Of all the grave sins made known to mankind, the practice of sodomy is definitely in the top five, possibly top three, worst abominations of all time, historically speaking. What remains little understood is the evolving societal conceptions and tolerence towards homosexuality. Those great biblical sins that still loom large today in the collective consciousness – such as gay sex, sex work, and witchcraft are in fact ahistorically imagined as being linearly condemned throughout the centuries. Even within the early Christian clergy, homosexual behaviour was fairly openly documented by members of all-male monasteries up until the 12th century. Homosexuality itself was not conceptualised as a fully-fledged and distinct sexual identity until the Victorian era in the West, when it was classified as a mental disorder rather than theological sin. The evolving nature of social responses to such practises can be clearly linked to shifting and increasingly unstable social and political climates which threatened the established political order. Homosexuality, alongside a myriad of other social phenomena, simply provided the perfect scapegoat to blame for societal upheaval.
Before the pathologization of homosexuality in the 18th century, European societies did not have a clear cut conception of queerness. Sodomy was understood to be an immoral act, but the Bible makes little reference to this, of the 35,527 verses in the Catholic Bible, only seven – 0.02% can possibly be interpreted as prohibitory of homosexual acts. The infamous tale of Sodom and Gomorrah stands out, but unbeknownst to many, the twin sin cities of yonder were not razed to the ground by God due to sodomy, but instead for being inhospitable and arrogant to foreigners – “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” Though sexual deviancy is strongly implied, not once is sodomy explicitly stated. It would be 1500 years before Philo of Alexandria equated the story of Sodom with homosexuality.
Analysing early Christian views of sex highlights how volatile these attitudes are, and how much social circumstances of the time influenced them. In the first two centuries AD, when Christianity was still primarily an ascetic cult, all sex was abhorred. The Essenes, one of these early groups, did not believe marriage to be compatible with piety and would prevent one from receiving deliverance. The Marcionites in 144 AD denounced family life, marriage and sensual pleasure and believed this distinguished them from barbarism. It would not be until Christianity transformed into the official religion of the Roman Empire, over the course of the 3rd century AD, that sex within marriage was officially sanctioned as holy. Augustine of Hippo’s treatise “On the good of marriage” argued for the three goods of marriage – children, fidelity and sacrament. He put forth the claim that celibacy ought to be enforced for clergy only. If not for this radical departure from the ascetic origins of Christianity, the new faith was much less likely to have taken root and gained a mass following amongst Rome’s previously pagan adherents.
When homosexual acts were criticised by the early ascetic Christians, it was often alongside very long treatises on similarly sinful acts, of which nearly all notions of sensuality were included. Rather than the act of homosexuality being intrinsically wicked, it has been theorised that this early condemnation arose due to the subversion of increasingly rigid gender norms and hierarchy. A man engaging in a passive “female” position during homosexual sex was deemed unmasculine to which Philo stated was “the greatest of all evils”. Despite this, early Christian priests and monks are known to have written of their same-sex affairs and desires without facing punitive punishment. St. Aelred of Riveaulx, a widely beloved English abbot, was widely known to be gay, and wrote openly on his ongoing physical and emotional relationships with men in the 11th century AD.
Since the fall of the Roman empire in 465 AD, the Catholic Church rose to fill the vacuum of power. The middle ages saw the peak of the church’s influence and wealth. But this all-encompassing grip on power was not destined to last. The Empire was continuously subject to destabilising forces like invasions and civil war, and first began to falter significantly in the 12th century. The 4th Lateran council assembled for the purpose of internal reformation and the expansion of church powers. Amongst the most notable reformations was the enforcement of yearly confession for all Christians, which signified a shift in the church’s focus of interest and increased obsession with moral purity and renouncement of sin. Greater vigour and attention was given to the demonisation of “sodomy”, which began to be explicitly condemned. Theologians such as Thomas of Cantimpre stated that gay monks would be beset by demonological visions rather than the comforts of heaven at the end of their life. Severer penalties became more frequently issued by civil authorities at the behest of the church and homosexual activity within the clergy as well as in broader society was forced underground.
This increasing social hostility would grow into a rising tide of conspiratorial aggression and oppression which reached a fever peak with the witch trials of the early modern period. Previously tolerated and respected herbal folk healers were now considered devil worshipping heretics, alongside scientists and atheists who posed any perceived destabilising threat to the paramountcy of the church’s authority. Extramarital, homosexual behaviour was viewed as a direct subversion of the sanctity of marriage, and thus a destabilising force to the very reproductive and transactional foundation of society. Thomas Aquinas’ widely influential natural law theory, which conceptualises the primary intellectual argument against homosexuality that is still invoked today, claimed that not only is sodomy a legal and religious transgression but “unnatural” according to the intrinsic moral law of nature. The core of this argument has since been invoked frequently throughout history and in Australia, as recently as the 2017 marriage equality plebiscite.
All of these shifting values and sweeping reformations were triggered by great socioeconomic shifts in Europe. As cities grew more affluent, they became increasingly pluralistic and therefore divided. The black death and 100-year war also induced the end of feudalism and the golden age of the church’s authority. The rise of mercantilism and invasion of the Americas introduced new empires and directed wealth towards burgeoning nation states rather than the church. The enlightenment would further critique and dismantle the theological basis of the church’s monopoly over knowledge and truth. As seen repeated many times over throughout history, times of great social change and unrest give rise to intensely dualistic ways of thinking, increased hostility to outsiders and greater suppression of acts deemed destabilising to the reigning social order. When the dominant hegemonic power senses attack, it seeks to assert its authority and moral integrity through its opposition to an opposing “evil” force. The greatest evil that the Catholic Church could conceive of was the devil himself, made manifest through various forms of social upheaval and fought through the scapegoating and persecution of minorities and revolutionary thinkers. The era of McCarthyism in US history followed the precedent set by the inquisition, complete with corrupted trials and virulent conspiracies. The new demonic force to be reckoned with was communism, as its very existence threatened to destabilise the established capitalistic order.
Homoeroticism would again flourish during the Renaissance, with many great artists only thinly shrouding their reverence and desire of the male form within their artworks and sculptures, often commissioned and funded by the church itself, such as Micheangelo’s “David” and his Sistine Chapel nude frescos. According to Foucault, with the advent of modern medicine, science, and psychology amongst many other newly developed modes of analysing the world, “the 19th century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case study and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life form and a morphology”. While this evolved definition was perhaps a departure in the right direction from religious condemnation of the previous millenia, homosexuality was still academically conceptualised as a medical affliction and was penalised just the same, if not harsher. It would take until 1973 for homosexuality to be declassified as a mental illness in response to radically shifting sociopolitical circumstances, such as the sexual revolution.
By overviewing the evolving nature of social tolerance and hostility towards homosexuality throughout history, we are reminded of how all notion of sin is socially constructed and not based in any legitimate objectivity, but rather is formed as a defensive psychosocial response to the uncertainty and change inherent within the world.