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Tradition and Homosexuality

From “The Church and the Homosexual” by John McNeill

Copyright © 1976,1985,1988,1993 by John J McNeill

Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press

The Appeal to Tradition

Many moralists buttress their claim to found the objective sinfulness of homosexuality on scriptural data with an appeal to tradition. “The Christian tradition has constantly accepted the view that homosexuality goes against the Christian understanding of human sexuality and its meaning.”(1) While admitting that historical circumstances and methodological shortcomings have possibly led tradi­tion into error on certain points, yet, Curran concludes, “there seems to be no sufficient evidence for such a judg­ment in the case of homosexuality.” The natural law ap­proach proposed by Aquinas “still seems to correspond to a certain human connaturality condemning homosexuality as wrong.”(2) This “human connaturality” might be just that, but it is even more likely that it might be a cultural prejudice formed and fed by tradition itself. In fact, one can and should ask all the same critical questions of tradition that have been previously asked of the scriptural data, especially since that tradition had its primary origin in the scriptural data.

There are three principal sources to which explicit ap­peal is made in Western Christian tradition in support of its condemnation of homosexual practices. The first is the contrast in cultural mores between Greek and Hebrew culture. The early Christian community, primarily drawn from among the Jews of the diaspora, were inclined to see any variation of behavior in Greek culture as a deviation from the divine law given to Israel and as the inevitable breakdown of morality due to idolatrous practices. The second major source of the condemnation of homosexual practices was an appeal to the popular Stoic philosophical concept of nature, a concept which culminated in Aquinas’s version of natural law. The third source, and in some respects the most important, since it was deemed to be a divine confirmation of the first and second sources, was the prevalent version of the Sodom and Gomorrah story. Let us begin our critical reflection on tradition with this third source.

The Homosexual Interpretation of the Sodom Story

As we have seen, the sin of Sodom was never interpreted in Old Testament times as being primarily sexual, to say nothing of involving homosexual practices; rather it is portrayed as a sin of pride and inhospitality. The first references to the sin of Sodom which indicate explicitly that that sin was of a sexual nature occur in the Palestinian apocrypha of the second century before Christ. In the Book of Jubilees XVI.5-6 we read:

the Lord executed his judgment on Sodom, and Go­morrah and Zeboim, and all the region of the Jordan, and he burned them with fire and brimstone, and de­stroyed them until this day, even as (lo) I have declared unto thee all their works, that they were wicked and sinners exceedingly, and that they defiled themselves and committed fornication in their flesh, and worked uncleanness on the earth. And in like man­ner God will execute judgment on the places where they have done accordingly to the uncleanness of the Sodomites, like unto the judgment of Sodom.(3)

In a later passage in the Book of Jubilees (XX.5—6) an interesting parallel is drawn between the sin of the Sodo­mites and the sin of the giants:

and [Abraham] told [his sons and grandsons] of the judgment of the giants, and the judgment of the Sodo­mites, how they had been judged on account of their wickedness, and had died on account of their fornica­tion, and uncleanness, and mutual corruption through fornication.

 The giants referred to here are the “sons of God” referred to in Gen. 6:1—4 and the “angels” of 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6. The “Watchers” of Jewish legend (Enoch VI—X; Jub. VII.21f., X.5f.; Test. Reub. V.6-7; Test. Naph. III.5) are represented as lusting after mortal women and descending on earth to enjoy coitus with them. In the Book of Jubilees VI1.20-22 we read:

Noah exhorted his sons to . . . guard their soul from for­nication and uncleanness and all iniquity. For owing to these things came the flood upon the earth, namely, owing to the fornication wherein the Watchers against the law of their ordinances went a-whoring after the daughters of men, and took themselves wives of all which they chose; and they made the beginnings of uncleanness.

It was from this unlawful intercourse that the Naphidim, or giants, were born. The Book of Jubilees thus draws a parallel between two occasions when illicit sexual conduct called forth the vengeance of the Almighty. These passages represent the first departure from the general tradition of Scripture by stressing the sexual character of the sin of Sodom; but that sin is still not indicated as homosexual in nature; rather, it is heterosexual and consisted in the commission of adultery and acts of gross sexual license and shameless promiscuity between men and women. As we have seen, some experts believe that both the scriptural passage dealing with Noah and the flood and the passage dealing with Lot and the rain of fire contain material from the Priestly tradition attacking ancient idolatrous practices concerned with seeking rain, practices which involved sexual orgies.

In a contemporary document, The Testament of Naphtali II.4-5, one of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, a Palestinian work of Pharisaic origin, we have the first indication of the sin of Sodom as homosexual in nature:

recognizing … in all created things, the Lord who made all things, that ye become not as Sodom, which changed the order of nature. In like manner the Watch­ers also changed the order of their nature, whom the Lord cursed at the flood. . . .

Here the offense of both the Watchers and the Sodomites is said to have consisted in changing the “order of nature.” Both committed a similar breach of a universal principle of order established by the Creator. The Watchers subverted the natural and evident order by the unlawful mingling in coitus of two incongruous elements, the angelic and the human. If we recall that in the Sodom story the visitors were angels, then the chief offense seems to be understood as a searching for unlawful commerce with an incompatible order of beings, whereas the sexual element is subsidiary in the mind of the author. This interpretation is supported by a New Testament passage, Jude 6—7, in which the evidence of these apocryphal texts can be detected:

and angels which kept not their own principality, but left their proper habitation, he hath kept in everlasting bonds under darkness unto the judgment of the great day. Even as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities about them, having in like manner with these given themselves also to fornication and gone after strange flesh [hetera sarx], are set forth as examples suffering the punishment of eternal fire.

Once again the homosexual element is only incidental; the emphasis is upon the sexual incompatibility of the angelic and human orders rather than upon any particular type of coitus between persons of the same sex. Bailey concludes from this evidence that by the end of the first century A.D., though the sin of Sodom is still regarded as a transgression of order, there is also a perceptible emphasis of its homosexual implications. However, as the Testament of Naphtali gives evidence, this development began as early as the second century B.C. The concept of transgres­sion of order adds a new element in a polemical addition to the Testaments during the period 70-40 B.C.: “and the daughters of the Gentiles shall ye take to wife, purifying them with an unlawful purification; and your union shall be like unto Sodom and Gomorrah.” The reference here is to the mixed marriages so much abhorred by strict Jews. Since Sodom had also come to be associated with barrenness, the passage probably implies that union with Gentile women contracted in defiance of the law will be cursed with sterility.

The next step in this development can be traced to the “writing of Enoch,” a lost work written in Hebrew. In the Testament of Naphtali IV. 1, we find this reference: “I have read in the writings of Enoch ye yourselves also shall depart from the Lord, walking according to all lawlessness of the Gentiles, and ye shall do according to all the wick­edness of Sodom. R. H. Charles regards this passage as a loose adaptation of a passage from the Book of the Secrets of Enoch, a Hellenistic Jewish work based on the Writings of Enoch.(4) In 2 Enoch XXXIV.2 among the lawless actions of the Gentiles is clearly indicated that of homosexual prac­tices. Consequently by approximately 50 B.C. the interpret­ers of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs began to regard the sin of Sodom as including homosexual practices. The clear connection that the Testament of Naphtali V.l establishes between the “wickedness of Sodom” and the “wickedness of the Gentiles” is significant. This lends support to the possibility that the origin of the homosexual interpretation of the Sodom story can be explained by the Jewish reaction to a closer acquaintance with homosexual practices common in the Hellenistic world during the century preceding the Christian era.

Another passage from a later stratum of 2 Enoch explic­itly identifies the sin of Sodom with the pederasty of Hellenic society: “This place [the north region of the third heaven] is prepared for those who dishonor God, who on earth practice the sin against nature, which is child-corrup­tion after the Sodonritic fashion. . . .” However, the first writings to identify the sin of Sodom with homosexual practices in general—the writings which probably had the most decisive influence on early Western Christian tradi­tion were those of Philo, dating from the middle of the first century a.d., and those of Josephus, from around the year a.d. 96. The first recorded instance of a homosexual coital connotation being clearly attributed to the Hebrew word yadha in the text from Genesis occurs in Philo’s Quaest. et Salat, in Genesis IV.31—37, where yadha or suggignomai is interpreted as “servile, lawless and un­seemly pederasty.” The association of the wickedness of Sodom with the lawlessness of the Gentiles has become particularly associated with the pederasty of an alien and hostile culture.

In his work De Abrahamo, Philo reads all the evils of first-century Alexandria back into the story of Sodom in Genesis:

The land of the Sodomites was brimful of innumerable iniquities, particularly such as arise from gluttony and lewdness. . . . The inhabitants owed this extreme li­cense to the never-failing lavishness of their sources of wealth. . . . Incapable of bearing such satiety . . . they threw off from their necks the law of nature, and ap­plied themselves to deep drinking of strong liquor and dainty feeding and forbidden forms of intercourse. Not only in their mad lust for women did they violate the marriages of their neighbors, but also men mounted males without respect for the sex nature which the ac­tive partner shares with the passive, and so when they tried to beget children they were discovered to be in­capable of any but a sterile seed. Yet the discovery availed them not, so much stronger was the force of their lust which mastered them, as little by little they accustomed those who were by nature men to play the part of women, they saddled them with the formidable curse of a female disease. For not only did they emas­culate their bodies, but they worked a further degener­ation in their souls, and, so far as in them lay, were corrupting the whole of mankind.(5)

 Most of the most prevalent myths and prejudices concern­ing homosexuality find expression here, such as the myth of effeminacy—the idea that homosexuals must either play the active-masculine role or the passive-feminine role in their relationships—the myth of corruption, and the myth of child abuse. Philo probably did not invent these myths but, as Bailey points out, was only expressing in vivid language a conception of Sodom and its offense which had gradually established itself among Jews of the diaspora during the preceding two centuries of their contact with Hellenic society.

In his Antiquities Josephus also clearly identifies the sin of Sodom with homosexual practices, and in particular with pederasty:

About this time the Sodomites were proud on account of their riches and great wealth; they became unjust toward men and impious toward God. . . . They hated strangers, and abused themselves with Sodomitical practices. God was, therefore, much displeased with them, and determined to punish them for their pride.

 This passage represents the first clear use of the word sodomy to describe homosexual practices. In still another passage from Josephus’ Antiquities we read: “Now when the Sodomites saw the young men [the angels] to be of beautiful countenance, and this to an extraordinary degree . . . they resolved themselves to enjoy these beautiful boys by force and violence.”

Although there are good grounds to believe that by the end of the first century A.D. the sin of Sodom had become widely identified, among the Jews of the diaspora, with homosexual practices, yet it is remarkable to note that rabbinical writings reflect scarcely anything of this devel­opment. The majority of the references to Sodom both in the Talmud and the Midrashim continue to stress the Old Testament themes of pride, arrogance, and inhospitality. The one exception to this is a midrash on Genesis: “The Sodomites made an agreement among themselves when­ ever a stranger visited them they should force him to sodomy and rob him of his money.(6) The writer implies that the most serious and reprehensible feature of the Sodomites’ inhospitality was homosexual acts reserved for strangers and accompanied by violence and robbery.

When we turn to the Fathers of the Christian Church, there is no doubt whatever that they accepted without question that the sin of the Sodomites was their particular and inordinate addiction to homosexual practices, partic­ularly pederasty, and it was for this reason that God punished them. Clement of Alexandria, for example, writes that the Sodomites had “through much luxury fallen into uncleanness, practicing adultery shamelessly and burning with insane love for boys.”(7) John Chrysos­tom, in a homily to the people of Antioch, writes: “The very nature of the punishment was a pattern of the nature of the sin. Even as [the Sodomites] devised a barren coitus, not having for its end the procreation of children, so did God bring on them such a punishment as made the womb of the land for ever barren and destitute of all fruit.”(8)  Augustine in his City of God speaks of Sodom as “the impious city where custom had made sodomy as prevalent as laws have elsewhere made other kinds of wickedness.”(9) In another work Augustine repeats Paul’s theme in the Epistle to the Romans that homosexual perversion is itself a recompense for other offenses, since such acts are not only sins per se but also the penalties for sins. In the Apostolic Constitution we read: “Thou shalt not corrupt boys: for this wickedness is contrary to nature and arose from Sodom.”(10) We should note a second factor entering into the picture with the writings of the Fathers, namely, the Stoic concept of sexual nature with its em­phasis on procreation, leading to the judgment that homo­sexual practices were “contrary to nature”. We shall deal with Stoic influences on Christian tradition later on.

Herman van de Spijker summarizes his study of the attitude of the Fathers of the Church on the subject of homosexuality with these words:

The Fathers consistently rejected homosexual activity. The argument for this rejection was based on the order of creation and the Epistle to the Romans. Sodom is the cautionary example of the punishment to be ex­pected or the clear sign of the lawlessness of such ac­tivity. . . . Although the fierceness of the condemnation can be better understood in terms of anti-Hellenic and apologetic motives, and although the Fathers speak mostly against the lust of pederasty and of perverted and self-perverting heterosexuals, yet implicitly they condemn all homosexual activity as contrary to the or­der of creation. We can conclude from both the biblical and the patristic heterosexual image of man that the Fathers had no understanding of the difference between homosexuality as a subjectively moral expres­sion of love or as an egotistical expression of lust.(11)

 The Development of Legal Tradition

A survey of Western Christian tradition concerning homo­sexual practices would be incomplete without a consider­ation of the treatment of these practices in Roman law, especially in the codifications of the Christian emperors Theodosius and Justinian, since these codifications exer­cised a very strong influence not only upon Western Euro­pean systems of civil and criminal jurisprudence but also upon ecclesiastical law.

The Lex Scantania was the original Roman law directed against pederasty, but little is known about it. The next legal measure was the emperor Philip’s law (a.d. 249) abolishing male prostitution. The Lex Julia de adulteris (ca. 17 B.c.) was probably extended by an interpretive process to include sexual acts committed with boys, a crime merit­ing capital punishment. For we read that on 30 December 533 the following law was included among the Institutes compiled by Tribonian at the emperor Justinian’s request:

In criminal prosecutions cases, public prosecutions take place under various statutes including the Lex Ju­lia de adulteris, . . . which punishes with death (gladio) not only those who violate marriages of others, but those who commit acts of vile lust with [other] men.(12)

 Thus Roman law was extended to include homosexual acts of all kinds, including those between consenting adults, and the death penalty was assigned.

The first law under the Christian emperors was promul­gated on 16 December 342 by Constantius and Constans:

When a man marries [and is] about to offer [himself] to men in a womanly fashion, what does he wish, when sex has lost its significance; when the crime is one which is not profitable to know; when Venus is changed into another form; when love is sought and not found? We order the statutes to arise, the laws to be armed with an avenging sword, that those infamous persons who are now, or who hereafter may be, guilty may be subjected to exquisite punishment.(13)

 As Bailey remarks, it is difficult to know how seriously to take this edict. W. G. Holmes remarks that its curious phraseology “almost suggests that it was enacted in a spirit of mocking complacency.”(14)

Fifty years later, on 6 August 390, another law was put forth by Valentinian II, Theodosius, and Arcadius:

All persons who have the shameful custom of condemning a man’s body, acting the part of a woman’s, to the sufferance of an alien sex (for they ap­pear not to be different from women) shall expiate a crime of this kind in avenging flames.(15)

This law is particularly notable because it prescribed the penalty of burning, which was the most common criminal punishment imposed upon sodomists in the Middle Ages and has persisted at least nominally in some countries until recent times.

Bailey was of the opinion that these earlier Roman laws were never rigidly enforced. For by the year 538 Justinian found it necessary to publish the first of his Novellae against homosexual acts:

since certain men, seized by diabolical incitement, practice among themselves the most disgraceful lusts and act contrary to nature; we enjoin them to take to heart the fear of God and the judgment to come, and to abstain from suchlike diabolical and unlawful lusts, so that they may not be visited by the just wrath of God on account of their impious acts, with the result that cities perished with all their inhabitants. For we are taught by the Holy Scriptures that because of like im­pious conduct cities have indeed perished, together with the men in them. 1 … For because of such crimes there are famines, earthquakes, and pestilences, wherefore we admonish men to abstain from the afore­said unlawful acts, that they may not lose their souls. But if after this our admonition any are found persist­ing in such offences, first, they render themselves un­worthy of the mercy of God, and then they are subjected to the punishment enjoined by the law. 2. For we order the most illustrious prefect of the Capital to arrest those who persist in the aforesaid lawless and impious acts after they have been warned by us, and to inflict on them extreme punishments, so that the city and state may not come to harm by reason of such wicked deeds.(16)

The chief motive behind this law is clearly stated. Justinian sees homosexual practices as endangering the state, for they are liable to provoke the vengeance of God in the form of earthquakes, famine, and pestilence. We see here the influence of the homosexual interpretation of the Sodom story. Bailey finds the approximate cause of this legislation in the terrible earthquake and floods which in the year 525 devastated the cities of Edessa, Anazarba, and Pompeiopolis in the East, Corinth and Dyrrachium in Europe, while Antioch was destroyed by fire and inunda­tions. In the year 543 a great plague swept through Con­stantinople. It was doubtless with this in mind that Justi­nian took occasion during the following Lent, on 1 March 544, to issue a new novella summoning to repentance those in particular whose homosexual practices might provoke other and possibly more dreadful consequences. In that novella he returns to the theme of Sodom:

1. For, instructed by the Holy Scriptures, we know that God brought a just judgment upon those who lived in Sodom, on account of this very madness of intercourse, so that to this very day that land burns with inextin­guishable fire. By this God teaches us, in order that by means of this we may avert such an untoward fate. . . . Wherefore it behooves all who desire to fear God to abstain from conduct so base and criminal that we do not find it committed even by brute beasts.(17)

Justinian’s treatment of homosexual practices became the locus classicus for civil legislation concerning this matter. An illustration of how pervasive and perduring that influence was is to be found in Blackstone s treatment of homosexual practices in his Commentary on the Laws of England:

The crime against nature [is one which] . . . the voice of nature and of reason, and the express law of God, determined to be capital. Of which we have a special instance, long before the Jewish dispensation, by the destruction of two cities by fire from heaven; so that this is a universal, not merely a provincial, precept. In the Old Testament the law condemns sodomists (and possibly other homosexual offenders) to death as perpe­trators of an abomination against the Lord, while in the New Testament they are denounced as transgressors of the natural order and are disinherited from the king­dom of God as followers of the vile practices of the heathens.(18)

The first enactment of a Church council concerning homosexual practices occurred at the Council of Elvira in 305—6. This decree forbade admission of stupratores puer- orum to communion even at death.(19) The decree of the Council of Ancyra in Asia Minor in 314 was extremely influential on the Church in the West, since it was fre­quently cited as authoritative in subsequent conciliar en­actments against homosexual practices. Canon 17 concerns those “who either have been defiled or commit defilement with animals or males.”(20) The council prescribes a variety of punishments dependent on the age and marital status of the perpetrator. Males, if married and over fifty, are to be admitted to communion only at the point of death. Basil of Nyssa in the year 375 in a letter to Amphilochius, bishop of Iconium, writes: “He who is guilty of unseemliness with males will be under discipline for the same time as adulterers.”(21) Gregory of Nyssa in a canonical letter to Letoius, bishop of Melitene (ca. 390), explains the reason for treating sodomists the same as adulterers, namely, because both combine unlawful pleasures with the inflic­tion of injury upon another(22) Basil and Gregory both call for fifteen years of penitence and exclusion from the sacra­ments. In 693 Egica, king of Gothic Spain, in an opening speech to the Sixteenth Council of Toledo, urged the clergy to address themselves to curbing homosexual practices, and once again an implicit appeal was made to the Sodom story: “Among other matters, see that you determine to extirpate that obscene crime committed by those who lie with males, whose fearful conduct defiles the charm of honest living and provokes from heaven the wrath of the supreme judge.”(23)

The most extensive set of enactments against homo­sexual practices during medieval times were the canons issued by the Council of Naplouse on 23 January 1120 by Baldwin II, king of Jerusalem, and Garmund, patriarch of Jerusalem.(24) On that occasion a sermon was preached in which all the ills that had befallen the Kingdom of Jerusa­lem as well as earthquakes, menacing signs, and the attacks of the Saracens were attributed to evil living. Conse­quently, the council enacted twenty-five canons against the sins of the flesh, four of which dealt with homosexual practices, and burning was prescribed for the impenitent. By the end of the twelfth century sodomy was a reserved sin which must be referred to the bishop or the pope for absolution.(25)

The penitentials (works on the sacrament of penance originating in the Celtic churches of Ireland and Wales) illustrate how the Church attempted to deal with homosex­ual practices. Their chief concern was to discriminate as fairly as possible between different kinds of acts according to their nature and circumstances and assign appropriate penances. The use and influence of the penitential spread to England, France, Germany, and even Italy and deter­mined for five centuries the standards according to which penance was administered. The most notable pronounce­ment on the subject of homosexual practices in the Middle Ages was the Liber Gomorrhianus of Peter Damian, ad­dressed in 1051 to Pope Leo IX.(26) In this work Peter inveighs against the practice whereby the penitentials distinguish between types of homosexual acts and assign different penances. In particular he calls for the removal from orders of any cleric found guilty of such acts. Leo’s response, Nos Humanius Agentes, is chiefly remarkable for its emphasis upon the need for a sense of proportion and a more humane approach to the question of homosexual practices. He rebukes the harsh, unyielding spirit of Peter’s work, maintaining that not all those who engage in homo­sexual acts are equally sinful, and thus not all merit the same ecclesiastical censure. He especially notes that it is not necessary to depose a cleric from orders for this reason, concluding: And if anyone should dare to criticize or carp at this decree of ours, let him know that he is in danger of his orders.”(27)

Consequently, as Bailey has demonstrated, the formation of the Western Christian attitude to homosexual practices underwent a cumulative process of development in which many diverse influences played apart, the postexilic Jewish reinterpretation of the Sodom story, pagan and Christian developments of Roman law, the teaching of the Church Fathers, the legacy of Church councils and synods, the penitential system, and so on. By the end of the thirteenth century, and especially with the writings of Aquinas, that tradition was fully formed. The influence of the homosexual interpretation of the Sodom story is evident in every strand of that development. There was a tendency on the part of civil officials to read into any disaster a divine judgment due to homosexual practices. For example, with regard to the wreck of the Blanche-Nef in 1120, in which the heir of Henry I of England perished with a number of young nobles, William of Nangis asserts that this was a divine punishment due to the fact that all were sodomists.(28) At the time of the Albigensian heresy there began a tendency to associate homosexual practices with heresy. Since the Al­bigensian heresy was also known as the Bulgarian heresy, the word bougre became associated with sodomy and remains in our present vocabulary as the word buggery. Bailey argues that although the Albigensians never advo­cated homosexual practices, their position that marriage was a state of sin gives some credence to the opinion that they had an easygoing attitude toward other forms of sexual activity. All too often unscrupulous politicians would make use of a charge of homosexual activities in order to defeat their political enemies. But it is notable that the Church itself never imposed capital punishment for this sin; rather, its emphasis was on repentance and rehabilitation. In fact the Church courts, by attempting to retain jurisdiction over this question, tried to protect the accused against the more severe punishments of the civil courts.

The ultimate culmination of legal injustice and perse­cution of the homosexual community in recent times occurred in Hitler’s Germany. In 1936 Heinrich Himmler issued a decree which read: “Just as we today have gone back to the ancient German view on the question of marriages mixing different races, so too in our judgment of homosexuality—a symptom of degeneracy which could destroy our race—we must return to the guiding Nordic principle, extermination of degenerates.” Orders were given that all homosexuals had to wear pink triangles in public, just as Jews had to wear a star of David. In 1937 the SS newspaper, Das Schwarze Korps, estimated that there were two million homosexuals in Germany and called for their extermination. Himmler gave orders that all homosexuals were to be sent to Level 3 camps—that is, death camps.

No one knows exactly how many homosexuals perished. The Austrian Lutheran Church places the number of homo­sexuals who died at no less than 220,000, the second largest group after the Jews. However, the injustice and the indig­nity did not end with the fall of the Nazi regime. After the war all other survivors of the concentration camps were treated generously in the matter of reparations. Homosex­uals, however, were told that they were ineligible for compensation, since they were still technically “criminals” under German law. The survivors could not even publicly protest, since they had to keep their homosexual identity secret for fear of further discrimination.(30)

The Anomalies of Tradition

In dealing with tradition, it must not be forgotten that the readily available documents which lend themselves to historical interpretation, such as the Bible, law codes, the enactments of councils, and so on, are really only the surface of that tradition—“the proximate or immediate determinants,” as Bailey calls them. Underlying these doc­uments are various deep-rooted socio-psychological factors which have come to conscious awareness only in recent times and still await full and careful examination. Speaking of scriptural tradition, Neale Secor remarks:

One might continue the corrective process by delving into the rather late times when the Genesis traditions were formed for a greater appreciation of the then cul­tural needs of the monogamous agrarian family unit, the real fear of Canaanite and other apostate idolatrous sexual-religious practices, the primitive reverence for the semen, and the biological misunderstanding regarding the conception and birth processes.(31)

Rattray Taylor in his book Sex in History attempts to bring out some of the culturally conditioned attitudes on sexuality.(32) He finds a universal phenomenon in cultures based on a patriarchal principle. These cultures always tend to combine a strongly subordinationist view of women with a repression and horror of male homosexual practices, whereas cultures based on a matriarchal principle are inclined to combine an enhancement of the status of women with a relative tolerance for male homosexual practices. Taylor concludes that the tradition of the Chris­tian West has been fundamentally “patrist.” This may help to explain certain striking anomalies from an ethical view­point in that tradition, anomalies which have affected pro­foundly our laws and public opinion in regard to homosex­ual practices.(33)

One of the most remarkable of these anomalies is the almost complete disregard of lesbianism in the various documents we have examined. Although the Holiness Code, for example, explicitly condemns under penalty of death male homosexual practices and female bestiality, no mention is made of female homosexual practices. Apart from a disputed reference to unnatural female acts by Paul in Romans 1:26, there is no reference to female homosexu­ality in Scripture and scarcely any in all the other docu­ments of tradition.

There is a marked tendency, as we have seen, in all the sources of tradition to condemn sodomy in terms of a man “playing the role of a woman” with another man, or using another man “like a woman.” As Bailey remarks, this has been looked upon in tradition as the degradation not so much of human nature as of the male as such.(34)  If there is a certain message in the narratives of Sodom and Gomorrah and of the Crime of Gibeah, as McKenzie remarks, it is the belief of the time in the absolute respect that should be shown the male and the relative lack of concern for the female. Or from another perspective, one begins to suspect in a careful reading of the documents of tradition that human nature and maleness were frequently identified emotionally, if not consciously, in the popular mind. To stimulate or encourage or compel another to simulate the passive coital function of the female represented a perver­sion intolerable for a society organized according to the theory of the essential subordination of woman to man, a society which particularly valued male aggressiveness and dominance. Consequently, as Bailey remarks, a man who acted “like a woman” was treated as one who had betrayed not only himself but his whole sex, dragging his fellow men down with him in his voluntary disgrace.

The premise of male superiority also helps to explain the curious disparity between the moral judgment passed upon heterosexual moral offenses on the one hand and homosexual offenses on the other. There is a tradition of referring to homosexual practices as “the most heinous” of all sins. This tradition seems to take its rise in the story of Joseph (Gen. 37:2), where Joseph is reported to have brought back a “bad report” of his older brothers to his father. The Vulgate translates the passage as “accusa- vitque fratres suos apud crimine pessimo.” Although there is no basis whatsoever in the Bible for reading into this passage an accusation of homosexual practices, yet the term crimen pessimum became associated with these practices.

The tradition of male superiority also helps explain why in the popular view female prostitution, fornication, and even adultery are frequently treated with less contempt than homosexual practices. These immoral actions at least proclaim the essential virility of their perpetrators. Every effort at legal reform concerning male homosexual practices brings forth the irrational contention that male homosexuals do more harm to society than a person who seduces a wife or husband, breaks up a marriage, assaults or injures a young girl, begets and abandons an illegitimate child, etc. And the more severe legal penalties testify to the effective­ness of that contention.

Another reason for the distinction traditionally made between male and female homosexual practices is the observation that only male homosexual practices involve the emission of seminal fluid. There has been a definite influence on Western sexual attitudes and on traditional moral theology derived from a reverence for human male semen. This reverence had its origin in an ignorance of human physiology and the conception and birth processes. Because there was no knowledge of the female process of ovulation, women were traditionally believed to be merely the incubators in which male seed was deposited. Clement of Alexandria spoke of the male semen as “met oligon anthropon—something almost or about to become a man.”35 The idea that the male semen at emission was almost human controlled sexual theory until the biological investigations of human physiology in the sixteenth cen­tury. Even Galen spoke of there being no difference be­tween “sowing the womb and sowing the earth.”(36)

Despite the advances in our knowledge of these pro­cesses, the ancient tradition continues to influence our ideas of sexual conduct and morality until the present day— for example, the moral attitude to male masturbation. Bailey believes that the reverence for the male seed as “almost human” was undoubtedly responsible in no small measure for the fact that society has always tended to reprobate and punish homosexual practices of males while more or less ignoring those of females.(37)

Although our ignorance of birth processes has been a thing of the past for several centuries and the emancipation of women has made definite strides, something of this deep-seated but irrational view of women remains today to influence the attitude of men in general toward the homo­sexual male. As we shall see, Dr. George Weinberg believes that the real psychological crisis in our culture remains male homophobia.(38) The evidence from tradition suggests an interesting connection between the status of women and the status of the male homosexual that remains to be explored. Even celibate priests are frequently them­selves victims of an unconscious homophobia. When John Harvey did a survey of Catholic priests concerning their attitude toward male homosexuals who might seek their advice, he discovered:

Some betrayed an emotional revulsion even to a pasto­ral discussion of inversion, quoting St. Paul that such things should not be mentioned among us. Others dis­missed the subject with an abrupt declaration that nothing can be done for inverts and the writer was wasting his time. Still others assumed a harsh attitude of bitter condemnation.(39)

The lesbian’s practices, on the other hand, do not involve any lowering of a privileged social or personal status. Consequently, they can be relatively ignored by a society in some respects fundamentally androcentric and homopho­bic. Bailey concludes:

It might perhaps be well for us frankly to face the fact that rationalization of sexual prejudices, animated by false notions of sexual privilege, has played no incon­siderable part in forming the tradition which we have inherited and probably controls opinion and policy to­day in the matter of homosexuality to a greater extent than is commonly realized.(40)

See also Chapter 2, Scripture and Homosexuality, which looks into the scriptural interpretation in more detail.


  1. Charles Curran, Catholic Moral Theology in Dialogue (Notre Dame, Ind., Notre Dame University Press, 1971), 202.
  2. Ibid., 203.
  3. Citations are derived from D. Sherwin Bailey’s “ sexual Interpretation of the Sin of Sodom,” Homosexuali the Western Christian Tradition (New York: Longmans, 9-28.
  4. W. R. Morfill and R. H. Charles, The Book of the Secrets of Enoch (Oxford, 1896), pp. XXIII-XXIV and 49n.
  5. De Abrahamo xxvi. 134-36; in Philo’s Works, trans Colson, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass. Harvard) 6:69-71.
  6. Gen. Rabbah 50.7.
  7. Paed. iii.8.
  8. Ad pop. Antioch, hom. xix.7.
  9. De civ. Dei xvi.30.
  10. Const, apost. vii.2. For other references to the sin of I cf. Ephraim the Syrian, Hymns on the Faith i.26; Hymns on the Nativity i; John Chrysostom, In Heli. et vid. iv; De perf. carit. In Matt. hom. xlii.3; In epist. ad Rom. iv; In epist. ad Thess. In epist. ad Tit. hom. v.4; Augustine, De mend, vii (10); Contra mend, ix (20,22); xvii (34); Conf. iii. 15; De fid., spe et carit. lxxx; Gregory, Dial, iv.37; Moral, xiv.19; Const, apost. vi.27-28;  Tertullian (?), Sodoma.
  11. Herman A. M. J. M. van de Spijker, Die Gleichgeschlechteliche Zuneigung (Freiburg, 1968), 100-101.
  12. Inst, iv; xviii.4. The research materials for the development of law are derived from Bailey’s Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition.
  13. Cod. Theod. ix; vii.3 (Cod. Just, ix; ix.31), The Theodosian Code, trans. Clyde Pharr (Princeton: Princeton University .1952), 231-32.
  14. W. G. Holmes, The Age of Justinian and Theodora (London, 1921), 1:121.
  15. Cod. Theod. ix; vii.6; cf. Pharr, The Theodosian Code, 232.
  16. Cod. Justin, nov. 77.
  17. Cod. Justin, nov. 141.
  18. William Blackstone, Commentary on the Laws of England, ed. J. Chitty (London, 1826), 4:215.
  19. Conc. Illib. 71.
  20. Conc. Ancyr. 16, 17. Cf. C. H. Turner, Ecclesiae Occidentales Monumenta Juris Antiquissima (Oxford, 1909), 11:1 the influence of this council on future enactments see Capit. Aquisgran (789) 48, Mansi xviib, col. 230; Capit. Carol, mag. 48 Mansi xviib, col. 710; Capit. Carol, mag. et Ludovic. 82, Mansi xviib, col. 839; Canones Isaac episc. Lingonen 4, 11, Mansi xviib col. 1259; Conc. Paris (829) 1, 34, Mansi xiv, col. 560.
  21. Epist. ccxvii (ad Amphiloch.), can. 62.
  22. Epist. canonica iv.
  23. Conc. Tolitan. 16, 3, Mansi xii, col. 71.
  24. Conc. Neapol. 8, Mansi xxi, cols. 261—64.
  25. Cf. Synod, constit. Odo. episc. Paris (ca. 1196) 4, 5 (the pope or the bishop), Mansi xxiii, col. 678; Conc. Prov. Fritzlar (1246) 4 (bishop), Mansi xxiii, col. 726; Stat. syn. eccl. Leod. (1287) 4 (bishop), Mansi xxiv, col. 891; Conc. Ramense. (1408), Mansi xxvi, col. 1073.
  26. Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 145, col. 161 (hereafter cited as PL).
  27. Mansi xix, cols. 685-86.
  28. Chron. in Rolls series, ed. W. Stubbs (London, 1879), vol. 2, under A.D. 1120.
  29. Bailey, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradi­tion, 135-44.
  30. Louis Crompton, “Module No. 10; Gay Genocide: From Leviticus to Hitler,” Salvatorian Justice and Peace Commission: Gay Minority Task Force. See also Wolfgang Harthauser, “Der Massenmord an Homosexuellen im Dritten Reich,” Der Grosse Tabu, ed. William S. Schlegel (Munich: Riitten & Leening Verlag, 1967).
  31. Neale Secor, The Same Sex (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1969), 71.
  32. G. Rattray Taylor, Sex in History (New York: Vanguard Press, 1954), chap. 4, pp. 72ff.
  33. The most recent repetition of the legal tradition was the Supreme Court decision in 1986 upholding the sodomy laws of the state of Georgia because of “millennia of moral judgment” based on the Sodom and Gomorrah myth.
  34. Bailey, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradi­tion, 161—62.
  35. Paed. 10.
  36. De fac. nat. 1.6.
  37. Bailey, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradi­tion, 164.
  38. George Weinberg, Society and the Healthy Homosexual (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1972), 1—21.
  39. John Harvey, “Homosexuality as a Pastoral Problem,” Theological Studies 16 (1955):86-108.
  40. Bailey, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition, 162.