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Patristic Writers  
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Christian authors who flourished between the beginning of the second century C.E. and the end of the sixth are commonly called "fathers of the church" or Patristic Writers. "Patristics" is the study of their teachings.

None of the fathers wrote positively about same-sex preferences or same-sex acts--quite the reverse: their importance in the history of homosexuality was to appropriate, accentuate, and help perpetuate currents of hostility to in pagan thought and attitude and use them to strengthen the prohibitions of Leviticus and Paul. But as well as being borrowers they were intemperate inventors.

Contra naturam

A striking instance of patristic borrowing from pagan philosophy is the adoption by Christians of the notion that same-sex intercourse is unnatural.

The idea goes back to Plato's Laws: "When male unites with female for procreation, the pleasure expressed is said to be according to nature (kata phusin), but contrary to nature (para phusin) when male mates with male and female with female." The empirical evidence he adduces is that among animals male does not mount male for sexual purposes. Another argument rests on a comparison of male-male anal intercourse to a farmer who sows seed on stony ground, where it will never take root and grow and multiply.

Later Platonists, Stoics, and Hellenized Jews repeated Plato's agricultural metaphor and embraced his misplaced faith in the "natural" behavior of animals. For example, the great Jewish philosopher Philo (ca 20 B.C.E.-ca 50 C.E.), an older contemporary of Paul, frequently called same-sex acts "contrary to nature" (para phusin). If left to themselves, he added, will depopulate the world.

Christians, too, found such views congenial. Beginning with Paul's letter to the Romans (1: 26-27), the opinion that same-sex intercourse is "against nature" (Latin: contra naturam) appears everywhere in early (and later) Christian literature.

Writing in the first decade of the fourth century, Lactantius (ca 240-ca 320) offered a standard Christian explanation of why same-sex acts are unnatural. "When God invented the plan of the two sexes, he endowed the bodies of men and women with a vehement carnal desire for each other. In the pleasurable union of the two sexes, a child is conceived, our mortality is overcome, and the race of living beings saved from extinction. The satisfaction of sexual desire is natural when it serves this purpose. But there are also men, inspired by the devil, who actually join themselves to other males (mares maribus) and practice abominable intercourse against nature and against the institute of God. Such men abuse their own sex. Yet among themselves, they regard these practices as peccadilloes and almost honorable."


The emerging Christian sexual ethic owed a second great debt to Greek philosophy: the doctrine that has come to be known as procreationism.

The idea originates with Pythagoras of Samos (ca 570-480 B.C.E.), whose ethical teaching placed a heavy emphasis on sexual restraint and moderation. At Croton, a Greek colony in southern Italy, he actually persuaded the men of the city to practice monogamy and give up their concubines.

Followers of Pythagoras in the Hellenistic period (Aristoxenus of Tarentum or Ocellus Lucanus, for example) made plainer the procreationist core of the Pythagorean sexual ethic: "The first postulate," wrote Ocellus in On the Nature of the Universe, "is that sexual intercourse should never occur for pleasure, but only for the procreation of children."

A stricter version explicitly prohibited every sexual act committed outside of marriage, including "all unnatural connections, especially those attended with wanton insolence [e.g., pederasty]," thus linking the idea of what is natural in sex to a normative demand for procreation as its end.

Both Jews and Christians accepted the procreationist dictate. "What are our laws about marriage," asked Josephus (ca 37-ca 100 C.E.), historian of the Jews: "The Law [of Moses] allows no other union of the sexes but that which nature has appointed, of a man with his wife and this for the procreation of children only. And it abhors the intercourse of male with male, and if anyone do that, death is the punishment."

Clement of Alexandria (ca 150-ca 215), head of the catechetical school in that city, offers an early Christian example of the same doctrine. Marriage is a legal transaction between a man and a woman that exists for the single purpose of procreating legitimate children in a reverent, disciplined act of will, not of desire. "To indulge in intercourse without intending children is to outrage nature, which we should take as our instructor."

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Above: Augustine of Hippo as depicted in a painting in the Lateran Church in Rome (ca 400-500 C.E.).

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