This article will focus on the history of homosexuality and Christianity from the beginnings of the Church through the mid 1900's. For current teachings of Christian Churches on homosexuality see Homosexuality and Christianity.
Christian leaders have written about homosexual male-male sexual activities since the first decades of Christianity; female-female sexual behaviour was essentially ignored. Throughout the majority of Christian history most theologians and Christian denominations have viewed homosexual behavior as immoral or sinful. However, in the past century some prominent theologians and Christian religious groups have espoused a wide variety of beliefs and practices towards homosexuals, including the establishment of some 'open and accepting' congregations that actively support LGBT members.
The Bible is the central document of the Christian faith. Passages from the Bible commonly used in the debate over homosexuality include Genesis 19:4-29, Leviticus 18 and 21, Romans 1:18-32, 1 Timothy 1:10, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and Jude 1:7. The arguments over these passages have centered on the extent to which these passages are still relevant; whether they refer only to certain sexual acts or to homosexual orientation; and how they should be interpreted, understood and applied.
Prior to the rise of Christianity, certain "homosexual" practices had been, quite often, and among certain groups, socially acceptable in ancient Rome and ancient Greece (e.g. the pederastic relationship of an adult Greek male with a Greek youth, or of a Roman citizen with a slave). St. Paul was evidently addressing such practices in Romans 1: 26-27.
At the same time, it should be noted that various other "homosexual" practices in Greece and Rome were vehemently derided and denounced (e.g. male effeminacy, the sodomitical penetration of an adult Roman citizen by another citizen, or allowing oneself to be penetrated by a slave, etc.). Classical antiquity thus bequeathed to nascent Christianity a pagan milieu in which many forms of "homosexual" behavior were regularly reviled and denounced. This milieu lent itself to combination with the Judaic prohibitions found in Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13: "And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them." Christianity was thus able to present itself as effecting (among other things) a purification and completion of pagan sexual morality.
The surviving writings of the Church Fathers about homosexual behavior declare its sinful nature. In his fourth homily on Romans , St. John Chrysostom argued in the fourth century that homosexual acts are worse than murder and so degrading that they constitute a kind of punishment in itself, and that enjoyment of such acts actually makes them worse, "for suppose I were to see a person running naked, with his body all besmeared with mire, and yet not covering himself, but exulting in it, I should not rejoice with him, but should rather bewail that he did not even perceive that he was doing shamefully." He also said:
But nothing can there be more worthless than a man who has pandered himself. For not the soul only, but the body also of one who hath been so treated, is disgraced, and deserves to be driven out everywhere.
The 16th Canon of the Council of Ancyra (314) prescribed a penance of at least twenty years' duration for those "who have done the irrational" (alogeuesthai). There is some question whether this reference is to homosexual activity or bestiality (or both). The earliest Latin versions, however, translate the word in both senses. In any event, sodomy and bestiality are often condemned side-by-side in Christian writings of this era, usually with reference to these Latin translations.
In the year 342, the Christian emperors Constantius II and Constans declared the death penalty for a male who aped the role of a bride. In the year 390, the Christian emperors Valentinian II, Theodosius I and Arcadius denounced males "acting the part of a woman", condemning those who were guilty of such acts to be publicly burned. The Christian emperor Justinian (527-565) made those who would now be called "homosexuals" a scape goat for problems such as "famines, earthquakes, and pestilences."
Not everyone agrees that the wealth of condemnations are fully characteristic of early Christianity. Historian John Boswell, for instance, has tendentiously argued that adelphopoiesis, a Christian rite for uniting two persons of the same sex as "spiritual brothers/sisters", amounted to an approved outlet for romantic and indeed sexual love between couples of the same sex. However, the rites for adelphopoiesis explicitly state that the union is not a "carnal" one. Boswell also drew attention to Saints Sergius and Bacchus, whose icon depicts the two standing together with Jesus between or behind them, a position he identifies with a pronubus or "best man". Critics of Boswell's views have argued that the union created was more like blood brotherhood; and that this icon is a typical example of an icon depicting two saints who were martyred together, with the usual image of Christ that appears on many religious icons, and therefore that there is no indication that it depicts a "wedding". But Saints Sergius and Bacchus were both referred to as erastai in ancient Greek manuscripts, the same word used to describe lovers (Boswell).
Boswell, in his essay The Church and the Homosexual , attributes Christianity's denunciations of "homosexuality" to a supposedly rising intolerance in Europe throughout the 12th century, which he claims was also reflected in other ways. His premise is that when sodomy wasn't being explicitly and "officially" denounced, it was therefore being "tolerated". Historian R. W. Southern disagrees with Boswell's claims and has written that "the only relevant generalization which emerges from the penitential codes down to the eleventh century is that sodomy was treated on about the same level as copulation with animals." Southern further notes that "Boswell thinks that the omission of sodomy from the stringent new code of clerical celibacy issued by the Roman Council of 1059 implies a degree of tolerance. But this is mistaken: the Council of 1059 had more urgent business on hand; and in any case, sodomy had been condemned by Leo IX at Rheims in 1049. Similarly, Pierre Payer has drawn attention to the fact that Boswell's thesis (as outlined in his Christianity, Homosexuality and Social Tolerance) ignores the wealth of condemnations found in the pentitential literature prior to the 12th century.
The most influential theologian of the Medieval period was Saint Thomas Aquinas, regarded by Catholics as a Doctor of the Church. His moral theology contained a strong element of teleological natural law. On his view, not all things to which a person might be inclined are "natural" in the morally relevant sense; rather, only the inclination to the full and proper expression of the human nature, and inclinations which align with that inclination, are natural. Contrary inclinations are perversions of the natural in the sense that they do seek a good, but in a way destructive of good.
This view points from the natural to the Divine, because (following Aristotle) he said all people seek happiness; but according to Aquinas, happiness can only finally be attained through the Beatific Vision. Therefore all sins are also against the natural law. But the natural law of many aspects of life is knowable apart from special revelation by examining the forms and purposes of those aspects. It is in this sense that Aquinas considered homosexuality unnatural, since it involves a kind of partner other than the kind to which the purpose of sexuality points. Indeed, he considered it second only to bestiality as an abuse of sexuality.
An earlier Doctor of the Church, St. Peter Damian, wrote the Liber Gomorrhianus, an extended attack on both homosexuality and masturbation. He portrayed homosexuality as a counter-rational force undermining morality, religion, and society itself, and in need of strong suppression lest it spread even and especially among clergy.
Hildegard of Bingen, born seven years after the death of St. Peter Damian, reported seeing visions and recorded them in Scivias (short for Scito vias Domini, "Know the Ways of the Lord). In Book II Vision Six, she quotes God as condemning same-sex intercourse, including lesbianism; "a woman who takes up devilish ways and plays a male role in coupling with another woman is most vile in My sight, and so is she who subjects herself to such a one in this evil deed".
Her younger contemporary Alain de Lille personified the theme of sexual sin in opposition to nature in The Complaint of Nature by having nature herself denounce sexual immorality and especially homosexuality as rebellion against her direction, terming it confusion between masculine and feminine and between subject and object. The Complaint also includes a striking description of the neglect of womanhood:
Though all the beauty of man humbles itself before the fairness of woman, being always inferior to her glory; though the face of the daughter of Tyndaris is brought into being and the comeliness of Adonis and Narcissus, conquered, adores her; for all this she is scorned, although she speaks as beauty itself, though her godlike grace affirms her to be a goddess, though for her the thunderbolt would fail in the hand of Jove, and every sinew of Apollo would pause and lie inactive, though for her the free man would become a slave, and Hippolytus, to enjoy her love, would sell his very chastity. Why do so many kisses lie untouched on maiden lips, and no one wish to gain a profit from them?
The tone of the denunciations often indicate a more than theoretical concern. Archbishop Ralph of Tours had his lover John installed as bishop of Orléans with agreement of both the King of France and Pope Urban II. In 1395 there was a transvestite homosexual prostitute arrested in London with some records surviving, and the Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards included the denunciation of priestly celibacy as a cause of sodomy.
An Italian text published anonymously in 1652 by Antonio Rocco, L'Alcibiade fanciullo a scola, was about a teacher's successful attempt to persuade the much younger Alcibiades to have sex with him. Although set in ancient Greece, it includes much anachronistic material, especially pertaining to Christian arguments, and denounces the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as a fiction made up by the Hebrew elders.
In France a similar text, Histoire de Dom Bougre, Portier des Chartreux, written in 1741, mocks biblical injunctions and extols same-sex love, as does Voltaire's The Bible finally explained (1776). It was followed by the Marquis de Sade who in his Dialogue entre un prêtre et un moribond of 1782 denounces religion (and other morality codes) as "man-made." In England the pseudo-Byronian poem "Don Leon" (written in the voice of Byron but of uncertain authorship, published in 1866) vehemently denounced the abusive treatment inflicted on homosexuals as based on a dubious tale.
I grant that casuists the Bible quote,
And tell us how God’s tardy vengeance smote
Lot's native town with brimstone from the sky,
To punish this impure delinquency,
Unmindful that the drunkard's kiss defiled
(Whilst yet the embers smoked), his virgin child.
But reason doubts the Jewish prophet’s tale.
Historically, Christian churches have regarded homosexual sex as sinful, based on the Catholic understanding of the natural law and traditional interpretations of certain passages in the Bible. This position is today affirmed by most Christian groups, including the Catholic (1.1 billion members) and Orthodox (250 million members) Churches, part of Protestant denominations, especially among Evangelicals such as the Southern Baptist Convention (16.3 million members), and the LDS Church (13 million members). However, there is a minority who interpret biblical passages differently and argue that homosexuality can be seen as morally acceptable. This approach has been taken by a number of denominations, notably the United Church of Canada (2.8 million members), the liberal congregations within United Church of Christ, the Moravian Church (825,000 members), the Anglican Church of Canada (800,000 members), the Methodist Church of Great Britain (330,000 members), Friends General Conference and Lutheran churches in Europe. A new denomination, the Metropolitan Community Church (40,000 members), has also come into existence specifically to serve the Christian LGBT community. However, individual Christians maintain a variety of beliefs on this subject that may or may not correspond to their official church doctrines. Some mainline Protestant denominations in the United States have also removed language in their bylaws which suggest that homosexuality is a sinful state of being. The Book of Order used by the PCUSA reflects this change. Similar modifications in position can also be seen in the ELCA and Disciples of Christ. Although acceptance of sexually active LGBT laity has increased in terms of actual practice and in terms of church law, some of these denominations continue to limit leadership and clergy roles for LGBT persons.
From queer to eternity: comics master Alan Moore tackles the history of homosexuality in the epic poem The Mirror of Love.(books)(Book Review)
Mar 16, 2004; Comic books contain a melding of words and pictures, at their best combining to form a visual poetry that can tell stories both...
A Flame That's Always Burned; Richard Edmonds Examines the Cultural History of Homosexuality from the Romans to the Modern Day
Jun 03, 2010; Byline: Richard Edmonds Gay Life and Culture a World History. Edited by Robert Aldrich (Thames and Hudson: pounds 16.95) It was...