Fr Robert Carter SJ died a year ago today, making Feb 22, in Catholic tradition, his “dies natale”, or day of (new) birth. He deserves to be remembered as one of the earliest activist, openly gay Catholic priests:
“Since Jesus had table fellowship with social outcasts and sinners, those rejected by the religious establishment of his time, I consider myself to have been most fully a Jesuit, a ‘companion of Jesus,’ when I came out publicly as a gay man, one of the social rejects of my time. It was only by our coming out that society’s negative stereotypes would be overcome and we would gain social acceptance.”
-Fr Robert Carter
Robert Carter, Priest and Gay Activist, Dies at 82
The Rev. Robert Carter, who in the early 1970s was one of the first Roman Catholic priests in the country to declare publicly that he was gay and who helped found the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, died on Feb. 22 in the Bronx. He was 82.
Robert Carter, right, with Dan McCarthy, left, Bernard Lynch and John McNeill at a gay pride march in the early 1980s
For Ash Wednesday, I reminded readers here that the season of Lent is also a “joyful” season, an aspect that should not be ignored. We should never forget though, that it is also a solemn time, above all a time for repentance and renewal, individually and collectively. So, it was entirely appropriate and welcome ten years ago, that at the start of the season Pope John Paul spoke of the horrors that had been perpetrated by the church in the past, apologised for the evils it had done to Jews and Muslims, and asked for forgiveness. This was important and welcome: I do not wish to belittle it in any way. However, there is an important category of offence which was omitted from the list, for which he did not apologise, and for which there has never been any apology: the persecution of “sodomites”.
For the first thousand years of its history, the Church was disapproving of homoerotic relationships, as it was of all sexual expression, but showed varying degrees of tolerance, culminating in what John Boswell described as a flowering of a gay sub-culture in the high medieval period. During the 11th century, Burchard, the Bishop of Worms in Germany,
“classified homosexuality as a variety of fornication less serious than heterosexual adultery. He assigned penance for homosexual acts only to married men. In civil legislation regulating family life in the diocese of Worms there is no mention of homosexual behaviour”
In 1059, the Lateran synod accepted all of the reforms for the church proposed by St Peter Damian – except for his proposal for harsher penalties against monks engaged in homosexual affairs.
All that changed within a few decades. In 1120, the Church Council of Nablus specified burning at the stake for homosexual acts. Although this penalty may not immediately have been applied, other harsh condemnations followed rapidly. In 1212, the death penalty for sodomy was specified in in France. Before long the execution of supposed “sodomites”, often by burning at the stake, but also by other harsh means, had become regular practice in many areas.
Historical research to date has been patchy, and in many places the records have not survived. Even so, the evidence from the modest research we do have is horrifying. In the largest scale, and best known, single incident, over 400 hundred Knights Templar were burned in the early 14th century. This is usually discussed in terms of trials for “heresy”, but in fact the charges were of both heresy and sodomy. (These terms were often associated and confused at the time, but much of the evidence in the Templar trials made it clear that specifically sexual offences were meant).
To modern researchers, it is clear that the trials were deeply flawed, with the procedures seriously stacked against the accused. In marking the 700th anniversary of the trials in 2007, the Vatican explicitly cleared those killed of the charges of heresy – but said never a word about the charges of sodomy.
Elsewhere, the trials and punishments were of individuals, or of small groups – but with equally flawed judicial procedures. (Typically, the prosecutor was also judge; torture was widely used to extract confessions; and church and state benefited by sharing the property of those convicted). These were sometimes under the auspices of the Inquisition, sometimes of the state – but always inspired by church preaching against the “sodomites”.
The severity of the pursuit and punishments varied from place to place. Venice was one of the harshest, with several hundred executions from 1422, until the persecution finally ended. In Spain, it was calculated that in total there were more burnings for homosexuality than for heresy. Executions also applied in the New World – in both North America (where some of the colonists were accused and convicted) and South (where it was the indigenous locals who suffered for the Spanish prejudices) . Altogether, it is likely that executions in Southern Europe, either by or with the collaboration of the Church, amounted to several thousand men.
After the Reformation, the practice of burning homosexuals spread to Northern Europe and some of the new Protestant territories, where the practice was sometimes use as a pretext to attack Catholic clergy: in Belgium, several Franciscans were burnt for sodomy, as was a Jesuit in Antwerp (in 1601).
The persecution finally began to ease from the late 17th century, when some “softening” became evident by the Inquisition in Spain. Nevertheless, some executions continued throughout the eighteenth century, to as late as 1816 in England. The statutory provision for the death penalty was not removed in England until 1861.
Obviously, the Catholic Church cannot be held directly responsible for the judicial sentences handed down by secular authorities in Protestant countries. It can, however, be held responsible for it part in fanning the flames of bigotry and hatred in the early part of the persecution, using the cloak of religion to provide cover for what was in reality based not on Scripture or the teaching of the early Church, but on simple intolerance and greed.
It is important as gay men lesbians and transgendered that we remember the examples of the many who have in earlier times been honoured by the Church as saints or martyrs for the faith. It is also important that we remember the example of the many thousands who have been martyred by the churches – Catholic and other.
- Crompton, Louis: Homosexuality and Civilization
- Greenberg, : The Construction of Homosexuality
- Naphy, William: Born to be Gay: A History of Homosexuality
- Len Evans, Gay Chronicles from the Beginning of time to the End of World War II
- “The Last Judgement”, and the Homoerotic Spirituality of Michaelangelo. (queeringthechurch.wordpress.com)
- Gay Popes: Sixtus IV (r. 1471-1484) (queerhistory.blogspot.com)
- Nov 1st: All (Gay) Saints (queering-the-church.com)
- Celibacy, Homosexuality, Jeffrey John and Cardinal Newman (queertheology.blogspot.com)
Hardly anyone has a neutral reaction to the word “queer.” People either love it or hate it. I used to belong to that latter camp until a wiry, effervescent, brilliant Latin American liberation theologian converted me. That theologian’s name was Marcella Althaus-Reid, who passed away on February 20 – far too young and with many more theological and spiritual insights left to offer to a world that desperately needs them.“Queer theology” has been bubbling up in some quarters for a while now, but not quite as long as “queer theory.” Both spark considerable controversy, and sometimes for similar reasons. Usually the word “queer” is enough to send an otherwise congenial dinner party of LGBT people rocking with impassioned disclaimers, hurled history lessons, and proffered pleas for tolerance. In religious circles, gay and lesbian people have been working for decades to carve out a “place at the table” in faith communities that they so rightly deserve. The work can be slow and arduous, which the word “queer” – some strenuously insist – can derail. A few years ago I attended a national gathering of LGBT-affirming ministries where a well-known gay Christian author practically begged his audience of several hundred to refrain from using “that word” in their advocacy work. It simply perpetuates the assumption that we’re different, he explained.That’s exactly the point, as Marcella Althaus-Reid would have chimed in had she been there. We are different. And the only way to do Christian theology is from that place of difference. The “we” for Althaus-Reid didn’t mean only lesbian and gay people, nor the ones so quickly added on later, like bisexuals and transgender folks. “We” are all those who don’t fit the regulatory regimes of both state and church marked by gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, and economics. For her, “queer” maps out a space of resistance to those regimes, not just to oppose but creatively to construct, re-imagine, and envision a different kind of world.
In reality, Marcella Althaus-Reid constitutes one of the strangest phenomena in the long and diverse history of Christian thought. To judge from her published works this lecturer in “Christian ethics” who dismissed the Ten Commandments as “a consensus” reflecting “elite perspectives” (2003:163) was less a spokesperson for the “indecent” or disruptive she is supposed to represent and that might have had it uses, than an unusual kind of atheist and blasphemer whose written wit and reportedly frequent laughter in person barely disguised the extent of the game she must have known she was playing. Within the increasingly effete, too often irrelevant world of theological and Queer studies she found opportunity. Her admirers, and in her last years she had them on an international scale, have been deceived or perhaps never really understood what she wrote – whole chunks of it admitted to be dense, difficult, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary based. Those who truly understood might have to be considered infidels towards the religion they profess.
…. even if Marcella hadn’t returned right answers she had raised pertinent questions based on experiences not to be ignored.
- Towards Full GLBT Inclusion in Faith: Some Signs of the Times.
- Liberate Me, Liberate You: The Preferential Option for the Queer
- Marcella Althaus-Reid: Queer theology pioneer (jesusinlove.blogspot.com)
- Marcella Althaus-Reid (The Dance of the Elements)
- Vale Marcella Althaus-Reid 1952-2009 (Michael Carden’s Jottings)
- See e.g. McKay J, obituary for Marcella Althaus-Reid, Herald Scotland, 11 March 2009
- Johnson JE, ‘A “Queer God”? Really? Remembering Marcella Althaus-Reid’, CLGS,
The Roman soldiers, lovers and martyrs Sergius and Bacchus are well known examples of early queer saints. Polyeuct and Nearchos are not as familiar- but should be. John Boswell (“Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe“) names the two as one of the three primary pairs of same sex lovers in the early church, their martyrdom coming about half a century after Felicity and Perpetua, and about another half century before Sergius & Bacchus .
Like the later pair, Polyeuct and Nearchos were friends in the Roman army in Armenia. Nearchos was a Christian, Polyeuct was not. Polyeuct was married, to a woman whose father was a Roman official. When the father-in-law undertook as part of his duties to enforce a general persecution of the local Christians, he realized that this would endanger Polyeuct, whose close friendship with Nearchos could tempt him to side with the Christians. The concern was fully justified: although Polyeuct was not himself a Christian, he refused to prove his loyalty to Rome by sacrificing to pagan gods. In terms of the regulations being enforced, this meant that he would sacrifice his chances of promotion, but (as a non-Christian) not his life. Christians who refused to sacrifice faced beheading. When Nearchos learned of this, he was distraught, not at the prospect of death in itself, but because in dying, he would enter Paradise without the company of his beloved Polyeuct. When Polyeuct learned the reasons for his friends anguish, he decided to become a Christian himself, so that he too could be killed, and enter eternity together with Nearchos.
Up to this point, I have been careful to refer to the two men as “friends”, not as “lovers” – but this is an entry for queer saints and martyrs. What was the truth of the relationship? As with any couple so remote from the present, precise sexual details are unknown. However, there are clues. Boswell notes that in the early biographies, the Greek words used to describe their friendship are the ones commonly used in marriage ceremonies; these biographies describe several instances of close bodily contact (“Polyeuct leapt up and wrapped himself around Nearchos”); both were soldiers, with strong associations in the Hellenistic world between the military and homoerotic affections.
The most compelling evidence though is in the story itself. Polyeuct embraced Christianity to enter eternity with Nearchos – thereby choosing separation from his wife on earth. Even if we disregard the other evidence, any man who chooses to die in the company of a male friend rather than live with his wife cannot be seen as a conventional, red-blooded heterosexual.
This alone is enough to mark the pair as queer.
There are two further telling pieces, which need to be assessed in the historical context. Before declaring his intention to follow Christ, Polyeuct announced that he had seen Him in a vision, using a word (translated as “youth”) which had strong erotic overtones.
Polyeuct’s vision of Christ as a “youth” – using a word common in other Greek sources for a young mn in his prime as a sexual object – might suggest , at least subliminally, a homoerotic ambience of the story.
-Boswell, Same sex Unions
The near contemporaries of the two certainly saw something remarkable in their friendship. As the church formalise liturgies and rituals for blessing same-sex unions in church, their names were among many paired saints who were invoked in many of these liturgies. In this, they should be thought of today as possible patrons of gay marriage or civil unions in a modern counterpart to the early rite of adelphopoesis.
Other sources are less certain that they were lovers: the useful “God is Wonderful in His Saints” Orthodox Resources website describes them simply as “friends”. Before dismissing Boswell’s claim though, we should remember that “friends” has sometimes served as a euphemism for “lovers”, just as to “sleep with” someone in modern English usually means more than to share a snooze.
Note: Both the Calendar of LGBT Saints at the LGBT Catholic Handbook, and the Orthodox Resources website, list January 9th as the feast day of “Holy Martyr Polyeuctus” (Orthodox Resources), or SS. Polyeuct and Nearchus, martyrs (LGBT Catholic Handbook). Other sources give Feb 13th for Polyeuct, and April 22nd for Nearchos.
Boswell, John, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe
O’Neill, Dennis: Passionate Holiness
- Symeon of Emessa and John, Desert Hermits, Saints and Lovers(Queer Saints and Martyrs)
- Sergius & Bacchus, Roman Soldiers, Lovers and Martyrs (Queer Saints and Martyrs)
- Was Jesus gay? Mark, and the Naked Young Man (Queering the Church)
- Nov 1st: All (Gay) Saints(Queering the Church)
- The Story of the “Queer Saints and Martyrs”: Taking Shape(Queer Saints and Martyrs)
- Brothers by affection: Saints Polyeuct and Nearchus (Jesus in Love Blog)
- Boris and George, United in Love and Death) (Jesus in Love Blog)
|Marina (in red) being brought to a monastery by her father Eugenius.
(14th century French manuscript).