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social sciences

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Historical Background

During the late antique period, a wave of asceticism spread throughout the Mediterranean area and Western Europe. As a result, homosexual acts, prostitution, and other expressions of sexuality outside of marriage were criminalized. On the basis of evidence assembled by Boswell and other recent historians, it appears that the popes were not leaders in this process and that they sometimes showed more tolerance of sexual "deviance" than other secular and ecclesiastical authorities.

Thus, the ecclesiastical writer Tertullian (about 160-225) harshly criticized Pope Callistus I (d. 223) for his failure to condemn . The Council of Elvira, an influential council of Iberian Catholic leaders meeting on the site of the modern Spanish city of Granada in 305-06, formulated the first official Church prohibitions of same-sex sexual intercourse; the council recommended that men who engaged in sexual activities with boys should be excommunicated.

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The Roman Emperor Valerian established the penalty of death for homosexual acts. The Code of the Emperor Justinian (529) also defined sodomy as a capital crime but recommended that the death penalty be enforced only when torture and other devices failed to inspire penitence and abandonment of these acts. Most medieval penitential books and other religious manuals, produced after approximately 529, support these secular legal codes and endorse harsh penalties for homosexual acts. However, the most severe punishments were seldom enforced during the first millennium.

Saint Peter Damian (1007-1072) is among those who condemned supposed papal leniency to "sins against nature," including masturbation, homosexual orgies, and heterosexual anal sex. In the treatise Book of Gomorrah, which he presented to the Council of Rome (1048-51), Damian urged that all who were implicated in homosexual acts be executed. However, Pope Leo IX rejected some of Damian's proposals, insisting that all should be given the opportunity to redeem themselves through penitence and that children should never be subjected to the death penalty.

Boswell has discovered that, during the first six centuries of the Church, several popes authorized liturgical manuals that included ceremonies for same-sex, as well as heterosexual, marriages. A few manuals incorporating same-sex marriages appear to date from as late as the twelfth century, and there are indications that same-sex marriage ceremonies, recorded in these books, were performed secretly in Rome as late as the sixteenth century.

According to Boswell, Christian same-sex marriages may have evolved out of earlier friendship ceremonies, and they may have been retained partly because Christian marriage initially was regarded primarily as an expression of passionate "spiritual friendship." The fourth-century biographies of a male couple, Saints Polyeuct and Nearchos, are among the early Christian sources that celebrate the committed love experienced within consecrated same-sex marriages.

In the early Christian era, monks seem to have frequently participated in same-sex marriage ceremonies; however, by around 580, various ecclesiastical authorities, including some popes, acted to establish regulations prohibiting monks from pledging friendship in this way.

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, in order to strengthen both the spiritual and political authority of the Catholic Church in the face of accusations of moral laxness, popes and other officials sought to impose strict chastity on clergy. This effort encompassed both homosexual and heterosexual acts. Thus, for instance, in 1203, Pope Innocent III instituted an investigation into clerical sodomy in Mâcon, and, in 1231, Pope Gregory IX ordered a crackdown on both homosexual and heterosexual acts by priests in Germany.

However, despite such highly publicized attacks upon sodomy practiced by the clergy and a sometimes harsh rhetoric, the papacy generally revealed in practice a relatively tolerant attitude to sexual "deviation." Within the Papal States, penalties against sodomy were enforced less rigorously than in many other territories. By the fifteenth century, Rome had developed a vibrant subculture of men who enjoyed sexual relationships with other men. (The situation of women in Rome is less well documented.)

Thus, throughout the early modern era, men found refuge in Rome from the harsh punishment of sodomy, which was more "routine" in northern Europe and which was also vigorously prosecuted in Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Although popes at least acquiesced in the prosecutions under the Inquisition, the persecution of sodomites probably resulted from local animus and zeal rather than from directives from Rome. Protestant reformers consistently condemned papal toleration of homosexual acts.

"Gay friendly" Popes

A few Popes displayed notable tolerance for homosexual acts. "Lax" enforcement of policies against sodomy seems to have been motivated by a desire to protect specific family members or important political allies. Unfortunately, on the basis of present research, it is uncertain to what extent papal leniency extended to the entire population. Because this topic has not yet been investigated thoroughly, it seems possible that additional pontiffs deserve mention under this category.

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