Queer Saints and Martyrs: Synopsis

Prequel: Before Christianity

Rape of Ganymede

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.

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 the books of the prophets who were eunuchs.

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.

The Early Christians.

The cultural context of the early was one where  they 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 martyred Roman soldiers, martyred Roman women, bishops who wrote skilled erotic poems, and (especially in the Eastern regions), cross-dressing monks.

In addition to the examples of individuals who were honoured as saints, there are also important examples from Church practice. Evidence from archaeology and written records shows clearly that from the late Roman period onwards, the Church made liturgical provision for the recognition of same sex couples. From Macedonia, there is extensive evidence of Christian same sex couples who were buried in shared graves. More telling evidence for church recognition of same sex couples comes from the existence of formal liturgical rites for blessing their unions. In the Eastern Church, these rites (known as “adelphopoeisis”)  date from the late Roman period. In the Western Church, where the evidence begins a little later, they were known as making of “sworn brothers”.

Medieval Homoeroticism

Saint Walburga, Abbess

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 urbanization and greater familiarity with more homoerotic Muslim civilization, 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, more erotic poetry, and acceptance of open sexual relationships even for prominent bishops  and abbots – especially if they had suitable royal collections.

It was also a time of powerful women in the church, as abbesses who sometimes even had authority over their local bishops.

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. 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.

The Great Persecution

Burning the Sodomites

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.

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,  or commissioned frankly homoerotic art from renowned Renaissance artists, which continues to decorate Vatican architecture. This period exemplifies the continuing hypocrisy of an outwardly homophobic, internally.

Modern Martyrs, Modern Revival

Cardinal John Newman

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. Other denominations drove out existing gay or lesbian pastors, and refused ordination, or even church membership, to other openly gay or lesbian church members. 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.

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 recognized and canonized saints, but is a calling to which we must all aspire. For queers in Church, it is especially a day for us to remember our modern heroes, who in facing and overcoming their attempted silencing are martyrs of the modern church – and that we, too, are called to martyrdom, in its literal sense: to bear witness, in our lives, to our truth.

Epilogue: All Saints

(Note: The synopsis as written above is an outline of the history as I presently understand it, written in a sitting for overall continuity. It includes assertions that I have not checked, and impressions that will surely alter as I continue to explore, research, and reflect. There will certainly be errors, and I welcome any submissions from readers to point them out.

This post will be subject to regular correction and moderate expansion as a whole, and of the links that in contains. I will also embark on a series of expansions, with additional links,  for specific periods – which should ultimately become the main divisions of the envisaged book which I hope will be the end-product).

2 comments for “Queer Saints and Martyrs: Synopsis

  1. R Friend
    May 10, 2014 at 7:04 am

    I’d like to see sources for the claims you made about the Early Church and the Medieval Period.

    You’d have to deal with sources such as the First Apology of Justin Martyr (approx. A.D. 151) who in that work condemns both sodomy and transgender practices.

    “[W]e have been taught that to expose newly-born children is the part of wicked men; and this we have been taught lest we should do anyone harm and lest we should sin against God, first, because we see that almost all so exposed (not only the girls, but also the males) are brought up to prostitution. And for this pollution a multitude of females and hermaphrodites, and those who commit unmentionable iniquities, are found in every nation. And you receive the hire of these, and duty and taxes from them, whom you ought to exterminate from your realm. And anyone who uses such persons, besides the godless and infamous and impure intercourse, may possibly be having intercourse with his own child, or relative, or brother. And there are some who prostitute even their own children and wives, and some are openly mutilated for the purpose of sodomy; and they refer these mysteries to the mother of the gods.”

    Similarly, you’d have to deal with Eusebius…

    “[H]aving forbidden all unlawful marriage, and all unseemly practice, and the union of women with women and men with men, he [God] adds: ‘Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; for in all these things the nations were defiled, which I will drive out before you. And the land was polluted, and I have recompensed [their] iniquity upon it, and the land is grieved with them that dwell upon it’ [Lev. 18:24–25]” (Proof of the Gospel 4:10 [A.D. 319]).

    …St. John Chrysostom…

    “[Certain men in church] come in gazing about at the beauty of women; others curious about the blooming youth of boys. After this, do you not marvel that [lightning] bolts are not launched [from heaven], and all these things are not plucked up from their foundations? For worthy both of thunderbolts and hell are the things that are done; but God, who is long-suffering, and of great mercy, forbears awhile his wrath, calling you to repentance and amendment” (Homilies on Matthew 3:3 [A.D. 391])

    …St. Augustine…

    “[T]hose shameful acts against nature, such as were committed in Sodom, ought everywhere and always to be detested and punished. If all nations were to do such things, they would be held guilty of the same crime by the law of God, which has not made men so that they should use one another in this way” (Confessions 3:8:15 [A.D. 400]).

    …and St. Thomas Aquinas in the medieval age, of which the following link is an excellent secondary source: http://ronconte.wordpress.com/2011/04/02/catholic-teaching-on-homosexuality-3-saint-thomas-aquinas/

    So in order to substantiate your claims, and therefore make your argument stronger, I suggest that you both cite sources for things such as the Church officiating over homosexual rites binding those folks, and for reasons why the above posted saints and theologians are either wrong or aberrations of Church teaching, and not representative of the Sacred Tradition handed down from the Apostles.

    • May 10, 2014 at 8:55 am

      Which claims in particular, are you referring to?

      I’m not going to respond in any detail, but the primary source here is John Boswell, “Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality”, and “Same – sex unions in pre-modern Europe”, but also others including Canon Derrek Sherwen Baily, “Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition”, Vern Bullough, “Homosexuality: A History” (and others), and Alan Bray, “The Friend”. I’ve also drawn on numerous internet sources (especially the Lesbian and Gay Catholic Handbook, by Paul Halsall of Fordham university), as well as my own posts here at QTC. The post you are responding to is clearly labelled as a synopsis, summarizing a large number of more detailed posts, many of which do indeed include references for the specific claims.

      Of course I’m familiar with the passages you quote – but it’s as dangerous to cherry – pick isolated passages from theologians, as it is to do so with biblical texts (which the Pontifical Biblical Commission warns us against). I cannot see the relevance of the passage from Justin Martyr, which is clearly about infanticide and child prostitution. John Chrysostom was writing in the 4th century. By that time, Christian writers were being influenced by thought from non – Christian sources, including the Hellenistic stoics, the Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria, and some very bizarre beliefs about animal sexuality claimed by Clement of Alexandria and the non-canonical “Epistle to Barnabas”. To see how thinking about sex was distorted beyond anything inherent in the original Christian texts, see Boswell (above), and also Renato Lings, “Lost in Translation: The Bible and Homosexuality”, or Theodore Jennings: “Plato or Paul: the Origins of Western Homophobia”. What about earlier than that? While Aquinas’ statements opposing homosexual acts are widely known and frequently quoted, there’s another passage in which he acknowledges that for some people, same – sex relationships are natural – and implies that they should be acceptable. He also takes diametrically contradictory positions on how we should respond to the lessons from the animal world.

      I accept that the overall tenor of Christian thought, from fairly early on (but not from the very beginning), has been critical of homosexuality – just as for the first few centuries, it was critical of all sexuality, preferring virginity over marriage, and even within marriage. All I am stating, is that within that broad tradition, there has been substantial variation in degree, and the examples of individual lives makes clear that the picture is not nearly as simple as the grossly oversimplified popular view assumes.

      You might like to see detailed references – but this is not an academic site, and I am not writing for scholars, but for a more general readership, especially for lesbian and gay Christians, for whom this hidden history of their counterparts in church history has personal relevance.

Leave a Reply