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Larry Gross is the director of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and is a pioneer in the field of gay and lesbian studies....
Inventing Sin: Religion and Homosexuality
No matter their own scandals, religious institutions through history have a consistent scapegoat: homosexuals.
The second consideration pervading Old Testament views of sexuality was the fear of assimilation into neighboring cultures, which prompted the prohibition of many sexual practices associated with outsiders (this is a common explanation as well for many of the Biblical dietary requirements). At earlier stages in Jewish history the hostility to foreign religions focused on the temple prostitutes, both male and female, common in many Middle Eastern societies, and this has been seen as a source of the famous prohibition in Leviticus against a man “lying with a man as one lies with a woman.” (It might be worth noting that this Biblical prohibition, part of the “Holiness Code,” is addressed only to Jews and did not apply to Gentiles.) At the same time other forms of emotional, and possibly physical, attachment between men and between women were celebrated. The love of David and Jonathan, which “surpassed the love of women,” and the devotion of Ruth to Naomi can certainly sustain a homosexual interpretation. In the later period of the Second Temple, widespread fear of assimilation into Greek culture led to greater hostility toward homosexuality that was carried into exile in Talmudic Judaism. These condemnations of homosexuality were also absorbed into, and amplified by, early Christianity.
The Gospels are silent on the topic of homosexuality, but St. Paul provided sufficient ammunition for those seeking New Testament support for condemnation of homosexuality, as well as any other sexual acts outside of marriage. The early Church adopted a suspicion toward sexuality based on Jesus’ purported endorsement of celibacy, as reflected in his statement (Matthew 19:12), “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.”
Although the interpretation of Christ’s statement has been debated, with some emphasizing Jesus’ endorsement of celibacy only for those “able to receive it,” there is less ambiguity in Paul’s expressed preference for sexual continence: “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion. . . .” Paul’s apparently explicit condemnation of homosexuality, both female and male, occurs in Romans 1:26-27: “For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise, also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet” (King James version). While this passage has been cited as evidence for the inherent sinfulness of homosexuality, there are conflicting interpretations. Historian John Boswell argued that Paul was not condemning homosexuals, but heterosexuals who engage in homosexual acts.
Ultimately, the Catholic Church adopted the influential formulation of St. Augustine, taking as the core Christian belief a definition of sexuality as inherently sinful, and exculpated only by the sacrament of marriage and the need to procreate. All forms of sexual intercourse outside of marriage and the possibility of conception were sinful.
Despite the hostility of the Church fathers to sexuality outside of marriage, and the specific condemnation of homosexuality as a diversion of the sexual organs from the procreative purpose, Boswell has argued that the early Middle Ages were relatively tolerant of homosexuality. It was in the 12th and 13th centuries, as the Church began to demand greater adherence to dogma which led to the Inquisition, that homosexuality became utterly stigmatized. Along with other behaviors ascribed to heretics, homosexuality came to be viewed, as Boswell writes, as “a dangerous, antisocial, and severely sinful aberration. . . . By 1300 . . . a single homosexual act was enough . . . in many places, to merit the death penalty.”
The most influential formulation of the emerging view of sexuality was that of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), “whose Summa Theologiae became the standard of orthodox opinion on every point of Catholic dogma for nearly a millennium and permanently and irrevocably established the ‘natural’ as the touchstone of Roman Catholic sexual ethics.” For Aquinas, sins against nature were those forms of lust that were directed solely to the pursuit of pleasure and that entirely precluded procreation. These included, in ascending order of sinfulness, masturbation (spilling seed); deviation from the natural manner of coitus (which, according to Aquinas, was limited to face to face with the man on top (the “missionary position”); homosexuality; and bestiality.
In the 16th century, Christianity was in turmoil as the Protestant movement begun by Luther set loose a torrent of schism and strife that transformed the Western world. However, while the leading Protestant theologians differed from the Catholic Church on many issues of sexuality, such as divorce and clerical celibacy, Luther and Calvin both followed Aquinas in condemning homosexuality as contrary to nature. At the same time the Catholic Church responded to the Protestant challenge by convening the Council of Trent (1545-64), which reasserted traditional views and enshrined Aquinas as the “doctor of the church.” As historian John Noonan writes, because “Catholic moralists were not eager to appear to abandon a moral doctrine of the Fathers if the Protestants still held it,” both sides emphasized their intolerance of non-procreative sexuality. These restrictive views were carried by both Catholic and Protestant colonizers to the New World, where they were imposed upon both Native American cultures and the emerging European-American societies.
The past five centuries have seen a decline in the role of religion as the institution that explains the world and defines morality, and this process of secularization has extended to the realm of sexuality. But the replacement of church authority by civil law did not result in any immediate liberalization, as the condemnation of “sins against nature” was translated into “crimes against nature” now punished by the state. Codifying the process of breaking away from the Catholic Church, Henry VIII’s government enacted a series of laws asserting the king’s spiritual and secular power. In so doing it was important to maintain the Church’s position on such issues as sexuality, although the changes famously relaxed the prohibition against divorce and permitted priests to marry. Among the laws passed by Parliament at the king’s behest was the Buggery Act in 1533. It made buggery with man or beast punishable by hanging, a penalty not finally lifted until 1861.
It was not until the scientific and medical discoveries of the 19th century that some Western views of human nature and human sexuality began to change. In the latter part of the century sexual reform movements began to appear, among them the first defense of homosexuality as a natural variation rather than a sin or crime against nature. By the mid-20th century progressive forces within many religious denominations had joined the effort to liberate lesbian, gay and bisexual people. In the early 1950s reform efforts in Great Britain spearheaded by progressive Anglican clergy led to the Wolfenden Report of 1957 and the sodomy law reform of 1967. In the United States progressive clerics and religious groups such as the Quakers, Unitarian Universalists and some Episcopal dioceses lent support to homophile groups and lesbian/gay liberation.
In 1965 the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, an alliance of liberal church leaders in San Francisco, joined with lesbian and gay groups to protest police harassment. In 1969 the United Church of Christ called for the decriminalization of homosexual activities between consenting adults, a position soon joined by the Unitarian Universalist Association. Similar stands were taken by significant factions within the Presbyterian and Methodist churches. Within Judaism, the Reconstructionist movement has long ordained lesbian and gay rabbis, and it was joined in this by the Reform wing of American Judaism in 1990.
In 1968 the Rev. Troy Perry (ordained in a southern Pentecostal denomination) started the first gay church, in his Los Angeles home. Within a short period Perry’s Metropolitan Community Church had grown to several hundred members, drawn from numerous Christian denominations, and it began to spread beyond Southern California. By the mid-1980s the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches had nearly 200 congregations in 10 countries. The example of the UFMCC led to the founding of lesbian/gay congregations within other religious persuasions. In 1972 the first lesbian and gay synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim (“House of New Life”), was founded in Los Angeles, followed shortly by synagogues in New York, San Francisco and, ultimately, over 30 other locations in the United States and other countries.
In some instances lesbian and gay organizations have attempted to obtain official recognition, sometimes holding services in established churches. Dignity, founded by gay Catholics in San Diego in 1969, was emulated by organizations of lesbian and gay Episcopalians (Integrity), United Methodists (Affirmation), Mormons (Affinity) and other Protestant denominations. After an initial period of quasi-toleration of Dignity, which had grown to be among the largest lesbian and gay organizations in the country, the Catholic Church began to reassert its traditional hostility toward homosexuality. In 1975 the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a “Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics,” in which the Catholic Church tried to come to terms with the changing sexual attitudes of the times.
In that document the Church acknowledged the existence of individuals who are homosexual “because of some kind of innate instinct or a pathological constitution judged to be incurable.” This was taken by many as a sign of progress, despite the document’s insistence that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and can in no case be approved.” Some thought it could lead to liberalization, but after the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978, conservative voices dominated the choir yet again. Father John McNeill, a Jesuit priest who wrote “The Church and the Homosexual” (1976), was first silenced and then expelled from his order, and other liberal theologians were disciplined for espousing pro-gay positions.
These measures did not suffice to reverse the liberal trends found throughout American Catholicism, and in 1986 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Catholic Church’s official theological enforcer), issued what has come to be known as the Ratzinger Letter, “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.”
This new document repeated and strengthened the message of the 1975 declaration that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered,” and then specifically condemned efforts to enact civil legislation “to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right.” If such efforts provoke “irrational and violent reactions,” Cardinal Ratzinger suggested, it was only to be expected.
The letter went on to state that “all support should be withdrawn from any organizations which seek to undermine the teachings of the Church, which are ambiguous about it or which neglect it entirely.” This official pronouncement effectively ended the access to churches previously enjoyed by Dignity chapters in dioceses across the United States and Canada.
In the period since the Ratzinger Letter, the Catholic Church has not relented in its hostility to lesbian and gay people, and prominent clerics have been in the forefront of efforts to defeat lesbian and gay causes. Conservative Catholic laypersons such as Paul Weyrich, Phyllis Schlafly, William F. Buckley and Patrick Buchanan have also played leading roles in the rise of the “New Right,” which has made attacks on gay people a centerpiece of its political rhetoric.
In 1992 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responded to the success of legal efforts to provide protection for homosexual people:
After reiterating many of the arguments of the 1986 Ratzinger Letter, the 1992 statement made explicit the conclusion that Church leaders were expected to intervene in the political process in opposition to such efforts:
Catholic Church leaders followed the injunction of Pope John Paul II and his theological enforcer, Cardinal Ratzinger. In May 1993, Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua strode into the City Council to testify against proposed domestic partner benefits for city employees. Accompanied by the head of the [Protestant] Black Clergy of the Delaware Valley and a prominent Muslim cleric, and cheered on by senior citizens and schoolchildren bused in by the archdiocese, the cardinal warned of the grave threat to the family posed by domestic partner benefits.
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