Category Archives: Queer Saints and Martyrs

Gay Bishops: Ralph of Tours and John of Orleans

With all the current fuss about the decision of the US Episcopal Church to consecrate openly gay bishops, and the Catholic Church’s declared hostility to gay priests and to gay marriage or even civil unions, we forget that in the older history of the church, it is not gay priests and bishops that are new, or gay marriage, but the opposition to them.  Many medieval and classical scholars have produced abundant evidence of clearly homosexual clergy, bishops, and even saints, and of church recognition of same sex unions.

gay bishops


Gay Bishops in Church History

 One story is particularly striking.  At the close of the 11th Century, Archbishop Ralph of Tours persuaded the King of France to install as Bishop of Orleans a certain John  – who was widely known as Ralph’s gay lover, as he had previously been of Ralph’s brother and predecessor as Bishop of Orleans, of the king himself, and of several other prominent men.   This was strongly opposed by prominent churchmen, on the grounds that John was too young and would be too easily influenced by Ralph.  (Note, please, that the opposition was not based on the grounds of sexuality, or even of promiscuity.)  Ivo of Chartres tried to get Pope Urban II to intervene.  Now, Urban had strong personal reasons, based in ecclesiastical and national politics, to oppose Ralph.  Yet he declined to do so. In spite of well-founded opposition, John was consecrated Bishop of Orleans on March 1, 1098, when he joined two of his own lovers, and numerous  others, in the ranks of openly homosexual Catholic Bishops.

An earlier example was St Paulinus of Nola, whose feast day was celebrated earlier this month.  Paulinus was noted as both bishop and poet: his poetic “epistles” to his friend Faustinus are noted in the on-line Catholic Encyclopedia.  What the CE does not remind us, is that Pulinus ans Faustinus were lovers, and the “epistles” were frankly homoerotic verse, which may be read today in the Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse.  Church history for its first twelve centuries at least is littered with further stories of male and female clergy, some canonized or popularly recognised as saints, with clear homosexual orientations.  Some of these, as clergy, probably lived celibate lives.  Many clearly did not.

In England, there was Bishop Longchamps, the bishop that Richard the Lionheart made Regent. The well-known line on him was that the barons would trust their daughters with him, but not their sons.

Gay Saints in Church History

Church history for its first twelve centuries at least is littered with further stories of male and female clergy, some canonized or popularly recognised as saints, with clear homosexual orientations. Some of these, as clergy, probably lived celibate lives. Many clearly did not. Among many examples from Church history, some of the better known are:

Aelred of Rievaulx (probably celibate, but wrote intensely ardent love letters to male friends);

St Patrick (believed to have worked as a prostitute in his youth, and may have taken a male lover in later life);

SS Sergius & Bacchus( Roman soldiers, lovers & martyrs)

St John of the Cross (Well known mystic, whose metaphorical poetry of his love for Christ uses frankly homoerotic imagery)

Cardinal John Henry Newman (soon to be beatified, was so devoted to his beloved friend Aubrey St John, that he insisted on being buried with him in the same grave.)

Same Sex Unions in Church History

The earliest church, in Rome and in the Slavic countries, recognised some forms of same sex union in liturgical rites of  “adelphopoein” .  It is not entirely clear precisely what was the precise meaning of these rites.  They were clearly not directly comparable to modern marriage – but nor were the forms of heterosexual unions at the time.  Some claim that they were no more than a formalised friendship under the name of  “brotherhood” – but many Roman lovers called themselves “brothers”.  Some of the couples united under this rite were certainly homosexual lovers, but it is possible not all were.  What is certain, is that the Church under the Roman Empire, for many years recognised and blessed liturgically some form of union for same sex couples.  As late as the sixteenth century, there is a clear written report of a Portuguese male couple having been married in a church in Rome.

This recognition also extended to death.  From  the earliest church until at least the nineteenth century, there are examples of same sex couples, both male and female, being buried in shared graves, in a manner exactly comparable to the common practice of married couples sharing a grave – and often with the parallel made clear in the inscriptions.

The modern Church likes to claim that in condemning same sex relationships, and resisting gay marriage and gay clergy, it is maintaining a long church tradition.  It is not.  To persist in this claim, in the light of increasing evidence from modern scholars, is simply to promote a highly selective  and hence dishonest reading of history.

See also

and at “Queering the Church“:

From the “Lesbian and Gay Catholic Handbook

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also available on-line:

 

Burials in Greek Macedonia (Valerie Abrahamsen)


Books:

St John of the Cross, Homoerotic Mystic

John of the Cross is important for queer Catholics for two reasons.  First, because he is a great teacher of spirituality, and the cultivation of spiritual practice, by enabling a more direct experience of the divine, is an excellent way to immunise ourselves from toxic and misguided teaching on human sexuality.  Second, and more interestingly, because his language at times uses imagery which is plainly homoerotic, and so easily usable by gay men in their own prayer.

St John of the Cross

From the Calendar of LGBT Saints:

1542-1591

St. John of the Cross was one of the great Spanish mystics, whose outstanding Dark Night of the Soul is still read by all interested in Catholic mysticism. He also wrote a series of intense religious canticles. St. John, like other mystics such as St. Theresa of Avila, used the language of courtly love to describe his relationship with Christ. He also discussed, with rare candor, the sexual stimulation of prayer, the fact that mystics experience sexual arousal during prayer. With the male Christ of course, this amounts to a homoeroticism of prayer. It must be said that St. John was not entirely happy with this aspect of prayer. He was beatified by Clement X in 1675, canonized by Benedict XIII in 1726, and declared a Doctor of Church Universal by Pius XI in 1926

Quoted at The Wild Reed:

(from ) On a Dark Night

……..

……..
“Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined
Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping,
and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand
He caressed my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.”

UPDATE ( 15th Dec)

By way of a comment to my original post above, I have some wonderful additional  insights to St John that are worth sharing.  The theologian Bill Lindsy, who blogs are Bilgrimage, had this to add:

I’d like to recommend the work of an openly gay Catholic theologian who is an expert in the life and theology of John.

Richard Hardy, who taught theology for many years at St. Paul’s in Ottawa and now lives in San Francisco, did a biography of John now long out of print, which recovers some fascinating aspects of John’s life that have implications, I believe, for LGBT Christians.

Richard notes that one of John’s formative experiences before he was a religious was working as a nurse in hospitals in Spain that treated, for the most part, people suffering from venereal diseases. Here, he had to learn lovingly to acknowledge and cherish the wounded flesh of sinful human beings.

And he learned from these years as a nurse of the value of cauterizing some wounds–a metaphor that became powerful in his spiritual theology, where the divine fire of God’s love cauterizes our spiritual wounds.

Cardinal Newman

Not yet a saint, but on the way:  Newman is due to be beatified in 2010, with canonization to follow after confirmation of the required “Third Miracle”. He does not yet have a feast day in the usual sense.  However, his “die natalis“, or “day of (new) birth” (i.e. the anniversary of his death) is remembered today, Aug 11th.

Newman is not classed as “gay” on the basis of sexual practice:  it is generally acknowledged that he practiced  sexual abstinence.  Still, he had a clear homosexual sensibility, and was renowned for a remarkable devotion to his friend Ambrose St John, with whom he insisted on being buried:

Ambrose St John, left, and Cardinal Newman (picture taken from "Nihil Obstat")

Ambrose St John, left, and Cardinal Newman (picture taken from “Nihil Obstat”)

“John Henry Newman, the most prominent 19th century-convert to Roman Catholicism, is best known for his writings, especially his superb spiritual biography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua. It is certain that Newman was sexually abstinent throughout his life, nevertheless he spent most of his life with his closest friend, Fr. Ambrose St. John. Some reports [see Hillard ref. below for rebuttal] state that he lay all night on Ambrose St. John’s bed after Ambrose’s death, and, certainly, stipulated in his will that he wished to be buried in the same grave as Fr. St. John at Rednal in the English midlands ”
–  LGBT Catholic Handbook, Calendar of Lesbian Gay and Transgendered Saints.

(For more on Newman’s sexuality, see Geffrey Faber’s “The Oxford Apostles”, which , says the LGBT Handbook,was:

“The first book to take seriously the homoeroticism of the Catholic movement in the 19th century – pp. 32-35 presents Newman as a sublimated homosexual.”)

For the story of Newman’s dying wish to be buried with St John, and the Vatican’s shameful disregard of this desire, see “Nihil Obstat”:

“I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Fr Ambrose St John’s grave – and I give this as my last, my imperative will,” he wrote, later adding: “This I confirm and insist on.”

Newman wrote after the death of St John in 1875: “I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband’s or a wife’s, but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or anyone’s sorrow greater, than mine.”

Ambrose had also become a Roman Catholic around the same time as John Newman, and the two men have a joint memorial stone, inscribed with the words Newman had chosen:

“Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem”, which translates as “Out of shadows and phantasms into the truth”.

Ironically, when the time came to attempt the disinterment against Newman’s clear wishes, the grave was found to be quite empty.

Some have seen this as as the third miracle required for full canonization.

 SS Symeon of Emessa & John: Hermits, Saints & Lovers

The information for this pair of same sex lovers is sparse, but the story important.  I quote directly from the LGBT Catholic Handbook Calendar of gay & lesbian saints :

“The story itself is about a same-sex relationship. Symeon..and John…. meet on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They become friends and “would no longer part from each other”. In fact they abandon their families and go together to dedicate their lives to God. In the monastery they first join, they are tonsured by the abbot who blesses them together(Krueger 139-141, 142). This seems to refer to some early monastic version of theadelphopoiia ceremony.”

Twenty nine years later, they part and their stories diverge. Simeon wants to leave John, as he had ealrier left his wife, and becomes know as a “fool for Christ”.  But:

The extent of the relationship is revealed at this point. John is not keen for Symeon to leave. He says to Symeon “..Please, for the Lord’s sake, do not leave wretched me….Rather for the sake of Him who joined us, do not wish to be parted from your brother. You know that, after God, I have no one except you, my brother, but I renounced all and was bound to you, and now you wish to leave me in the desert, as in an open sea. Remember that day when we drew lost and went down to the Lord Nikon, that we agreed not to be separated from one another. Remember that fearful day when we were clothed in the holy habit, and we two were as one soul, so that all were astonished at our love. Don’t forget the words of the great monk…Please don’t lest I die and God demands an account of my soul from You.”

Halsall states clearly that this was not a sexual relationship, but it is clearly an emotionally intimate, same sex relationship.  At a time when “marriage” did not carry the same meaning that it has today;  when many religious married couples, even outside holy orders, were encouraged to remain celibate;  and given that they had entered a omnastery before living together as  hermits, this is unremarkable. Continue reading  SS Symeon of Emessa & John: Hermits, Saints & Lovers

A Church for Saints and Sinners

The Guardian Newspaper has drawn attention to an article which it claims shows that the Holy See is warming to Oscar Wilde.  This is a little over the top – what the newspaper did, was to praise a review of a book about Wilde:

“Despite the Catholic Church’s condemnation of practising homosexuality, the newspaper has now run a glowing review of a new book about the famously doomed lover of Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde was “one of the personalities of the 19th century who most lucidly analysed the modern world in its disturbing as well as its positive aspects”, wrote author Andrea Monda in a piece about Italian author Paolo Gulisano’s The Portrait of Oscar Wilde.

In an article headlined “When Oscar Wilde met Pius IX”, Monda wrote that Wilde was not “just a non-conformist who loved to shock the conservative society of Victorian England”; rather he was “a man who behind a mask of amorality asked himself what was just and what was mistaken, what was true and what was false”.

“Wilde was a man of great, intense feelings, who behind the lightness of his writing, behind a mask of frivolity or cynicism, hid a deep knowledge of the mysterious value of life,” he said.”

Nevertheless, it is true that both in the review and in publishing an earier collection of aphorisms, the Vatican has commented a pprovingly on the wisdom behind many of Wilde’s wittty remarks: in particular, that the Catholic Church is a  place “for saints and sinners alone” – and not for respectable people or conformists.

“The Holy See started its unlikely love affair with the Irish playwright and author two years ago when it published a collection of his quips in the book Provocations: Aphorisms for an Anti-conformist Christianity. Wilde’s famous comments “I can resist everything except temptation”, and “the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it” were included in the book, edited by Father Leonardo Sapienza.

Wilde was baptised into the Catholic Church shortly before he died. L’Osservatore Romano said that the “existential path” which the author trod “can also be seen as a long and difficult path toward that Promised Land which gives us the reason for existence, a path which led him to his conversion to Catholicism, a religion which, as he remarked in one of his more acute and paradoxical aphorisms, was ‘for saints and sinners alone – for respectable people, the Anglican Church will do’.”

This is profoundly true.  The heart of the Gospel is precisely that it is about to reaching out to all  – saints and sinners alike – and not to the rich and respectable, unless they discard those riches and respectability.  Indeed, many of our most revered saints today were at one time or another either clear “sinners”, or viewed with great suspicion or outright hostility by the Vatican establishment.

In a useful comment on the article, Martin Pendergast, well-known in the UK for his outstadning work behind the Soho Masses and the RC Caucus of the LGCM, notes the many reasons why this should not be a surprise, arguing along lines similar to those used by Mark Jordan in “The Silence of Sodom.”

“Why should anyone be surprised at the Vatican’s official newspaper lauding Oscar Wilde? Its marbled halls are strewn with the finely sculpted, muscular youths of Michelangelo’s erotic fantasies. The erupting sexuality in the Sistine Chapel’s frescos are likewise testament to Wilde’s assertion that the Catholic church is “for saints and sinners alone” and that “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.”

What might have attracted Oscar Wilde to Catholicism? At one level it might have been the camp ultramontanism of 18th and 19th century liturgy and music. This attracted so many converts of the era, lingering into the early 20th century, with leading figures of the Oxford Movement and later Anglo-Catholic revivals turning to Rome. Cardinal Newman, his beloved Ambrose St John, the hymn-writing Father Faber, and Robert Hugh Benson, were all aesthetes to varying degrees. Was there something in the harshness of Victorian society that encouraged them to seek out alternative values in the Catholic church of those times?

…..

Wilde’s sexual life, which today might be described as exhibiting patterns of sexual addiction, gave him deep insight into what was good, and beautiful, and true, in himself and those whom he loved, from Constance Lloyd to Alfred Douglas. The Vatican newspaper is not romanticising Wilde but noting his real insights into the human condition, its vulnerability and its immense creativity. Wilde’s De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol are as valuable spiritual and theological classics as Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, or the latter’s passionate letters on the death of Ambrose St John.”

Saint or Sinner:  which are you?

For the full Guardian article, read it here;

For Martin’s commentary, read it here.

Related posts:

Oscar Wilde, Queer Martyr (Queer Saints, Sinners and Martyrs)

Oscar Wilde: Gay martyr with complex faith journey recalled in new art




St Paulinus of Nola, Gay Bishop. June 25, 2009

Although some would dispute the description of Paulinus as ‘gay’, the description seems to me entirely appropriate to his sensibility. Although history records no evidence of physical expression of his same sex attraction, nor is there any evidence against it.  Given the historical context he was living in (4th/5th century Roman empire) , when sex with either gender was commonplace for men at at all levels of society, inside and outside the Christian church, the absence of written records of private activities after 15 centuries is completely unremarkable.  Nor is the fact that he was married particularly significant – for Romans, marriage and sex with men were entirely compatible.

What is known is that he was passionately in love with a man, Ausonius, to whom he addressed exquisitely tender love poetry.   This is of sufficient quality and gay sensibility to be included in the Penguin book of homosexual verse:

“To Ausonius”

I, through all chances that are given to mortals,
And through all fates that be,
So long as this close prison shall contain me,
Yea, though a world shall sunder me and thee,

Thee shall I hold, in every fibre woven,
Not with dumb lips, nor with averted face
Shall I behold thee, in my mind embrace thee,
Instant and present, thou, in every place.

Yea, when the prison of this flesh is broken,
And from the earth I shall have gone my way,
Wheresoe’er in the wide universe I stay me,
There shall I bear thee, as I do today.

Think not the end, that from my body frees me,
Breaks and unshackles from my love to thee;
Triumphs the soul above its house in ruin,
Deathless, begot of immortality.

Still must she keep her senses and affections,
Hold them as dear as life itself to be,
Could she choose death, then might she choose forgetting:

Living, remembering, to eternity.

[trans. Helen Waddell, in Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse]




Continue reading St Paulinus of Nola, Gay Bishop. June 25, 2009

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.

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

Related articles

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’.