interpreted this literally, and instructed her convent in 1619 to prepare a great wedding feast for her – which they did.   This wedding marked the highpoint of her spiritual fame. Inevitably, it attracted the attention of the church authorities, who conducted an extensive round of investigations, very largely depending on the witness of a young nun, Bartolomea Crivelli, who was an attendant on Benedetta. On the strength of this first round of investigations, including 14 different visits to the convent. the church declared Benedetta a true visionary.

Two years later, a second round of investigations which followed Benedetta’s “death and resurrection” in 1621, produced a dramatically different outcome. (Her resurrection had supposedly been prophesied by one of her angel visitors.) This time, Bartolomea gave more details on the precise nature of the mystical encounters with Christ – and the investigators didn’t like it.  The story was that when Benedetta was visited by her mystical “bridegroom”, Christ himself (or by Splenditello, one of his angels who regularly visited in her visions), she did what any good bride would do – she gave herself to him sexually. But to do this in embodied form, she needed a human stand -in. Bartolomea testified that she had been that stand-in.  She had regularly had sex with Benedetta, in the place of the mystical bridegroom.

From there, as you can imagine, it was downhill all the way. Had Bartolomea never spoken of the sexual encounters, we can easily imagine what might have been a clear path to recognized sainthood: visions, stigmata and spiritual leadership are strong claims, and (alleged) resurrection after death would surely have been the clincher – but there was this crucial problem of her “immodest acts”. This was a time, remember, when “sodomy” was still a capital offence, and frequently resulted in burning those found guilty of it. The conclusion was that Benedetta’s “visions” had been faked. Even so it took two years before the investigation could reach a final verdict, that she had been “misled” by the devil. She was sentenced to imprisonment in the convent until her ultimate death, many years later.

What are we to make of this? I do not have all the evidence, nor the tools for a proper evaluation, and shall not attempt to pass any verdict on the historical “truth”  behind the story. However, I do want to make some general observations, that I think are worth pondering.

First, although the story in its entirety is extraordinary to modern ears, to medieval or Renaissance Christians it would have been entirely credible, right up to the point of the actual bodily intercourse. Many of the great mystics described relationships with God in terms of deep, loving personal relationships with Jesus, and men and women alike routinely described the intensity of these in frankly erotic terms. In the church, we accept the real possibility of intensely mystical experiences, and do not dispute the testimony of other great mystics. Conversely, many queer Christians in the modern world know from their own experience that they too, have the possibility of intensely spiritual encounters with God in their own lovemaking.   If we are prepared to accept the possibility of intense mystical experiences as real encounters with God, why should we not take seriously the possibility of the story being literally true, exactly as first told?

On the other hand, we also know that many claims of “miraculous” events really have been fraudulent.  We also need to take seriously the possibility that the whole thing really was a giant fake.

Finally, we need to consider the role of the Church investigators. In two separate investigations, involving several visits and innumerable inerrogations of many witnesses, they were willing to accept any number of remarkable claims:  that she represented spiritual leadership, that she was a genuine visionary, that her wounds were authentically the stigmata of Christ, that she was visited regularly by a series of angels and by Christ himself, and (most remarkably) that she had experienced death and resurrection. All of that, the investigators were prepared to believe – up until the moment they learnt of the sexual relationship with Bartolomea.

Was Benedetta lesbian? To my mind, clearly not -at least, not in the modern sense, not on the basis of the “facts” as presented. The nature of the relationship was not based on loving partnership, but entirely on the one person acting as a stand-in for (male)  Christ.  Unless, that is, Barolomea was inventing the supernatural visits as a cover for a more conventional relationship. It was however, a “queer” relationship, as lying totally outside conventional expectations  for a woman, either as dutiful wife or as quiet sister in a convent cloister.

Was she a saint? Clearly not, in the official histories. Should we regard her as a popular saint for our community, suitable for canonization by queer popular acclamation? That depends on your view of the “Truth” – was it faked, or did she really experience mystical union with Christ?

We cannot know. But however we decide, I believe there is something important to take away and remember in this story:  that on the basis of the evidence from two extensive investigations, there is a strong possibility that she would have become a recognized saint – except for the simple fact that she had sex with a woman. That small detail was enough, in the eyes of the Church, to counteract all the evidence in support of her claim- even though that sexual expression was part of a mystical union. Sadly, this is typical of so much of how some in the Church today react to the “homosexuals” in its ranks:  no matter what the evidence of piety, devotion to God, or action for good in the world – as soon as they recognize the “homosexual”, all else is ignored. Only that one feature of our lives is recognized,  labelled (in the Catholic Church at least) as “gratuitous self-indulgence” – and condemned out of hand.

And so it is that I suggest we should reflect on the story, and remember the life,  of not-a-lesbian, not-a -saint, Benedetta Carlini.

See Also :

Finding God in Gay Lovemaking

The Monastic Tradition: All a Big Mistake

Possibly in response to a orevious post, a reader (my friend Rob Alexander) has sent me this by email.

Thank you, Rob.

Monastery Life

A young monk arrives at the monastery. He is assigned to helping the other monks in copying the old canons and laws of the church by hand.

monks 01
He notices, however, that all of the monks are copying from copies, not from the original manuscript. So, the new monk goes to the head abbot to question this, pointing out that if someone made even a small error in the first copy, it would never be picked up! In fact, that error would be continued in all of the subsequent copies.

monks 02The head monk, says, “We have been copying from the copies for centuries, but you make a good point, my son.”

He goes down into the dark caves underneath the monastery
where the original manuscripts are held as archives in a locked vault that hasn’t been opened for hundreds of years.

monks 03

Hours go by and nobody sees the old abbot.


So, the young monk gets worried and goes down to look for him. He sees him banging his head against the wall and wailing.

monks 04“We missed the R!  We missed the R! We missed the R!”

His forehead is all bloody and bruised and he is crying uncontrollably.

The young monk asks the old abbot, “What’s wrong, father?” With A choking voice, the old abbot replies,
“The word was…

monks 05


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Pride in Our Past

One of the features of the post-Stonewall era, with the explosion of interest in lebian & gay studies and in queer theory, has been the wealth of information becoming available of our place in history.  By reminding ourselves and the world that we as LGBT people have been around in all ages and societies, by showing that in many of these it is not homosexuality but exclusive heterosexuality that was considered abnormal, and by presenting as role models individual gay & lesbian leaders in all fields, we have been enabled to recover a sense of self- confidence, and to counter more easily the lies and prejudice spouted against us.

For the most part, however, this recovery of history has by-passed our place in the church, which today remains one of the primary sources of the hostility.  This is quite unnecessary:  gay men, lesbians, and gender minorities all have a notable place in scripture and church history, which we should be doing more to uncover and share.

When I first began to explore what we may call our ‘lost’ history, I thought of it as material that had simply become ignored and then forgotten. Later, as I investigated some particular individuals, I realised that in at least some cases,  the omissions have not been simple oversight.  The nature of these is so significant they can only represent deliberate acts, actively airbrushing us out of the official biographies. Two examples illustrate the problem – many more can be found.

Last week I wrote about St Paulinus of Nola, noted saint, bishop and gifted medieval poet.  All of these are recorded in his entry in the on-line Catholic Encylopedia.  This entry also notes his friendship with a certain Faustinus, and that a portion of the poetry is addressed to Paulinus, which the entry describes as ‘epistles’ – a word which to modern ears has distinctly religious associations.  What the CE does not tell us, is that these verses were quite clearly erotic love poems, of sufficiently obvious a nature as to be represented in the Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse. These verses were emphatically not the entirety of Paulinus’ legacy.  No more than for any of us, homosexual attraction was by no means thee totality of his being.  But by no stretch of the imagination can I conceive of frankly homosexual erotic verse being presented as religious ‘epistles’, as the result of mere oversight.  Somewhere over fifteen centuries of hagiographic transmission,  the true nature of these poems has been deliberately excluded.

Much the same has occurred much more recently in the story of Cardinal John Henry Newman, which I also investigated and wrote on last week. In a lengthy entry, the CE totally ignores his very significant attachment to his beloved friend, Aubrey St John.  There is no point in speculating about the physical expression of this love.  It is quite enough to know the uncontested fact that it was so strong that Newman insisted on being buried in the same grave as St John, so that they might spend eternity together.  Yet so remarkable a desire, evidence of an exceptionally important relationship in his life, gets not even a mention.  This too can only be deliberate omission of an uncomfortable fact, not simple oversight – but in this case, without the excuse of centuries of historybehind it.

But it gets worse.  In just the past two days, I have come up against two different writers who claim there has been deliberate mistranslation of scriptural texts, so as to obscure the gender implications.  In the article on the Song of Songs (“The Song of Songs, A Gay Love Poem” (Fidelity Press, 1995), reviewed at the Wild Reed the writer provides evidence that later translators have deliberately altered the text of the Song of Songs to obscure its frankly same -sex erotic origins.

“Johnson has consulted with many Hebrew scholars, who reluctantly concede the validity of his revolutionary word-for-word translation. The Masoretes did not, happily, produce a homophobic text. They merely made a gay love poem appear to be hetero. And that was done to many ancient poems and stories.”

Today, I came across an article by Bernadette Brooten, “Junia…… outstanding among the Apostles”…  in which she produces evidence that a personal name in Romans was altered from a female form to a male form, to mask the fact that a woman was being addressed as a great apostle:

“Greet Andronicus and Junia . . . who are outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7): To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles—just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.

John Chrysostom (344/54-407)(2)

Also notable is the case of Junias or Junio, placed in the rank of the apostles (Rom. 16, 7), with regard to whom one or another [exegete] raises the question of whether it is a man.

Pontifical Biblical Commission (1976)(3)

What a striking contrast! The exegesis of Romans 16:7 has practically reversed.”

There are many other examples. On the face of it, it would seem that to support the view that homosexuality was sinful, and that women could not serve as priests, the official voise of the church a;ltered texts that did not fit with their prejudices.  Then they used their bowdlerised texts in support of their prejudices.

These arguments are clearly contoversial, and are surely contested.  I lack the credentials and resources to explore them fully, nor do I have any desire to do so.  I do want to stress though, that there is a pattern (here and elswhere), entirely consistent with the abuse and transformation of the word and concept of “sodomy”, which makes it at the very least abundantly clear that the received version of history as handed not by the church, and usually accepted without questioning, is at the very least open to contest and debate.

There is a further reason to explore for ourselves our true place in church history:  Pope Benedict himself, indirectly, has commanded us to do so.  In his otherwise infamous “Hallowe’en letter”, then Cardinal Ratzinger instructed us to “speak the truth” on homosexuality :

“Only what is true can ultimately be pastoral”
“We encourage the Bishops to promote appropriate catechetical programmes based on the truth about human sexuality… ”
“The Lord Jesus promised, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (Jn. 8:32)”

(Encouraging thruth, of course, the letter immediatley proceeded to pronounce falsehoods and half truths)

God is Truth” was one of the key attributes of the divine, relentlessly hammered into me in school RE lessons, complete with endless scriptural texts to support the statement – all of which I was required to write out and memorise. But truth is not something which we can find simply by accepting at face value the words of the church, as the Vatican could like us to believe. Truth is a goal never fully achieved, that needs to be worked for, to be wrestled with, accepting there will be many false starts and mistakes along the way. (For a wonderful descripton of this search in the context of the church see James Alison, “The joy of being wrong”, in “On Being Liked”.) For the misrepresentations of church history apply not only to sexual & gender issues, but also to the official versions of the history of church power and of the Vatican itself.

In recovering an understanding of GLBT church history, I am also finding a new understanding of the growth and abuse of papal power itself.  Both of these journeys I have begun sharing with you, and will continue to do so, for as long as I maintain this site.

There is one final reason for me, personally, to explore these issues.  When Cardinal Murphy O’Connor authorised the move of the Soho Masses into the Catholic parish of the Assumption & St Gregory, he made clear in his public statements that there should be no ‘ambiguity’ in our ministry about Catholic teaching on homosexuality, on which official teaching should be presented ‘clearly and in full’.  For someone like me, in clear dissent with some of the official teaching, this presented a real dilemma, which soon dissolved when I recognised that it is simply impossible to follow both instructions to the letter.  For the “full” teaching of the church is  itself ambiguous, on many points and many levels. Recognising the impossibility of doing both,  I have discarded any attempt to avoid ambiguity, and embraced instead the alternative instruction, to promote the full teaching as fully as I can.  but the Magisterium, so central to Catholic orthodoxy, is assembled from history.  To understand it “fully”, we need to understand also the historical development and selection.

I can thus proclaim that in creating, maintaining and developing this blog, I am attempting to do no more than follow the clear directives of my presnt Pope, and immediately past Cardinal:  to speak the “truth” about homosexuality and Catholic teaching, “in full”.  This is clearly an impossible and Herculean task, akin to clearing a beach of sand, one grain at a time.  Still, I continue relentlessly, one grain and post at a time, seeking the truth where I find it – including those truths that the Church itself has attempted to keep hidden.

In doing so, I am finding increasing confidence and pride in my status as an openly gay Catholic, with increasing freedom from years of instilled guilt.  I hope and pray that my ramblings can help you to do the same.

The Myth of Priestly Celibacy

Until the 12th century, Christian priests led sexual lives resembling those of lay people: some priests and lay people alike embraced voluntary celibacy,  others did not.  Then, at the First Lateran Council of 1123 ,  celibacy was imposed as a rule on all priests. The circumstances and reaction at the time are interesting. John Boswell argues that among the groups strongly promoting the rule were priests who had no wives or concubines, but did have boyfriends.  After noting that Pope Leo IX, who was the first pontiff to take action against married clergy, had shown no interest in acting against homosexual practices by priests or bishops, Boswell continues with:

Contemporaries, at least, were quick to note that gay priests were more willing than heterosexual ones to enforce prohibitions against clerical marriage“;

and again

There is some evidence of a power struggle between gay and married clergy over whose predilection would be stigmatized.”

In the Eastern church, orthodox priests never adopted the rule, and were horrified by the practice in the West. An anonymous Byzantine tract of c 1274, quoted in Judith Herrin’s “Byzantium“, asks plaintively,

“Why do you priests not marry?… The Church does not forbid the priest to take a wife, but you do not marry.  Instead you have concubines and your priest sends his servant to bring him his concubine and puts out the candle and keeps her for the whole night.”

In the centuries that followed, this charge (that clergy at all levels no longer married, but continued active sexual lives with concubines) was widely accepted. Indeed, sexual scandals even at the level of the papacy were one of the factors that led to the Reformation.  Somehow, in subsequent centuries, many Catholics seem to have adopted the belief that since celibacy is the rule, it is now also the practice.  This is hogwash.  It never has been, and never will be.

It is well known that there has been a haemorrhaging of good men from the priesthood over the last half century, many of them leaving the priesthood explicitly to marry.   It is delusional to suppose that these men kept themselves sexually chaste until after leaving;  it is equally delusional to suppose that all those who maintained active sexual relationships, left the priesthood.  I myself have a personal friend who left the priesthood only when he ‘had to get married’ to the religious sister he had impregnated.  Note the sequence:  first he got her pregnant, then he left the priesthood.

In the concluding chapter of his book, “Global Catholicism”, Ian Linden writes of the state of the church in the 21st century. One of his sections is titled “The Universal Crisis of the Celibate Priesthood.” Among other damaging effects, he notes:

“The number of Catholic priests worldwide in clandestine , and often exploitative, multiple sexual relationships of different duration and kind has undermined the examplary witness of those freed by celibacy for a lifetime of service.  Promiscuous – and paedophile- clergy have been a disaster for the post-conciliar Church, not to speak of their victims’ suffering. Clerical sexual conduct has given rise in many parishes to a myriad of intractable problems. So the moral issue for many lay Catholics in some countries became not whether the priest was failing to keep his vow of celibacy – failure was increasingly taken for granted – but whether he was sleeping with a married woman, failing to care for the children brought into the world, or indeed had more than one sexual partner, in short the degree to which the relationship was socially damaging and individually abusive.”

It gets worse.  Referring to the consequences of the emergence of HIV/AIDS, he writes:

“But it soon emerged that one consequence of the pandemic was that promiscuous priests, for fear of infection, were shifting their attentions to the local nuns on the assumption that they would be free of the virus”, prompting their Superiors to challenge the bishops, without success, to protect their congregations from predatory clergy.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support these contentions.  In The Future of the Celibacy Debate lies in Africa, not Miami Collen Kochivar-Baker writes about the situation in the Central African Republic, where it seems that bishops and priests for years have been living openly with wives and families:

“Africa News had reported Monday that Archbishop Pomodimo and several priests in his archdiocese would be sanctioned ‘for adopting a moral attitude which is not always in conformity with their commitments to follow Christ in chastity, poverty and obedience’.”

In Zimbabwe, the otherwise impressive and respected Bishop Ncube has resigned after as sexual scandal.  From Rocco Palma’s “Whispers in the Loggia”:

“Ncube’s resignation was accepted after the 62 year-old prelate was accused of adultery in what, at the time, the archbishop maintained was a “well-orchestrated plan” by Mugabe and his allies to discredit Ncube for his globally-noticed protests of the country’s authoritarian rule.

Several months later, the prelate admitted to the affair in a documentary interview.” In the same post, Pollo  also refers to situation in Bangui.

There have been many instances publicised in the West (and many more unpublicised), of which  the case of Fr Mario Cutie in Miami is just the most recently prominent.    Nor have the sexual partners been restricted to women.   Censor Librorum at Nilhil Obstathas written on the voracious sexual appetite of the late Cardinal Spellman for young men, and former Milwaukee archbishop Rembert Weakland has recently come out publicly on his experience as a gay Bishop in the church.

A  sexual appetite is a fundamental human urge. Modern research shows clearly that healthy, active expression of this urge contributes to physical and mental health. While I fully accept that voluntary celibacy is entirely possible and acceptable for those who embrace it willingly in maturity, I have grave misgivings about imposing it by compulsion.

The pretence of priestly celibacy is not just a myth:  the consequences are intensely damaging, in many ways, to the whole Church and its people.  I will expand on these consequences later.

Gay Lovers in Church History

At a time when some Catholic bishops are actively intervening in the political process to prevent gay marriage and gay adoption, it could be helpful to remember that in the long history of the Christian faith, outright hostility to same sex relationships has not always been inevitable. In the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and in the early, medieval and modern church, there have been numerous examples  of Christian recognition of same sex relationships, both as formal rites and procedures, and by personal example.

SS Sergius & Bacchus, Gay lovers, Roman soldires, martyrs and saints.
SS Sergius & Bacchus: Gay lovers, Roman soldiers, martyrs and saints.

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In Scripture:

  • God & Adam:  Chris Glaser (“Coming out As Sacrament“) has observed that the very first love story in the Bible, and certainly the most important, can be viewed as between two “males” – that between God and Adam. Yes, it is completely false and simplistic just to accept the conventional pronoun and to think of God in purely masculine terms, but the point is an important one. Whoever we are, male female or neither, we know that God loves us. We may think of God in whatever gendered terms we like – and that could certainly include a same-sex relationship.

  • David & Jonathan: Many people protest that there is no evidence that the relationship between these two took physical form, but a more compelling argument is that there is also no evidence that it did not – and there is substantial evidence of its emotional intensity. It is also one of the two relationships which represent the longest love stories in the Bible. The other is another which is about a same sex pair – Ruth and Naomi.
  • Ruth & Naomi Here too there are naysayers arguing that this is “just” a family relationship, but this misses the point. Whatever else it is, this is clearly a story of a deep emotional love and mutual commitment between two women.
  • Jesus &  the Beloved Disciple:  We cannot know precisely the nature of this relationship, but it was clearly a close one. We also do not know for certain the identity of the Beloved Disciple, although many people assume it is John the Evangelist. (There was even a long standing tradition in some parts of the Church, that the couple being married at Cana were Jesus and John). Others disagree, suggesting Lazarus, among other possibilities.
  • Martha & Mary – Described in the New Testament as ‘sisters’, but this may have been a euphemism for lesbian lovers.
  • Philip and Bartholomew:  Included in the Apostles, cited together in the Eucharistic prayer of the Mass, these were frequently named as a couple in the early liturgies of same-sex union.
  • The Roman Centurion and his “pais” (= slave/lover) represent the clearest possible evidence that Christ himself did not reject people in same -sex relationships, and was even willing to go into the home of the Roman  – an extraordinary thing for a Jew to do, in the  context of the deep resentment against the Roman military occupation.
  • St Paul and Timothy are sometimes named as possibly having a relationship that was more than just spiritual.
  • Euodia and Syntyche of Phillippi were a missionary couple active in the early church , mentioned in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians (4:2-3)
  • Tryphaena and Tryphosa were a further missionary couple active in the early church, mentioned in in Rom 16.

The Early  & Medieval Church

In the early church, many saints and martyrs are remembered as pairs of lovers. The church also created and used formal rites for church blessing couples committing to each other in same sex unions. In addition to liturgical recognition of these unions at their start, some couple also achieved church recognition at their dissolution in death, by being buried together in church tombs, in a manner exactly comparable to that widely used for conventionally married couples.

Here are some examples:

  • SS Sergius & Bacchus, Roman soldiers, lovers, martyrs and recognised as saints by popular acclamation, are by a long way the best known of the so-called “gay saints” (although I prefer to use the descriptor “queer”).
  • SS Polyeuct and Nearchos, are not as well known as Sergius and Bacchus, but like them were Roman soldiers and martyrs who became recognized as saints. They are frequently named together in the liturgical rites of same-sex union.
  • St Paulinus of Nola was a Bishop who also wrote homoerotic poetry to his male lover, Ausonius

Other paired saints who were often named in these rites and other liturgies (including, in some cases, the Mass) are

  • The  ‘two Theodores’, one a foot soldier martyred in the fourth century, and the other a general invented in the ninth century to form a pair, are often depicted with their arms around one another, and they are paired together with Serge and Bacchus in Kievan icons dating from before the twelfth century.
  • Peter and Paul
  • Peter and Andrew
  • Jacob and John
  • Philip and Bartholomew
  • Cosmos and Damian
  • Cyrus and John
  • Marcellus and Apuleius
  • Cyprian and Justinus
  • Dionysius and Eleutheris
  • George and Demetrius.

Some couples who were found by archaeologists to have been buried together in Macedonia in the 4th to the 6th centuries were:

  • Faustinos and Donatos (at Phillippi),
  • Posidonia, and Pancharia,
  • Kyriakos and Nikandros,
  • Gourasios and Konstantios,
  • Euodiana and Dorothea (at Phillippi),
  • Martyrios, a presbyter, and Demetrios, a lector (at Edessa),
  • Eudoxios, presbyter, and John, a deacon described as “the sinner” (at Edessa),
  • Droseria and Eudoxia (at Edessa),
  • Athanasios and Chryseros: buried together at Edessa, in Macedonia.  5th to 6th century.
  • Alexandra and Glukeria: buried together at Phillippi, in Macedonia.  6th century
  • St Patrick of Ireland:  after his escape from early slavery, Patrick worked for time as a male prostitute. A recent history of Irish homosexualilty suggests that he may have taken a male lover in later life
  • St Brigid of Ireland may have had a female lover, Darlughdach – although, as with many of the early saints, the historical details of her life are sketchy and unreliable.
  • Several Bishops of the medieval church are known to have have had male sexual partners. Archbishop Ralph of Tours even got his boyfriend John, who had a well-deserved reputation for promiscuity, named as bishop of Orleans. Other bishops were renowned for the poetry and love letters they wrote to their boyfriends. (SeeThe Homoerotic Flowering of the Medieval Church)

It was not only the Eastern church that sometimes buried same sex couples in shared tombs. The historian Alan Bray (“The Friend“) has described the shared tombs of the Irish and English couples

  • Dicul and Maelodran the wright (Delgany, County Wicklow);
  • Ultan and Dubthach (Termonfechin, County Louth);
  • John Bloxham and John Wyndham (Merton College Chapel, Oxford,  14th Century);
  • William Neville & John Neville:  English knights, buried together in Galata, near Constantinople 14th Century.
  • Nicholas Molyneux and John Winters: made a compact of ‘sworn brotherhood, made in the church of St Martin of Harfleur. 15th century.

Renaissance to Modern

  • John Finch and Thomas Baines were buried together in Christ’s College Chapel, Cambridge (17th Century).
  • Fulke Greville & Sir Phillip Sidney: the joint monument Greville planned for himself and Sidney in St Paul’s cathedral was never built.  But the simple intention alone indicates the natrure of the relationship, as also its recognition by the church.
  • Cardinal John Henry Newman and Fr. Ambrose St.John were buried together, 19th C. There is no suggestion that their deep love was anything but celibate, in keeping with their vows. All the same, reflection on this relationship raises important questions about the response of the Catholic Church to same sex relationships in our own day.

More ‘Cross-Dressing Saints’

Today and tomorrow the church commemorates two more of the band of ‘transvestite saints’ – women who disguised themseves as men to live out their lives in male monasteries.  Wednesday 11th February is the feast of  St Euphrosyne ( later known as Saint Smaragdus), who died in 470.   Tomorrow, Thursday 12th February, is the turn of St Mary (later, Marinos) of Alexandria.

From the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia:

” Euphrosyne was the only daughter of Paphnutius, a rich man of Alexandria, who desired to marry her to a wealthy youth. But having consecrated her life to God and apparently seeing no other means of keeping this vow, she clothed herself as a man and under the name of Smaragdus gained admittance into a monastery of men nearAlexandria, where she lived for thirty-eight years after. She soon attracted the attention of the abbot by the rapid strides which she made toward a perfect ascetic life, and whenPaphnutius appealed to him for comfort in his sorrow, the abbot committed the latter to the care of the alleged young man Smaragdus. The father received from his own daughter, whom he failed to recognize, helpful advice and comforting exhortation. Not until she was dying did shereveal herself to him as his lost daughter Euphrosyne. After her death Paphnutius also entered the monastery. Her feast  is celebrated in the Greek Church on 25 September, in the Roman Church on 16 January (by the Carmelites on 11 February).”

St Mary of Alexandria is said to have been brought to the monastery originally by her father.  She is sometimes known as a  “Desert  Father in Disguise”,

Unfortunately, it is also claimed by some that her story,  like others of the transvestite saints, is a fiction.

The Church’s Changing Tradition.

The CDF’s famous (or infamous) letter “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”  makes the claim “Thus, the Church’s teaching today is in organic continuity with the Scriptural perspective and with her own constant Tradition” , and later states “Scripture bids us speak the truth in love”.  This is the image that the established church so likes to proote – of an authoritative, unchanging tradition “speaking the truth” for all time.  The image favoured by the church, howeer, is a false one.

In the context of current arguments about the papacy and its authority, it is worth recalling just how false is this proposition: for the tradition has not been “unchanging”,  nor has it always spoken “truth”. Indeed, the only constant over 2000 years of church history has been that of constant change.

Josephus at “Salus Animarum” has been posting on reflections prompted by reading of Alan Bray‘s “The Friend”, and sharing thoughts on church history. This is a useful point then to remind readers of just how much church practice concerning same sex relationships has changed over two millenia.  The present intransigent attitude of the church against “gay marriage”, or even against civil partnerships, obscures the fact that in other times and places the church has sanctioned some form of same sex relationships, and even provided them with liturgical recognition.

John Boswell was the first scholar to establish in his research that the early church included a liturgical rite of “adelphopoeisis”, or “making of brothers”.  This he identified as having some of the characteristics pertaining to the marriage forms of his day.  In his two books, he also drew attention to the number of prominent churchmen and women in earlier times who are known to have had intimate same sex relationships in their own lives.  Bernadette Brooten has extended this research into same sex relationships in early Christianity with a particular focus on women, while Alan Bray approached the topic from a different angle:  in “The Friend”, he examined a number of instances of English and other churches where tombstones and church records tell of same sex couples buried in single graves, in exactly the same way that married couples sometimes were.  Like Boswell, he too finds evidence in the early church of a rite of “adelphopoeisis”. Like Bray, in tun, Valerie Abrahamsen has examined evidence of same sex burials – from Macedonia in the 6th Century.

Scholars, of course, differ amongst themselves about the precise significance of these findings – in particular, whether these relationships can be thought of as  resembling marriage rites, or even if there is likely to have been any erotic implications to them at all.  I do not wish to go into these nuances – it is enough for my purpose simply to show that liturgical practice concerning same sex relationships has changed.  Today they are vigourously opposed in any form, but in earlier times, from the early church in Rome and Byzantium, to much more recent periods in Western Europe, the Church has provided liturgical recognition for some form of same sex relationships at their formation, and at their dissolution at death.

Many other examples of changes in church teaching and practice could easily be produced – priestly celibacy was not required for the first millenium of history, marriage was not recognised as a sacrament, the church before modern times endorsed slavery and the inferior position of women (in its practice, it still does – but I am not going to venture down that path at present).

But most important, is to recognise that the papacy and the institution of papal power have themselves been subject to constant change.  It is worth remembering that the origins of  the current fuss lie exactly in the repudiation by the SSPX of the Second Vatican Council – a council notable, among other things, for its attempt to recast the balance of power within the Church, with a much enhanced role for the laity. Even the doctrine of papal infallibility, so widely known but so widely misunderstood, is of relatively recent origin.

Even the institution itself does not extend back to the earliest days of the church.  Before there was a pope, the Bishop of Rome was just one among many, then one of 5 patriarchs of equal stature.  After the rise of Islam placed the patriarchs of Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandra under Muslim domination, just two patriarchs, of Rome and Constantinople, remained. In time, the Bishop of Rome acquired special status and power in the Western church, while that of Constantinople did so in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

I have come across a fascinating series of articles by Tom Lee in the Australian internet forum “Catolica”, which has been tracing in weekly instalments, the story of the first 500 years of the Christian church and “the invention” of the papacy.  I have found the early chapters riveting reading, for the insightful picture they paint of the historical setting for the Gospels, and the beginnings of the spread of the Christianity.  I look forward to reading the rest.

As we continue to watch, fascinated, the extraordinary machinations in Vatican City over SSPX, or despair at ongoing stupidities on sexuality, we can perhaps take comfort from the changing past.  The one thing we know for sure is that the papacy and its teachings, as we now know them will certainly change.  What we don’t yet know, is how – or when.