|Saints Sergius and Bacchus, a seventh century icon|
in which historian John Boswell interprets the placement
of Christ to be the pronubus (or best man) at a same
New York State has just joined the list of States approving same sex marriage. Twenty years ago, I don’t think anyone saw this concern coming but now it is an issue which is not going to go away for the foreseeable future. The Catholic Church has taken a strong stand against the legalization of Gay Marriage and it seems obvious that this is consistent with our tradition. But, at least from a historical perspective, the issue may not be so simple.
John Boswell, an exceptionally talented historian, wrote Same Sex Unions in Pre Modern Europe (Random House, 1994) arguing from his exhaustive research that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches blessed same sex unions from late antiquity until well into the early modern period. His interest in this subject arose from a seventh century Icon of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. Boswell interprets the icon as a marriage icon in which Christ is standing as the pronubus, the man who stands behind a marrying couple in the Orthodox ceremony holding the marriage crowns. This is equivalent to the “best man” or “supporter” in our western marriage ceremonies. It is a curious interpretation.
Boswell made his name as a historian with an earlier book Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (University of Chicago Press, 1980) in which he investigated the long history of how homosexuality was viewed by the Christian Church from apostolic times through the Medieval period and how those views shaped social attitudes towards same-sex relationships.
John Boswell was himself gay and Catholic—a convert to Catholicism who became a very devout practitioner of the faith. He was a devout Catholic who attended mass daily and who did not rebel against the Church’s teachings on homosexuality but who did want the Church to reexamine and refine its teaching in the light of current knowledge. He died of an AIDS related illness in 1994 at the age of 47. As a historian he was an enfant terrible—while still in his thirties achieving an unparalleled reputation as a talented and meticulous scholar whose incredible ability with languages, ancient and modern, opened archival material beyond the reach of even most good historians. A Harvard graduate, he chaired the history department and taught at Yale. Revered and loved by his students and all who knew him he was a gentleman and a scholar. What can one say about the quality of his work?
I had read Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality as a graduate student. Boswell had not only taught my professor but directed her doctoral dissertation. She was a great admirer of his—as indeed were most (if not all) of his students. I probably should reread the book today. Boswell was an incredible linguist. I, for my part, cherish my Greek as a distant but useless memory; my Latin—on the other hand—is pretty good. When it comes to other ancient languages—Syriac, Coptic, even Hebrew—well, truthfully, I have never studied them and will not be as pretentious as those who with some scrap or other of linguistic knowledge will presume to evaluate Boswell’s work. For evaluating Boswell’s uses of sources, I can only use the Latin. To be fair, indeed to be profoundly respectful, towards John Boswell, he always put the citation in the original language in the footnote with a translation for the student. I did find that at times, even frequently, the Latin citations were well translated but any ambiguity was translated in favor of his thesis. In other words, sometimes when I looked at the Latin text, I thought to myself: “yes, it could mean that; but it doesn’t have to.” He didn’t fudge his Latin translations, but neither did he always warn the reader that the citation might not be as strong an endorsement of his thesis as he implied. If he did this with the Latin, I suspect he did it with other languages as well. And as he did this frequently, I am not sure he always proved his point. On the other hand, the University of Chicago Press does not print history books whose arguments are questionable; Harvard does not grant the doctorate to students whose language skills are faulty; and Yale does not hire shaky scholars. Bottom line, I do not always agree with Boswell, but one has to take him seriously.
As to his book, Same Sex Unions in Early Modern Europe—if my Greek is but a distant memory, don’t expect me to be able to work with Old Church Slavonic. I don’t have a clue about Slavonic, old or new. And again—Syriac and the variety of near-Eastern languages—not a word do I know. Some of the medieval French, English, or Italian I can handle. And again, I find the Latin to be biased. It has been several years since I last read Same Sex Unions, but I was not convinced. On the other hand, one has to admit the possibilities—especially given the vast number of same sex alleged Marriage Rites that Boswell uncovered that there could be something here.
When Boswell published Same Sex Unions there was a flurry of reviews, pro and con, but they tended to be more polemic—pro or con gay marriage—than substantive reviews. The problem is that there are few scholars with the linguistic abilities to evaluate Boswell’s interpretation of the vast array of documentary sources cited.
Among other archives where John Boswell found his sources was the Vatican Archives and Library. He had to obtain access to the material by deceit as Vatican officials knew his reputation as a “gay historian” and would not facilitate his use of documents that might establish the thesis that the Church had once blessed same-sex unions. This is surprising as the Vatican Library and Archives are usually most helpful to scholars, even scholars who are known to be challenging Church teaching. The Church, at least at the highest academic levels, does not fear dissent but normally seeks to engage it in scholarly conversation; Boswell's thesis, however, apparently was too hot an issue to allow for conversation. Boswell arranged with a Jesuit scholar who was working in the library at the same time that he, Boswell, would ask for the documents the Jesuit needed and the priest would ask for the documents regarding same-sex marriage rituals; they then would exchange materials and do their respective work.
Boswell wrote a third book, The Kindness of Strangers: Child Abandonment in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance (University of Chicago, 1988). This book is particularly interesting, not for its content (though it is interesting and well written) but as a contrast to his two books with Gay themes. Here I found no ambiguity in his use of sources. In that regard—his objectivity—it might be considered his best book.
Well, since ambiguity might be considered the theme to today’s entry, and I seem to be rather ambiguous myself on how to interpret Boswell’s thesis that the Church has, in the past, not only approved but blessed Gay unions, what does all this say about the history of Same-Sex Marriage? I have to say that I don’t consider the thesis proved, but the existence of scores of these rituals in both the Eastern and Western Churches in late antiquity up through the Renaissance, the similarity of these rituals to known heterosexual matrimonial rites, and the explicit mentioning of the partners “sleeping together” (to be taken in the literal and not the euphemistic sense) certainly does not close the door on the possibility that at various times and places in the past same-sex marriages were blessed with Church authority. That does not mean, of course, that the Church should today—or even could in the future—do the same. Doctrine develops—which means it changes—and we are not bound to the past but called to respond faithfully in the present. There are other things which the Church once approved—the death penalty for example—that it no longer condones and there are things it condones today that it once condemned (the loaning of money at interest). Gay Marriage will be a political “hot potato” for some time to come but it is an understatement to say that it is unlikely that the Catholic Church might someday sanction it. Nevertheless, at least from a historical perspective, the issue may not be as black and white as some might declare it.