Queer Saints 6: Modern Saints, Modern Heroes – A Great Resurrection?

The active persecution of sodomites by the Inquisition gradually gave way to secular prosecutions under civil law, with declining ferocity as the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment and more modern times (although executions continued until the nineteenth century.) From this time on, theoretical condemnation of “sodomites” co-existed with increasing public recognition of some men who had sex with men, and records relating to queers in the church are less prominent than either earlier or later periods.  In the nineteenth century, Cardinal Newman’s request to be buried alongside Ambrose St John does not appear to have aroused any opposition.

In the twentieth century, the increasing visibility of homosexual men produced the horrifying backlash in Germany in the gay holocaust, with its echos of the medieval bonfires of heretics and sodomites – the modern gay martyrs.

Only after WWII did the Vatican begin to seriously address the question of homosexuality, with increasingly harsh judgements and attempts to silence theologians and pastors who questioned their doctrines and practice. (John McNeill, Sr Jeannine Grammick). Other denominations drove out existing gay or lesbian pastors, and refused ordination, or even church membership, to other openly gay or lesbian church members (Paul Abel Chris Glaser, Troy Perry). However, these victims of church exclusion, who can be seen metaphorically as modern martyrs, martyred by the church for being true to their sexual identity,  refused to be silenced. Like St Sebastian before Emperor Maximilian, they found new ways to minister to the truth of homosexuality and Christianity.

Today, these early pioneers for queer inclusion in church have been joined by countless others, who work constantly at tasks large and small, to witness to the truth of our sexuality and gender identity, and to its compatibility with authentic Christianity. In effect, that includes all of who identify as both Christian, and simultaneously as lesbian, gay trans, or other  – and the women who refuse to accept the narrow confines of the gender roles church authorities attempt to place on us.

In recent years, the sterling work of the early pioneers has borne powerful fruit in the decisions by an increasing number of Christian denominations to ordain openly gay, lesbian or trans pastors, and even to promote them to leadership positions as bishops or moderators. In parallel, there are also now many denominations, and local jurisdictions in others, which are now celebrating same-sex weddings in church. Others which are not willing to go that far, are offering as an alternative, church blessings for couples who have entered civil marriage or civil unions. While the Catholic Church has not yet moved on either of these issues, under Pope Francis there is an undoubtedly more gentle tone, at least in pastoral practice, and much of the previously hostile rhetoric and even doctrine has been quietly shelved.

Some years ago, Fr John McNeill wrote that the Catholic Church was entering a “Kairos moment” (ie, a moment ripe for change)  for LGBT people.  He was referring specifically to Catholics, but  with the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that his words were prescient, for the Christian community as a whole

November 1st is the day the Church has set aside to celebrate All Saints – the recognition that sainthood is not only a matter of formally recognised and canonised saints, but is a calling to which we must all aspire. For LGBT and queer Christians, it is an appropriate day  to remember not the LGBT saints in Christian history, also but our modern heroes, who in facing and overcoming their attempted silencing are martyrs of the modern church.

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Queer Saints 5: Gay Popes & Others

One of the many paradoxes  in the story of the church’s response to same-sex relationships, is that during the rise of direct, active persecution of “sodomites”, in Europe and in the newly establised colonies, the church included in its highest echelons popes, cardinals and senior bishops who are known to have had male lovers, as well as others who may have done, and also some who did not, but tolerated or protected others who did. These are not in any sense to be regarded as “saints”, but they do present evidence that same-sex adventures or interests, were not always a barrier advancement to high church office.

Among the popes, there is little room for doubt about some, for whom the historical record is clear. There’s the notable and embarrassing death of  Paul II (1464 – 1471) for instance.  Sixtus IV (1471-84) appointed one of the young men he favoured as Cardinal archbishop of Parma, in part on account of his “gifts of the spirit and the body“. , Leo X ( 1513-1521). Julius III (1550-1555) was another who was notorious for having appointed a young lover ( Innocenzo Ciocchi Del Monte, aged only 17) as cardinal.
For others, such as  Boniface, Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503),  Benedict IX and John XII (r. 955-964), the evidence is less clear.  Julius II (1503-1513) was widely rumoured to have had many homosexual liaisons, Whether or not they were well-founded, what is beyond doubt, is that he commissioned Michaelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel. Julius’s enthusiastic patronage of Michelangelo’s homoerotic depictions of the male figure also indicates that he may have fully appreciated the physical beauties of men.
Among other early popes who notably tolerated or protected people accused of homosexual practices, we should remember Pope Callistus, who was harshly criticized by Tertullian for his failure to condemn sex between men; Pope Leo IX, who implemented many of St Peter Damian’ s proposals for church reform, but rejected the appeals for harsh penalties against clerical “sodomites”, and also rejected appeals to prevent the consecration as bishop of the promiscuous John (or Jean) of Orleans. Later, Paul III (1534 -49) is said to have protected and bestowed honours on his son, Pier Luigi Farnese, who surrounded himself with male lovers, used Roman police to track down a young man who had spurned his advances, and was accused of raping a bishop and other clerics.
A passage from the glbtq archives is fascinating for the very different picture it paints to that prevailing elsewhere, at a time when the inquisition and secular powers were burning between them thousands of men across Europe and in the New World:
The papacy generally revealed in practice a relatively tolerant attitude to sexual “deviation.” Within the Papal States, penalties against sodomy were enforced less rigorously than in many other territories. By the fifteenth century, Rome had developed a vibrant subculture of men who enjoyed sexual relationships with other men. (The situation of women in Rome is less well documented.)
Thus, throughout the early modern era, men found refuge in Rome from the harsh punishment of sodomy, which was more “routine” in northern Europe and which was also vigorously prosecuted in Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Although popes at least acquiesced in the prosecutions under the Inquisition, the persecution of sodomites probably resulted from local animus and zeal rather than from directives from Rome. Protestant reformers consistently condemned papal toleration of homosexual acts.


Books:

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Queer Saints 4: The Great Persecution (Martyred By the Church)

Symbolically, the great change can be seen as the martyrdom of Joan of Arc – martyred not for the Church, but by the Church, for reasons that combined charges of heresy with her cross-dressing.

A combination of charges of heresy and “sodomy” were also the pretext for the persecution and trials of the Knights Templar- masking the naked greed of the secular and clerical powers which profited thereby. The same confusion of “sodomy” and heresy led to an expansion of the persecution from the Templars to wider group, and  also the expansion of the methods and geographic extent, culminating in the executions of thousands of alleged “sodomites” across many regions of Europe. This persecution was initially encouraged or conducted by the Inquisition, later by secular authorities alone – but conducted according to what the church had taught them was a religious justification. Even today, the belief that religion justifies homophobic violence is often given as a motivation by the perpetrators – and the fires that burned the sodomites of the fifteenth century had a tragic echo in the gay holocaust of the second world war (“Remember the Ashes of our Martyrs“)

This vicious homophobia was exported by the expanding colonial empires, introducing intolerance to many regions of the world where homoeroticism had previously been tolerated, accepted as entirely natural, or even celebrated as bringing particular spiritual gifts.

Yet even at the height of the persecution, there was the paradox of a succession of  popes, who either had well-documented relationships with boys or men (Paul II, Julius III), or commissioned frankly homoerotic art from renowned Renaissance artists, which continues to decorate Vatican architecture (Sixtus IV, Julius II). This period exemplifies the continuing hypocrisy of an outwardly homophobic, internally homoerotic Catholic Church.)

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Queer Saints 3: The Medieval Church

From Rome to the Middle Ages

The early Middle Ages were once known as the “Dark Ages”, a disparaging term, which nevertheless is descriptive of the murky information we have about the saints: some of what is commonly believed about these saints is clearly mythical. Nevertheless, knowledge of the queer associations of saints like Patrick and Brigid of Ireland, George the dragon slayer and “Good King Wenceslas” is simple fun – and literal, historical truth or not, can provide useful material for reflection.

This period is also notable for the widespread use of specific liturgies for blessing same sex unions in Church. Even if these unions are not directly comparable with modern marriage, understanding of this recognition by the church deserves careful consideration, for the guidance it can offer the modern church on dealing with recognition for same sex relationships.

By the time of the High Middle Ages, influenced by increasing urbanisation and greater familiarity with more homoerotic Muslim civilisation, the earlier moderate opposition and grudging toleration of same sex love softened to a more open tolerance, with some remarkable monastic love letters with homoerotic imagery (St AnselmSt Alcuin), a celebration of same sex intimacy in St Aelred of Rielvaulx’s work on Spiritual Friendship, more erotic poetry, and acceptance of open sexual relationships even for prominent bishops (Ralph of Tours, John of OrleansRoger de Pont L’Évêque) and abbots – especially if they had suitable royal collections. Marbod of RiennesBaudri of Bourgeuil, a “Spanish Monk“, and other medieval clerics, like Walafrid Strabo (c. 808-849), Notker Balbulus (c. 840-912), Salamo (c. 860-920) were others from this period who left a legacy of homoerotic literature.

Balancing the male monastics, there were also notable religious women, such as the formidable polymath Hildegard of Bingen and the English mystic, Julian of Norwich.  (If not specifically “lesbian” in any modern sense, both were very clearly of a notably queer sensibility). It was also a time of powerful women in the church, as abbesses who sometimes even had authority over their local bishops. (Hildegonde of Neuss, Saint Walpurga).

Julian of Norwich, as depicted in the church of Ss Andrew and Mary, Langham, Norfolk (Wikipedia)

However, the increase in open sexual relationships among some monastic groups also led to a reaction, with some theologians starting to agitate for much harsher penalties against “sodomites”, especially among the clergy (St Peter Damian, Alan of Lille). Initially, these pleas for a harsher, anti-homosexual regime met with limited support – but bore fruit a couple of centuries later, with disastrous effects which were felt right through to the present day – and especially the twentieth century.

 

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The Homoerotic Catholic Church

Queer Saints 2. The Early Christians: Saints and Martyrs for the Church

The cultural context of the early church was one where Christians were political and even social outcasts, in a society of a bewildering range of attitudes to sexuality, ranging from substantial sexual licence for Roman citizens, to negligible freedom of sexual choice for slaves, to sexual abstemiousness for those influenced by Greek stoicism.

The stories of queer saints that come down to us include those of pairs of martyred Roman soldiers and lovers, martyred Roman women, bishops who wrote skilled erotic poems, and (especially in the Eastern regions) a number of transwomen, cross-dressing monks who were  biologically female, but lived as men in male monasteries. .

Felicity and Perpetua (d. 203), a Roman woman and her devoted slave, who were martyred together, and whose names used to feature amongst the saints listed in the Eucharistic Prayer of the Catholic Mass.

Polyeuct and Nearchos (d. circa 250), two Roman soldiers and lovers, martyred together for their Christian faith.

Sergius and Bacchus (d. 303), like Polyeuct and Nearchos, these were also  two Roman soldiers and lovers, martyred together for their Christian faith – and by far the best known of all the gay saints. 

Juventinus and Maximus? (d. 363)

Paulinus of Nola (d. 431), a Bishop and missionary who is still honoured by the Church for the quality of his devotional verse, but whose output also included frankly homoerotic verse addressed to his friend, Ausonius.

Galla and Benedicta (d. 550), two Roman nuns.

Symeon of Emessa and John (d. 588)

Venantius Fortunatus (d. circa 600/609). Like Paulinus of Nola, a bishop who wrote good quality poetry, including verse in homoerotic language.

Cross-dressing monks

Also from this period, are some saints whose names are familiar and much loved, but for whom the historical evidence is shaky on detail, with some popular beliefs certainly unfounded. Associated with their names, is at least some evidence for same – sex loving relationships.

George the dragon slayer (d. 303)

Patrick: A Gay Role Model? (d. 493 )

Brigid of Ireland (d. 525)

 

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Queer Saints 1: Before “Christianity”

Christianity did not enter the world independently of other religions, or uninfluenced by them. It began as a Jewish sect, and still shares with Judaism a major part of its scriptures and traditions. The Jews in turn were just one small ethnic group in a diverse Mediterranean world of conflicting cultures and civilizations, subject to repeated conflict and war with their neighbours, and to repeated bouts of conquest and slavery.  Before we can really appreciate the place of queer men and women in “Christian” history, we need to consider their place in a wider context: outside the Jewish world, in the Jewish scriptures, and in the contemporary world of Christ himself, before the expansion of his following became an independent faith with a name of its own – Christianity.

The Rape of Ganymede (Rubens)


Before and Beyond the “People of the Book”

One characteristic feature of the Jews was how resolutely they identified themselves in religious terms, as recognising only a single God, who had chosen them as his people.  In loyalty to this one God, they increasingly sought to distance themselves from the influences of all outside religious, with their elaborate pantheons of multiple gods and goddesses. What were the characteristics of these other religions, in their responses to human sexuality?

Studies of the animal kingdom, and of non-Western and pre-industrial societies show clearly that there is no single “natural” form for either human or animal sexuality. Homosexual activity  has been described by science for all divisions of the animal kingdom, in all periods of history, and in all regions of the world. Most religions recognise this. The monotheistic Christian religion teaches that God made us in His own image and likeness – but other religions, when they attempted to picture their many gods and goddesses, created their gods in human image and likeness, and so incorporated into their pantheon many gods who had sex with males – either divine or human.

See:

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The Jewish Scriptures

The Hebrews’ concept of a single all-powerful God did not incorporate any concept of divine sexuality, but they did include into their Scriptures numerous passages that describe same sex loving relationships, as well as tales of eunuchs as prophets.

and:

at The Wild Reed:

The Song of Songs: The Bible’s Gay Love Poem

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The Christian New Testament

The Christian Gospels offer tantalizing hints at Jesus’ own sexuality, which may have included some male love interest. However, more directly relevant to us are His teaching and example , which clearly show that His message is an inclusive one, that quite explicitly does include sexual minorities of all kinds.

After the Gospels, the most important Christian writings are the letters of Paul, who has a reputation as strongly condemning same sex behaviour – but a more careful consideration of his life as well as his letters, in their own context, can offer a different perspective.

See:

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