From THE LOS ANGELES TIMES
BOOK ON GAY RITES STIRS CATHOLICS, COMICS
AUTHOR CLAIMS CHURCH RITUALS BLESSED PAIRS
By LARRY B. STAMMER
Los Angeles Times, Jun 11, 1994
Did the Roman Catholic church ever bless homosexual unions in
ritual ceremonies resembling the sacrament of marriage?
The question, explosive by nature and certain to excite ideological
reflexes among gay-rights advocates and their opponents, has acquired
new urgency this week with the publication of Yale University
history professor John Boswell's latest book on human sexuality
and the church.
"Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe," from Villard
Books, asserts that from the eighth to the 18th centuries, the
Catholic Church sanctioned same-sex unions and offered ceremonies
complete with prayers for the couple's union, Holy Communion and
rubrics directing the couple to kiss a book of the Gospel, the
priest and one another.
Publication of the book -- and installments of the "Doonesbury"
cartoon strip that touch on Boswell's findings -- are already
causing a stir within the Roman Catholic Church in the United
States and in Eastern Orthodoxy. The "Doonesbury" strips
will be published through today in newspapers, including the Mercury
Although "Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau refers to
the Catholic Church in the strip as blessing same-sex unions,
most of the Boswell claims point to rituals and practices associated
with Eastern Orthodoxy, which arose among early Christians in
Greece and Eastern Europe, rather than the Western Christians
Boswell bases his conclusion on a 12-year study of 55 ancient
manuscripts, mainly in Greek, that he says point unmistakably
to an attitude of tolerance and charity toward homosexuality among
some earlier Christians, far different from the theological polemics
that tear at the church today.
The reader who prefers the book to the comic strip version will
discover a picture that is both more fascinating and more puzzling.
There is no question that Boswell has found records of ceremonies
consecrating a pairing of men, ceremonies often marked by similar
prayers and, over time, by standardized symbolic gestures: the
clasping of right hands, the binding of hands with a stole, kisses,
receiving Holy Communion, a feast after the ceremony.
Some of these ritual actions also marked heterosexual marriages,
but there remained differences in both actions and words between
the two ceremonies.
Boswell's book will certainly provoke a sharp debate about what
these same-sex ceremonies were solemnizing. From the spread of
Christianity through the ancient world to the late Middle Ages,
different Christian cultures stretching from Syria to Ireland
featured a variety of social bonds not even vaguely paralleled
in modern society.
Was this ritual, for example, a form of fraternal adoption, or
something resembling blood brotherhood? Was it a commemoration
of undying friendship or a strictly spiritual bonding? To what
extent, in short, was it the equivalent of heterosexual marriage,
either in the contemporary sense or in medieval ones?
In the book's introduction and a chapter on the vocabulary of
love and marriage in ancient and medieval times, Boswell opens
the eyes of anyone who thinks it simple for scholars today to
decode terms that arose in very different contexts, when marriages
between men and women -- at least at their beginning -- were matters
more of family alliance, property and offspring than of romantic
He whittles away at all the alternative translations and interpretations
of these ceremonies that would preclude a romantic and erotic
dimension to the unions being celebrated.
His book is an imposing achievement, with texts in Greek, Latin,
Old Church Slavonic, Hebrew and Arabic. He provides plenty of
material for other scholars to decide for themselves.
Ultimately, however, there is a problem. As Ralph Hexter, a professor
of the classics and comparative literature at the University of
Colorado in Boulder, put it, "We don't know what they did
What they did in bed, however, is a central issue if Boswell's
findings are going to play a part in the debate over recognizing
same-sex unions legally or religiously.
Boswell won acclaim in 1980 with the publication of his first
book, "Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality."
A review in the New York Times called it revolutionary and said
it set "a standard of excellence" in scholarship. It
won the American Book Award for history.
That book provided a major intellectual framework for the drive
by gay men and lesbians for spiritual equity in Christian churches.
They cite the book when arguing for the blessing of same-sex unions
and the admission of gay men to the Roman Catholic priesthood
and gays to the ranks of Protestant clergy.
Conservative Catholic theologian Richard John Neuhaus, writing
in the March issue of the Catholic journal First Things, complained:
"The influence of that book is truly remarkable; it has become
a kind of sacred text for those who want to morally legitimize
the homosexual movement."
Now with Boswell's claim that the church at one time performed
gay marriages, his detractors are even more aghast and do not
believe his evidence convincing.
A spokesman for the Greek Orthodox Church in New York hotly disputes
Boswell's claims. "Boswell would not be acknowledged by any
theologian or historian of Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Protestant
persuasion," said the Rev. Milton Efthimiou, a church historian
at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America in
New York City.
Robert Wilkin, professor of the history of Christianity at the
University of Virginia, said: "The basic principle in historical
studies is that everything has to be contextualized. An isolated
manuscript or an isolated reference means nothing unless it has
"It seems to me improbable in the extreme that he can provide
such evidence," he said. Wilkin and others say they suspect
Boswell of engaging in "advocacy scholarship." They
note that Boswell is gay.
Boswell was not available for an interview because of a serious
illness, his publisher said. But a longtime friend and associate
who read the book for Boswell before it was published came to
"If the suggestion is that the position came first and the
scholarship followed, that is not the way he works," said
Ralph Hexter, a professor of the classics and comparative literature
at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "The arguments should
rise and fall on their merits. If the only thing they can say
against this work is that Boswell wants it to be so, from my point
of view they must have no better argument."
Hexter said Boswell did not set out to find same-sex rituals.
After his first book was published, someone contacted Boswell
with a tip about where he might find the telltale manuscripts.
Some had been known within scholarly circles, but their source
was lost, Hexter said.
"Then Boswell stumbled onto a collection of Eastern liturgies
that had these (rituals) in them. And then he found many of them.
He found them all over the place," from the Vatican to Mount
Athos in northern Greece, Hexter said. Other manuscripts were
located in London, Paris and Rome.
The New York Times contributed to this report