Category Archives: Church history

“Take Back the Tradition” – Outline.

I wrote some time ago, about a belief that LGBT Christians need to “take back the tradition” in Church history, just as others have begun to “Take Back the Word” in biblical studies (to use the title of a book edited by Robert Goss). The young Fr Joseph Ratzinger wrote about the dangerous “distorting tradiion” against which we must be ever vigilant. It it high time that we correct the distorted tradition.

Fr Joseph Ratzinger
Fr Joseph Ratzinger

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“The Acceptance of Gays Among Catholics is Irreversible” – Historian Gary Wills.

Gary Wills is an eminent historian of the Catholic Church, who was described by John Allen (in 2008) as “”perhaps the most distinguished Catholic intellectual in America over the last 50 years”. With his long view of the Church, his assessment of it’s present state of change deserves close attention – and it’s a most encouraging one, for lesbian and gay Catholics, for women, for for others whose understanding of sexual realities is far removed from the theorizing of Vatican documents – and for all who understand, as proclaimed by Vatican II, that the Catholic Church really is the whole “people of God”, and not just its public office – holders.  

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In a wide – ranging interview with Macleans magazine, Wills explained why he was enthusiastic about the change in style being introduced by Pope Francis, and why these will in time become entrenched as permanent features of the Church. Francis’ willingness to stimulate debate and tolerate disagreements, he says, are a sign of his strength. He contrasts this with Pius IX, whose proclamation of papal infallibility he sees as a sign of weakness, not of strength. Continue reading “The Acceptance of Gays Among Catholics is Irreversible” – Historian Gary Wills.

SS Benedicta, (6 May) and Galla (5 October), Roman nuns – and lovers?

One of the curiosities of the Catholic tradition of honouring our saints and martyrs, is how hagiography seamlessly combines historical biography, myth with collective amnesia. The stories of Saints Patrick and Brigid of Ireland, for instance, are replete with well-known legends that have absolutely no verifiable foundation in historical fact, and the delightful story of St Wilgefortis (aka Uncumber), the crucified bearded woman, turns out to have a much more plausible basis in reality. For many other saints, the distortions of hagiography are not just the accretions that are added by popular imagination, but the important details that are so often omitted in the transmission down the ages. St Paulinus, for instance, is widely honoured for his missionary work and for the impressive quality of his Latin devotional poetry. The standard Catholic sources on the saints, however, discreetly omit any reference to his other poetic legacy – equally fine homoerotic verse addressed to his boyfriend, Ausonius.

The story of Saints Galla and Benedicta of Rome may be another example of this selective memory.  

 

Neither of these is particularly well-known, and Benedicta is even less-so than Galla, but I start with her. There are references to her scattered across the internet, but they all seem to come down to a few lines similar to these, from Catholic Online:

Mystic and nun. Benedicta lived in a convent founded by St. Galla in Rome. Pope St. Gregory the Great states that St. Peter appeared in a vision to warn her of her approaching death.

This seems innocuous enough, until it is set against the parallel warning of imminent death that St Gregory also gave to the better known St Galla.

From a large selection of on-line sources, Wikipedia sums up the key uncontested points of her story, those widely reported elsewhere:

Galla was the daughter of Roman patrician Symmachus the Younger, who was appointed consul in 485. Galla was also the sister-in-law of Boethius. Her father, Symmachus the Younger, was condemned to death, unjustly, by Theodoric in 525. Galla was then married but was soon widowed, just over a year after marriage. It was believed that she grew a beard, to avoid further offers of marriage. Being wealthy, she decided to retreat to theVatican Hill, and found a hospital and a convent, near St. Peter’s Basilica. Galla is reputed to have once healed a deaf and mute girl, by blessing some water, and giving it to the girl to drink. Galla remained there for the rest of her life, tending to the sick and poor, before dying in 550, of breast cancer. 

 Notice, please, that little sentence tucked away in the middle, and its cautious qualifier: “it was  believed that she grew a beard, to avoid further offers of marriage.” This strategy of a holy woman, to grow a beard to avoid marriage, is precisely that adopted by Wilgefortis. Her legend appears to have a much more mundane explanation. I have no knowledge of any firm evidence to either corroborate, or to contradict, Galla’s legendary beard. What interests me is the rest of Galla’s story, and its treatment in hagiography.

An article at Catholic Culture is a good example. It seizes on the beard, and uses it as a moral fable, encouraging us to “dare to be different”.  Catholic Culture, however, claims that the beard story was only a threat, and the beard never did grow.

A story about St. Galla of Rome, illustrating the importance to not follow the crowd, but to be oneself. Legend says that St. Galla, after becoming a widow, grew a beard to avoid any offers of remarriage.

Not only girls who want to be nuns, but girls who just want to be good have to ignore a marvelous lot of nonsense from those who “follow the pack.” Life will pass you by, they say, and you won’t have any fun if you don’t do as we do! About as fast as St. Galla grew her beard, it will!

 So, then dare to be different – the cause of following holiness. But there’s one little detail also included in the  same article, which they do not comment on – a detail that has been omitted from all the other accounts I have seen about Galla. These all tell how, as reported by St Gregory, St Peter appeared to Galla in her final illness to predict the date of her imminent death. The other reports omit the crucial detail that the deaths of Galla and Benedicta were directly linked – at Galla’s express request to Peter:

One night she saw St. Peter standing before her between two candlesticks and she asked him if her sins were forgiven her. St. Peter nodded and said, “Come, follow me.” But Galla asked if her dear friend Benedicta might come too. Yes, she might, said St. Peter, after thirty days — and that is precisely what happened. St. Galla and another holy woman departed this life for heaven three days later, and Benedicta thirty days after them.

 As Censor Librorum at  Nihil Obstat noted in her reflection on Galla last December, a woman who first grows or threatens to grow a beard to avoid marriage, and then implores Saint Peter to allow her female beloved to accompany her into heaven, is not displaying a conventional heterosexual orientation.

I have no hesitation in hesitation in adding Saints Galla and Benedicta to my collection of queer saints and lovers.

Feb 25th: Saint Walburga, Abbess (710 – 779)

Today is the feast of the early English saint, Walburga, who entered the abbey of Wimbourne aged just eleven, then as a young sister was sent to accompany her uncle St Boniface to Germany, where they founded the “double monastery” of Heidenheim.
Read the full report , “Feb 25th, St Walburga, Missionary, Abbess,” at National Catholic Reporter. As you do so, pay close attention:  the text reminds us of so much that we have forgotten about the real history of women in the Church.

Continue reading Feb 25th: Saint Walburga, Abbess (710 – 779)

Gay Popes: Paul II (r 1464 -1471) and His Embarrassing Death

b. 23 February 1417
r. 30 August 1464
d. 26 July 1471

Martin Duberman’s anthology, “Hidden From History”, includes an essay by James Saslow on “Homosexuality in the Renaissance”. One of Saslow’s key points is that at this time, men who had sex with men were not exclusive – in modern terms, they would more likely be described as “bisexual”. In a passage about how the rich and powerful freely made sexual use of their subordinates, I came across this throwaway reference:
Similar patterns prevailed among the clergy and educated humanists. Charges against Paul II and Julius II centred around their seduction of much younger men; Cellini’s autobiography records a beautiful and talented youth, Luigi Pulci, who made a career out of service to Roman bishops.
Now, I knew about Julius II  – and for that matter, Julius III – but this was the first sexual gossip I have come across concerning Paul II, so I explored further.  This is what I found: it seems he died while being sodomized by  a page boy.
Paul II died, on July 26, 1471 of a stroke, allegedly whilst being sodomized by a page boy. After his death, one of his successors suggested that he should rather have been called Maria Pietissima, “Our Lady of Pity”, because he was inclined to break into tears at times of crisis. Some historians have suggested the nickname was rather due either to Paul propensity to enjoy dressing up in sumptuous ecclesiastical finery, or his likely homosexuality.
Nor was he the only cleric who enjoyed some male company.  Here’s Saslow again:
The intimate living arrangements of the all-male clerical world and the opportunities that educational and religious duties afforded for privacy and empiotional intimacy, while not themselves “causes” of of homosexuality, may have contributed circumstantially to their expression.  Priests in fifteenth century Venice and Stuart Sussex were convicted of sex with young parishioners, unpublished records of church trials in Loreto, Italy, in the 1570’s detail the activities of a choirboy who slept successively with various older monks……
Remember, while Paul II was enjoying his adventures with co-operative pages, elsewhere in Italy and the rest of Europe, “sodomites” were being burned at the stake for their “sin”.Nor was it only Paul’s interest in boys that got my attention.  On his election as pope back 1464, the cardinals tried to rein in papal power (and thus to increase their own), by imposing a range of tight conditions, which:
  • bound the future pope to continue the Turkish war;
  • forbade him to journey outside Rome without the consent of the cardinals;
  • limited the number of cardinals to a maximum of twenty-four,
  • all creations of new cardinals were to be made only with the consent of the College of Cardinals.
  • Upon taking office, Paul II was to convene an ecumenical council within three years.
Alas, for the best laid plans of mice and men……Paul II simply ignored these requirements, declaring  that election “capitulations”, which cardinals had long been in the habit of affirming as rules of conduct for future popes, could affect a new pope only as counsels, not as binding obligations. He then created a whole slew of new cardinals from his own loyalists.
Now, a half a millenium and more later, why does all this sound so familiar?
(Among his achievements, he was friendly to Christian scholars; he restored many ancient monuments; made a magnificent collection of antiquities and works of art; built the Palazzo di St. Marco, now the Palazzo di Venezia; and probably first introduced printing into Rome. Paul embellished the costume of the cardinals, and collected jewels for his own adornment.)
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Dec 26th: St Stephen, Martyr (Acts 6:8-10,7:54-59)

Today we remember St Stephen, the first martyr. Just as Stephen some of his hearers who disliked his words, but could not counter the truth of what he said, were “infuriated and ground their teeth at him“. Stephen, however persisted in proclaiming the truth – and paid the price.

Martyrdom of Stephen The_Stoning_of_St_Stephen_-_1603-04

Countless gay men, lesbians and trans people have similarly encountered anger, hatred and violence  for living lives of sexual or gender honesty, and even more for speaking publicly about the morality and integrity of our lives. Continue reading Dec 26th: St Stephen, Martyr (Acts 6:8-10,7:54-59)