3 Catholic Responses to John Boswell’s “Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe”

As of late, the internet has been buzzing about a book written nearly 20 years ago called Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe.  It was written by homosexual activist John Boswell and was published just after he died.  But there has been a flurry of references to this book as if Boswell were just to begin a book tour.

The main supposed revelation of the book was that Christianity had no problem with homosexuality and that it even married same sex couples until the 13th Century, when the Church suddenly decided that homosexuality was wrong.  High-trafficked websites like Huffington Post, Cracked.com, and io9.com have all posted very favorable articles about the book, accepting Boswell’s findings as Gospel (pardon the pun).

You might wonder why a two-decade-old book is suddenly popular.  Our current context cannot be ignored.  People who are in favor of “gay marriage,” can feel the tide turning, where more and more states, nations, and elected representatives in support.  The largest and strongest opposition to this radical overhaul of society comes from orthodox Christians.

But if Boswell’s claims are true, this knocks the legs out from under the opposition, making victory swifter for them.  If his findings are reported enough, the hope is that the popular culture will just take for granted that the Church’s teachings on homosexual actions are just the strange peccadillo of an irrelevant tradition.

Notice how nuts the mainstream media went over the non-story that the Pope said that homosexuals must be treated with respect.  NBC host Donny Deutsch thought that this signaled a sea change in Catholicism, thus exposing his utter ignorance.

The advantage, however, is on our side regarding Boswell’s book.  Most of the time, a fringe author will publicize a radical heterodox theory that the media simply accepts.  It then falls to us to do the legwork and catch up.  By the time we have found the refuting evidence, the media has moved on to some other story.  But Boswell’s book has been thoroughly vetted and reviewed.

The remainder of this article is not a point-by-point dismantling of Boswell’s book.  Other, more scholarly people, have already written these.  The following are just a few points to keep in mind as you hear and read stories about it.

1. We have a long history of battling strange ideas.

In the first 100 years of Christianity, there were a lot of strange ideas that floated around, some of which became full-fledged heresies.  For example, you could say that Christians in the first century believed in reincarnation if you included the Gnostics in your definition of Christian.

It should not be surprising that some of the early Christians should engage in behavior that was out of the ordinary.  We see that in Paul’s letters, where he has to correct the communities for going away from his message.

Using Boswell’s criteria, he could say that early Christians believed in circumcision.  This was the belief of the Judaizers, who Paul often confronted.  They were Christians who held to a practice that was eventually addressed by the Council of Jerusalem and then condemned.

Here you had Christians who misinterpreted their faith to adapt it to their culture, but it was never matter of accept moral or religious doctrine.  Boswell would have you believe that as long as something is practiced by Christians it is orthodox.  Again, he must never have heard of the concept of heresy.

2. Men can have loving relationships with other men and not be gay.

Modern culture has a hard time not thinking gay.  What I mean is that if two people of the same sex show radical affection towards one another, our culture is so sexualized, that we assume there must be an erotic attraction as well.

This is a new development in Western culture.  Only a few years ago when Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings, he constantly depicted Sam holding Frodo’s hand, professing his love, and even spooning him in the cold night in Mordor.  There is nothing homosexual about it, but we can’t help to see Brokeback Mount Doom.

Men are much more stiffed in our modern era in showing affection to other men.  It was not so in Jesus’ day.  At the Last Supper, the Beloved Disciple laid his head against the breast of Jesus.  And at the Supper, Christ told all of the men there that He loved them.  I don’t think the Apostles thought Jesus was hitting on them.

So if there were ancient ceremonies that blessed a loving friendship between two men, it does not therefore prove that this love was erotic.  All it shows is that we moderns cannot get past our sex-tinted glasses.

3. Silence doesn’t mean approval.

The author’s main argument is from silence.  He says that it wasn’t until the 13th century that homosexual unions were condemned. This necessitates a terrible interpretation of Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6, as well as every single reference to homosexuality in the Bible.

But on top of that, it basically says that since there were no formal denunciations until Thomas Aquinas, then the Church must have approved.  But that is like saying that the Jesus was fine with abortion because he didn’t talk about it.  Thomas Aquinas is a convenient whipping boy because he attempted to cover all questions under the sun regarding theology, hence the title of his master work: Summa Theologiae.

But if you are going to be comprehensive, you may raise questions that have not been popularly raised before.  Hence people look to him as an originator of Church teaching on several things, when really he is not.  He is, for the most part, simply raising up what already there either explicitly or by implication.

It is true that most of the Church’s writings up until that time regarding homosexuality were in the context of boy prostitutes and pagan worship.  Boswell says that it is that context and homosexuality per se that is condemned  But he has no reason for this other than he believes it to be so.

Boswell’s book will soon be available as an ebook.  His assertions will be more widely read and held by the popular culture.  I highly recommend reading the critiques of this book by Richard John Neuhaus and liberal Camille Paglia.

But if you choose not to and you need to quickly mitigate the “ancient Christian gay marriage” meme, simply keep in mind the above points.  And above all pray to the God of Truth.

Copyright © 2013, W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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