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