Tag Archives: gay saints

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.

St Aelred of Rievaulx, January 12

St Aelred,  whose feast we celebrate today, is recognised in all sources as an important English saint, who lived in the north of England in the 12 C. As a young man, he joined the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx, later returning there as Abbott.  He is remembered especially for his writings on friendship, some of which have led gay writers such as John Boswell to claim him as ‘homosexual’. For instances, Integrity USA, an Anglican LGBT organisation, have designated him as their patron. From the website of Integrity, this Collect for the feast of Aelred:

Collect

Pour into our hearts, 0 God, the Holy Spirit’s gift of love, that we, clasping each the other’s hand, may share the joy of friendship, human and divine, and with your servant Aelred draw many into your community of love; through Jesus Christ the Righteous, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The regard given to St Aelred by gay writers is based on his book, “On Spiritual Friendship”, in which he is clear in extolling the value of same-sex love. He does so on the basis of personal experience, and describes the impact that several of these friendships have had on him, and the desolation he has felt when a lover has died.

“It is no small consolation in this life to have someone to whom you can be united in the intimate embrace of the most sacred love;  in whom your spirit can rest; to whom you can pour out your soul; in whose delightful company, as in a sweet consoling song, you can take comfort in the midst of sadness;  in whose most welcome, friendly bosom you can find peace in so many worldly setbacks; to whose loving heart you can open, as freely as you would to yourself, your innermost thoughts; through whose spiritual kisses – as by some medicine – you are cured of the sickness of care and worry; who weeps with you in sorrow, rejoices with you in joy, and wonders with you in doubt; whom you draw by the fetters of love into that inner room of your soul, so that though the body is absent, the spirit is there, and you can confer all alone, the two of you, in the sleep of peace away from the noise of the world, in the embrace of love, in the kiss of unity, with the Holy Spirit flowing over you; to whom you so join and unite yourself that you mix soul with soul, and two become one.”

It is important to keep clearly in mind that although there is clear reference to the “embrace of love”, and to “kisses”, Aelred is writing about spiritual friendship, and that he stresses the spiritual riches  it brings, “with the Holy Spirit flowing over you.”

It is for this reason that opponents of homoerotic love deny that Aelred in any way presents a model of gay love as we understand it today. Instead, they point to his equally clear writing about chastity, and his lifelong struggle to remain chaste.

Personally, I see the battle to confirm or deny Aelred’s spiritual friendships as resembling or contradicting modern gay love as completely pointless. Of course they were different to modern relationships – just as all other medieval relationships were different to modern counterparts. Marriage then was different in many important respects to what we have today, ordinary friendships were different – as Alan Bray argues convincingly in The Friend. Aelred was also living and writing in a specifically monastic setting, about people who had taken a vow of celibacy. Discussion of whether those monks’ intimate friendships included physical intimacy is entirely irrelevant.

Aelred and his writing do nevertheless have profound importance for modern gay men and lesbian partnerships, and raises uncomfortable questions about the Catholic church’s rule on compuslory celibacy for priests. Saints Augustine and Aquinas both described the sacramental value of two people giving themselves to each other in (heterosexual) marriage. Aelred does likewise for  same -sex emotional and spiritual intimacy in monastic same-sex relationships. In the same way, modern gay or lesbian couples can and should recognize and nurture the spiritual, sacramental value  their relationships, whether celibate (as in the monastic ideal), or otherwise (as i heterosexual marriage).

In the centuries following Aelred, his celebration of love between monks was completely undermined and replaced in monastic life and in seminary training for the priesthood by a tragic and destructive prohibition on any form of particular friendships, fostered by a growing recognition in the late medieval period of widespread homosexual practices in the monasteries. (St Peter Damian, who was one of the earliest to argue vociferously for strong penalties against homosexual acts, directed his anger primarily at priests and monks). The problem is that if priests are allowed neither physical nor emotional intimacy with another, where are they to obtain the strength and succour to sustain them in their lives?

Praising the value of clerical celibacy in his extended interview for “Light of the World”, Pope Benedicts says that it “becomes possible” when priests live in community. What then, of those priests who do not, or those other gay Catholics who wish to live in conformity with orthodox teaching but are in practice expected to live alone?

St Aelred got it right. There clearly is deep spiritual value in intimate same-sex relationships, whether in monastic celibacy, or in marriage.

There are other reasons too, for us to take Aelred seriously as a patron of gay or lesbian committed relationships. His writing draws explicit attention to the nature of Christ’s own particular friendship, with the beloved disciple – describing it as a “heavenly marriage”:

“Jesus himself, is in everything like us. Patient and compassionate with others in every matter. He transfigured this sort of love through the expression of his own love; for he allowed only one – not all – 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.”

Just to rub in Aelred’s direct connection to same sex unions or marriage, take a look at the Mass readings for his feast day: Psalm 36:5-10 ;Ruth 1:15-18Philippians 2:1-4 ;Mark 12:28-34a.

These all deal with love, but note especially the words from Ruth, words which are often used as readings for weddings – but which are spoken by one woman to another.

5 So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’

16But Ruth said,
‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
17 Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’
18When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

So now you know. Celebrate the feast of St Aelred today – and with it, the sacramental value of same sex unions.

Recommended Books:

Aelred of RievaulxSpiritual Friendship

Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century

Boswell, John: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

Bray, Alan: The Friend

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Gay Saints: Do they exist? Do they matter?

Lovers & Martyrs?

The recognition of saints is an important part of Catholic history and tradition.  Growing up in a Catholic school, I was frequently urged to read the lives of the saints, of which our small school library had a copious supply, for my spiritual well-being.  Many adult Catholics retain a special affection, even devotion, to particular favoured saints.

For some of us, this makes us a little uncomfortable. Partly, this is because the more demonstrative forms of veneration may come dangerously close to the Protestant perception of a cult of idolatrous  ‘worship’ of the saints;  for others , the problem is simply that of the remoteness of most of the saints:  remote in time, overwhelmingly limited in geography to Europe, and particularly certain regiosn of Europe.

There is also the problem that the recognised saints were, if not ordained clergy and religious sisters, at least celibate lay people – creating a perception that saintliness is reserved to the asexual, even unsexed, among us, leading lives devoid of intimate personal relationships.  (This creates the further problem of a simplistic association of healthy emotional and sexual lives with ‘sin’.)

Pope John Paul II, during his long pontificate, set about creating an unprecedented number of new saints for the modern age, deliberately seeking to undo this sense of remoteness.  We now have many more saints, and beatified saints-in-waiting, from recent history and from beyond Europe.  There were even reports that he was actively looking for a suitable married couple for elevation, to counter the perception that sainthood applied only to the celibate.

But we in the LGBT community remain excluded – or think we are. “How great it would be”, we think, if we too could have saints of our own.  It is in this spirit that a number of modern scholars (most notably John Boswell, followed by others) have dug into history and produced evidence of recognised ‘gay saints’ in church history. The LGBT Catholic Handbook has an extensive listing of the best known of these.

Is it realistic to think of these as ‘gay saints’?  Is it helpful?

I suggest that the answer to the first question is probably “No”, at least not as narrowly defined.  But to the second question, I would answer, most certainly, “Yes, helpful indeed, if interpreted more broadly.”

The problem with the term, narrowly interpreted is that it is so fluid, imprecise and anachronistic.

For St Jerome and St Alcuin, where the status of sainthood is uncontested, there is a different problem.  Although there is clear evidence that these two, and others, experienced strong, even intimate emotional relationships with other men, it is not absolutely agreed that these relationships were sexual. And so, it is argued, these men cannot be understood as ‘gay’. (Others would suggest that the naysayers are deliberately ignoring the plain evidence infront of their eyes, but no matter, the dispute is plainly there.

So where are the gay saints, narrowly defined?  I do not know of any who unambiguously meet both criteria:  agreed to be saints, agreed to be gay.

Nevertheless, I don’t think this is important.

It is not only the canonised saints who are important: I was taught that we are all potentially saints, even if not recognised.  The “communion of saints” includes many more than the limited number who have been publicly acknowledged. It is also of no consequence whether particular individuals expressed their emotional intimacy in genital acts to be considered in some snese ‘gay’.  (We do not require that other saints show evidence of genital activity with the opposite sex to be considered ‘heterosexual’).

By applying a looser, broader definition, then I suggest that there will be many ‘gay saints’ that have gone before us, and many who still live among us.  This not to suggest that praying to them is likely to produce miracles in support of official canonisation – but it is important that we recognise and offer respect to role models in our history.

It is in this spirit that I commend a closer examination of the many figures who have been suggested as supposed ‘gay saints’.