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Boswell Reviews


From the Catholic Register (Toronto?) July 16, 1994, p. 12:

DOOMED EFFORT TO RECONCILE THE IRRECONCILABLE
By Msgr. E.A. Syman, Special to the Catholic Register

(Synan is a professor of philosophy at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies at Toronto)

John Boswell, Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, (New York: Villard Books, 1994).

This brief review of a very long study will gain clarity by beginning with the author's ending. Professor John Boswell, (Yale University) has seen his role as one who, having discovered the "same sex union ceremony that seems to parallel heterosexual marriage", has felt it his "duty as an historian to share it" p.281. His evidence for such a ceremony is a series of documents, partly and he claims defectively (p. 185, n. 124, p. 209, n. 60) published in the 18th century.

It is illuminating to know also that the present work (henceforth SSUPE) is not the author's first examination of issues raised by the response of the Catholic Church to homosexuality. In his 1980 Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, (henceforth CSTH) Boswell proposed the thesis that rejection of homosexuality appears in the history of the church only in the last decades of the 13th century.

That CSTH received not only the 1981 American Book Award for history and a place among the "ten best books" of 1980 in the New York Times Book Reviews, but also a notably divided reception from Boswell's peers. Thus three homosexual activists in a publication stemming from a "Gay Academic Union" forum in New York City, Sept. 14, 1980, Homosexuality, Intolerance and Christianity were at one in condemning Boswell's handling of the role of the Church; they found him too gentle. His concern in SSUPE may well reflect criticism from this quarter.

In the opposite direction, Boswell's claim that Saint Anselm of Bec and Cantebury was marked by "preference" for his own gender, without having acted upon that preference, called forth a long and careful refutation by G.W. Olsen.

A more general complaint against CSTH has been its neglect of "penitentials"--- handbooks for clergy dealing with sins, homosexual activities included, and their appropriate penances, these last carefully graded in accord with the age and status of those guilty of them. These directors' manuals originated in fifth-century Ireland, spread over Europe, and were replaced from the 12th century on by collections of church decretals and theological manuals, none of which, it must be remarked, approved of homosexual activity.

The present volume goes beyond CSTH by presenting first an elaborate discussion of terminological issues. There follows an account of attitudes found in Greek and Roman antiquity towards both "heterosexual unions"---that is, standard marriages---and towards "same sex unions" defined as relatively permanent and formally acknowledge partnerships between two males or two females, all evidently sexual in nature.

This section is followed by the author's views on the development of Christian thought and practice on marriage as emperors who were Christians succeeded to power.

All of this is presented as the conceptual and historical setting necessary for the author's central and controversial claim that, between the fourth century Christianization of the pagan Empire and the last decades of the 13th century, a run of documents establishes that the Church blessed "same sex unions." When theologians later raised objections to their homosexual nature the wind shifted, first in the Latin west, but finally in the Greek and Slav-speaking East as well.

A history of "same sex unions" in medieval Europe and some speculation on the probable future of such unions concludes the work proper; the author has added more than 100 pages of Appendices, Translations, Documents, an essay on Jewish perspectives, and finally the text of the "passion" (ie, the martyrdom) of Saints Serge and Bacchus. Boswell's volume is heavily annotated and indexed; there are almost no editorial flaws.

What estimate must be made of this effort to give historical and ecclesiastical respectability to "same sex unions"? Does the existence of a series of blessings designated as "brother-making", and buttressed by some iconographic materials, justify the sweeping claim that the Church has undergone so radical a sea-change in her attitude towards homosexuality?

The author has himself suggested indirectly a partial and _negative_ answer. Referring to the Church view that a woman and a man "marry each other" whereas the minister of the Church simply witnesses and blesses their union, Boswell added "accurately as it (the church) blessed everything from fields to swords."

A sword can murder or protect, a field can grow a crop or conceal a corpse. Friendship between two men or two women can be that of David and Jonathan or that of Antonius and Hadrian. Two martyrs serve as exemplars of Christian brotherhood.

Boswell has brought his enormous scholarly expertise to bear on what is a "problem" for the doctrinaire only. The homosexual critic of CSTH was right to have termed that work "a doomed effort to reconcile the irreconcilable." Those words apply as well to the present work.

We Christians join our predecessors in the faith, keep Professor Boswell in our prayers, and commend him to the protection of the paired saints he has found invoked to bless human friendships.