Sunday, January 31, 2010

A whiff of hypocrisy in pope's pronouncement

The American journalist (and militant atheist) HL Mencken once defined religious puritanism as being motivated by the "haunting fear that someone, somewhere might be happy", and there are not a few Catholics – and many lapsed Catholics – who would agree that the maxim also fits the papacy and old-style authoritarian priests with their disapproving fondness for telling their flocks what not to do.

As with many papal pronouncements, even if reading between the lines to interpret Benedict XVI's speech as an outright criticism of homosexual behaviour and, less ambiguously, of transsexualism, it is impossible to avoid the strong whiff of institutional hypocrisy: it is not so long ago that Donald Cozzens, a former Catholic seminary principal in the US, was estimating that half the church's priests in training in America were gay. A number of well-known British Catholics are also homosexual.

The church's argument heard more frequently from evangelical Anglicans, busy tearing their own denomination apart over the issue – that accepting homosexuality is going against 2,000 years of Christian teaching – is not strictly accurate. Although the Bible, in a few scattered references, appears uniformly hostile, the texts are more nuanced and complicated to interpret than seems the case at first glance – and, in any event, Christians have reinterpreted other biblical passages on issues such as slavery as they have fallen out of time.

Attitudes to homosexuality have varied over the years, as have church punishments for it. Early Christian writers such as saints Augustine, Ambrose and Jerome thought all sexual activity was inherently disgusting: the historian Reay Tannahill said in her book Sex in History: "It is undoubtedly a tribute (if an ambiguous one) to such men … that much of what the modern world still understands by 'sin' stems not from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, or from the tablets handed down from Sinai, but from the sexual vicissitudes of a handful of men who lived in the twilight days of imperial Rome."

Sodomy proved a convenient excuse when disaster struck: the Emperor Justinian ascribed a plague which devastated Constantinople in AD 541 to God's revenge for "the defilement of males … perpetrating vile acts" and the Council of Toledo in 693 prescribed the exile until "struck down by damnation" of any priest or bishop caught in gay flagrante. It was only in the 13th century that St Thomas Aquinas laid down the doctrine that the genitalia had been designed by the Creator only for procreative purposes – an argument still wheeled out by church leaders today.

But despite the punishments and the fearful warnings, church penalties varied: in 6th century Wales homosexuals were given three years' penance, in 8th century Burgundy, 10 years – about the same as for oral sex. Pope Gregory III described homosexuality as "a vice so abominable in the sight of God that the cities where its practitioners dwelt were appointed for destruction by fire and brimstone". But the penalty he imposed – one year's penance – was only a third of that imposed on priests caught going hunting.

In England homosexual offences only became part of civil law after the dissolution of the monasteries in 1533 when Henry VIII found it convenient to use the alleged immorality of monks as an excuse for seizing their orders' property for himself.

The degree of zeal with which gay people were persecuted varied over time, depending on the degree of contemporary moral panic, and punishments varied according to the power and status of the accused: kings such as Henri III in France, and Edward II and James I in England maintained their catamites with impunity and, in one notorious case, Ralph, bishop of Tours, installed his partner as bishop of Orleans with papal blessing.

Despite all the pulpit condemnations it seems probable, based on admittedly sketchy court records, that the incidence of homosexuality has not been significantly diminished, or increased, over time or cultures. It has certainly not been wiped out. In Oxbridge college chapels there are instances of medieval dons being buried with their special friends – a practice that would cause the Church of England conniptions today. The Roman Catholic church officially still resolutely condemns homosexuality as evil and a moral disorder but there are some who hope for change: one anonymous Jesuit priest expressed the hope that "once the church is aware of the destructive impact of its policies on hundreds of thousands of lives it will have to change its policies". That may be a triumph of optimism over experience.
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