Catholic Clergy, Gay Sex – and Church History.

Last week, there were reports from Italy that undercover reporters had shadowed three priests, and had followed them to gay sex clubs. Video footage, allegedly of these priests in the clubs, in a private flat where one of them had sex with a man, and of one saying Mass, has been posted on line. The Catholic Church says it is “embarrassed” .

It needn’t be – there’s a long history of Catholic clergy having sex with men, from the earliest church to modern times.

There are bishops and canonized saints with homoerotic poetry which may still be read in the Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse; another bishop who was ordained in spite of a well known reputation for frequent sex with other bishops, the French king, and top nobles of the court; English and French clergy wrote medieval love letters to their boyfriends; and popes from the Renaissance up to modern times who who have been noted for their own relationships with men, or their patronage of others with such relationships.

You wouldn’t guess it from official Catholic sources, but the Church has a long list of canonized queer saints – men and women who loved their own gender, and even cross-dressers. For centuries, they used specifically composed liturgical rites for blessing same sex unions in church, and buried same couples together in shared tombs, just like married couples.(See John Boswell, Allan Bray) But today, I want to write only about the ordained, male clergy.

The one that intrigues me the most is the fourth century Saint Paulinus of Nola. The Catholic Encyclopedia praises his missionary efforts, and also that of his wife, and his close associate and friend Ausomius. They also praise his religious Latin verse, which they point out proudly may still be read today in the Penguin book of Latin Verse. What they very carefully do not tell us, is where to find more of his celebrated verse – in a companion Penguin poets volume – the Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse. In addition to a wife, Paulinus (like many Romans) had a boyfriend, that same Ausonius, to whom he addressed frankly homoerotic love poem. This is typical of how the Church has attempted to airbrush out of its history the stories of its own people who we would today describe as definitely “queer”, if not clearly “gay”. The really remarkable thing about Paulinus is that he is not the only canonized bishop represented in the Penguin book – St. Venantius Fortunatus is another.

In the High Middle Ages, there were so many clergy composing elegant love letters to their clerical friends, or poetry glorifying the male form, that John Boswell described it as the greatest flowering of a gay sub-culture before the late twentieth century. As many of these men were monks who had taken vows of celibacy, we must accept that not all were sexually active, and not “gay”, but they most certainly displayed a sensibility which was distinctly queer. Many of those who were not monks, however most certainly did lead sexual lives, of whom the best known was John of Orleans.

Towards the end of the eleventh century, John was recommended for the vacant see of Orleans by his friend and lover, Archbishop Ralph of Tours. It was well known that the two had an established sexual relationship, just as John had previously had with another bishop, and with the French king, and with many other prominent men. There was strong opposition to this appointment, including appeals to the pope – based on his youth, not his orientation or even promiscuity. The appointment went ahead, regardless.

During the Renaissance, even as the Inquisition in many regions was hunting down, prosecuting and burning “sodomites”, a series of popes in Rome enjoyed their boy lovers, and graced Vatican buildings with homoerotic art commissioned from top artists. One pope died while sodomizing a youth, another (Julius III) had a reputation for chasing young boys through the streets of Rome, and at least one modern pope (i.e. after Vatican II) is believed to have had homosexual relationships before being elevated to the papacy.

The Vatican likes to claim that its teaching on homosexuality represents a “constant and unchanging tradition”. The only thing that is constant in this tradition is the presence of change. The true history deserves to be better known.

Mark Jordan has observed that the professional press corps in the Vatican acknowledge privately that they have detailed knowledge not only of which top officials are gay, but whom they are doing it with, and their particular predilections. Yet, there is a code in place which says that they will not disclose these juicy secrets.

Three priests in gay nightspots? These are small fry. Give me the dirt on the men at the top – that’s when I will sit up and take notice.

Sources:

Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century

Boswell, John: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

Bray, Allan: The Friend

Jordan, Mark D: The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism

Also, On-line:

Lesbian Gay and Bisexual Catholic Handbook

Theology Library: Gay and Lesbian Catholicism

People With a History: Online Guide to Lesbian, Gay Bisexual and Trans History (Fordham Univ)

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