John Boswell’s Religious Restoration

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IT WOULD BE NO EXAGGERATION to say that in gay historical circles, and more specifically gay religious studies, there is before John Boswell and there is after John Boswell. It can be argued that the 1980 publication of openly gay Yale historian John Boswell’s groundbreaking work, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, by replacing one conceptual worldview with a radically different one, gave rise to the kind of paradigm shift that Thomas Kuhn talked about in his landmark 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. By analyzing biblical texts from both the Old and New Testament and the historical record up to the 14th century, Boswell upended the traditional Roman Catholic Church’s understanding of its gay members. And so, on the 35th anniversary of the publication of his magnum opus, it seems the right time to analyze this paradigm shift and explore the impact of such an intellectual and spiritual upheaval in the intervening decades.

Prior to 1980, there really had been only two favorable books written on the subject of homosexuality and Christianity. The first was Derrick Sherwin Bailey’s Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (1955). Bailey was an Anglican priest, his book essentially popularizing a 1954 church commission on “the problem of homosexuality,” which reviewed scripture on the topic. Bailey concluded that using the Bible to condemn homosexuality was not justified, but he conceded that the Catholic Church had in fact denounced homosexuality from its early beginnings.

Cover of the 1980 edition and of last year’s 35th anniversary edition
Covers of the 1980 edition and of last year’s 35th anniversary edition

The second book was John McNeill’s The Church and the Homosexual (1976), the first Catholic work to support the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the Church. McNeill, a Jesuit priest and ethicist (who died last September), argued there was no moral basis for condemning homosexuality. He used a rough draft of Boswell’s prepublication scriptural analysis to bolster his thesis. Partially in reaction to McNeill, Pope Paul VI issued a letter, “The Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics” (1975), acknowledging the concept of sexual orientation (“innate instinct or pathological constitution judged to be incurable”), which was considered at the time to be an advance. However, it also stated: “Scripture does not of course permit us to conclude that all those who suffer from this anomaly are personally responsible for it, but it does attest to the fact that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and can in no case be approved of.”

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