Homosexuality - 5

Sexuality and Friendship in Early Christianity

Vittorino Grossi
Professor of Patristics
Pontifical Lateran University, Rome

The problem of sexuality in recent years has fanned out to cover numerous questions, emphasizing more than ever before the phenomenon of homosexuality and lesbianism. This tendency is causing ever more insistent questions to be raised at the level of the mass media, especially with regard to those who live the consecrated life, in addition to the serious questions that are posed by the world of singles, whose number, according to statistics, is on the increase. The way the phenomenon is being interpreted is gradually leading to a mentality which closely links sexual activity with friendship, in the sense that the latter is thought to be already connected with sexual activity, even between those of the same sex. The problem, therefore, lies not so much in seeing sexual activity as the expression of a friendship, as in thinking it impossible for a group of women or men to live in friendship without being sexually active. This is causing troublesome opinions regarding the community life of consecrated men and women, precisely with respect to the value of friendship. The various questions involved touch on relations of an ethical and affective nature which, naturally, can be variously interpreted. The Christian world has Sacred Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium of the Church as its basic criterion.

Here we will refer to early Christian testimonies regarding sexual activity, to re-examine them in view of their evaluation of homosexuality and friendship. In early Christianity, as a result of the culture, the question turned on the evaluation of the body and the realm of the sensible in general. This evaluation indicated the behaviour to be adopted. Regarding the body there was first of all the dualist tradition (Gnostic and Manichaean) rooted in Platonism, which regarded the body and sexual relations mainly in a negative light, whatever their nature. Continence was therefore highly prized - indeed with the Gnostics it was a sign of humanity's original unity (the myth of the androgyne) - but only out of disparagement of the body and its feelings. Virginity was seen as an expression of the "virgin spirit" of spiritual men (who were opposed to the class of "psychic" and "hylic" men), while the sexual union was judged either as adultery or pederasty.

Augustine described various schools of thought

We are fortunate in being able to learn about all the early Christian schools of thought, given that we have a review made by St. Augustine in his work The Heresies. According to that work (De haeresibus of the year 429), the heterodox views of sexuality could be divided into three main groups: the "indifferent" from the ethical standpoint, the "philocorporeal" tendency, and, lastly, the spiritualist school.

To the "indifferentist" school belonged Christian groups who, with regard to sexuality and sexual activity, propagated a concept devoid of ethical judgement. For them it was a fact of nature that did not involve particular moral problems, whether one practiced it or abstained from it. This idea also applied to Our Lady's virginity (heresies 56 and 84) and the virgin birth of Christ (heresy 7): two Christian truths unimportant to them and therefore of no historical interest. The concept of a sexual activity devoid of ethics (indifferenter uti feminis, heresies 1, 5, 6) was evaluated by the Bishop of Hippo, Augustine, as a moral obscenity (turpitudo, ibid.).

To the "philocorporeal" school belonged Christian groups who gave a positive anthropological evaluation to the body, but drew the most disparate conclusions from it. There were those who considered the body as the image of God, while others appealed to the soul on this question (heresy 76); those who considered sexual activity as something sacred and for this reason allowed such relations during religious gatherings (heresy 6), even considering homosexuality (the sodomites, heresy 18) as an act worthy of cult. There were, furthermore, those who read the millennium described in the Book of Revelation (ch. 20-21) as a time "of great eating and libidinous pleasure" (heresy 8) and the resurrection of the flesh as sexual generation (heresy 59).

To the spiritualist school, lastly, belonged the group most consistently unfavourable to sexuality. These were Christians who clung to the metaphysical dualism of the Platonic type; they had a negative idea of the body and of its every expression as regards both desires and relations, since they considered the body an impediment for the spiritual element present in man (heresies 22, 23, 24, 46). The consequences they drew from that position, on both the religious and ethical levels, were not indifferent. On the doctrinal level in fact, by suggesting that death liberated one from the material element, they denied the resurrection of the flesh for everyone (heresies 7, 11, 14, 20, 21, 47), and they denied the resurrection of Jesus Christ, his real bodily birth from the Virgin Mary (heresy 21) and his ascension into heaven with his body (heresies 22-24). On the purely ethical-ascetical level, these spiritualists, especially the Manichaeans (heresy 46), considered sexual attraction as something opposed to the good; therefore they condemned marriage (heresy 25, Encratites) and judged second marriages as fornication (heresies 26, 38, 86). Finally, as regards social relations, they did not admit a married person into their company (heresies 25, 40, 53). Some of them, going further in their negative judgement of sexuality, judged the genitals as the work of the devil (heresy 85), going so far as to castrate themselves and any guests (heresy 37). Such groups were the extreme side of asceticism, both as regards celibate life and poverty (heresy 40, the "Apostolics").

Augustine saw in their choice of asceticism a mistaken motive stemming from a negative concept of matter, to which he himself was initially attracted. Subsequently, however, having reached a balanced, authentic Christian view of matter, he no longer taught an ascesis of hatred for the body, an ethic of suppression according to the dictates of the Manichaeans and Neoplatonists who believed man to be complete without his body. Rather he urged a patient and loving struggle against "that never tamed habit of the flesh" that weighs down the impulse towards the unchanging God. The Bishop of Hippo's gradual maturing in his evaluation of the body is symptomatic of many Christians' way of thinking in the fourth and fifth centuries. In his new anthropological vision, human relations were to be regulated positively and not primarily in a negative way. Regulated by the law of love, they included both body and soul, since God's very kindness is mediated by the body. If the Neoplatonist influence had brought the Bishop of Hippo to limit the extension of the second commandment of the Lord ("love your neighbour") to love of the soul excluding bodies (cf. De vera religione 46:86-89), the reception of the dogmas of the goodness of creation and the incarnation led him to extend that love to the body as well, applying it to marital love and actually to the bride's body (cf. De doctrine christiana 1, 26, 27).

Balanced view of human sexuality

Dealing then with the evaluation of the human body's sense power, Augustine distinguished between the power of sensation and lust or disordinate desire (between vis sentiendi and vitium concupiscendi). While the ability to sense belongs to created nature and, from that aspect, sexual humanity is a good, it can be evil only in the consequences that result from the concupiscence connected with it. For Augustine it was that force (vis) introduced as a vice (vitium) into human nature by original sin which requires of everyone a continuous self-discipline throughout his life. "Sensation is one thing, the vice of lust is another", Augustine explained to Julian of Aeclanum. "Carefully distinguish these two things and you will not mistake or distort things ... (because) the sensation of the flesh is one thing the lust of the flesh another" (Opus imperfectum contra lulianum 4, 29 and 69). Reducing carnal lust to a libidinous excess of the sense power, as Julian suggested, seemed to Augustine to be not so much the theory of a non-existent naturalism as the denial of many essential truths for a Christian, in particular of the need for redemption in the same flesh and of the need for prayer, so that the grace of God might help human freedom to not let itself be enslaved by a false evaluation of sensual pleasure. In fact the grace of God helps human weakness like a friend helps a friend in difficulty.

The tradition of the Great Church or the Catholic Church on sexuality developed in the East as in the West, especially in the Augustinian synthesis, a balance that became the common heritage of the Christian world. It accepted both marriage and the choices of the celibate life and consecrated life, overcoming the anthropological position of discrimination against the body as such and, consequently, the understanding of sexual activity or abstinence from it as contempt of the body. This is attested by the Fathers of the Church who wrote positively both of marriage and of virginity, like St. Augustine, who in the same year (400) wrote two works: The Good of Marriage and Holy Virginity. As regards the goodness of marriage, Gregory Nazianzen wrote, for example: "Marriage does not distance us from God; indeed it draws us near to him as it is God himself who urges us to it" (Moral Poems 1, 275). And likewise John Chrysostom: "Those who find marriage an obstacle [to life with God], should know that it was not marriage but their free will that used marriage badly" (Homilia Hebr. 7, 4).

Sexual activity was linked in the Christian culture of the patristic period to the choice of marriage. Famous and emblematic remains the case of a young second-century Christian, told to us by Justin: because he could not provide economically for his prospective family, the Christian community did not allow him to marry. He therefore tried to have himself castrated by a doctor, but the latter replied that this was not allowed by law. And the young man Justin concludes could neither marry nor go with other women. Their rule was that "those who marry, marry like everyone; they produce children, but do not expose the new-born; others have the table in common but not the bed" (To Diognetus 6-7).

Fathers studied value of friendship

Homosexuality was considered an intolerable deviation for Christians, although, socially speaking, it was a cultural fact in ancient times that did not cause a stir. New Testament Christian sources speak of it expressly as a moral deviation that excludes one from the kingdom of heaven. These were norms for the young Christian community. Indications of the disapproval of this practice are to be found, for example, in the lives of the ascetic hermits, periodically visited by the devil in their cells. When the devil passed by and saw a boy inside, he continued on saying that he already lived in that cell. The problem of homosexuality therefore was not a cause for concern, but belonged to the general norms of Christian ethics concerning sexuality, whose exercise was reserved to marriage.

In the same context the Fathers of the Church made systematic advances in studying the value of friendship, identified as "spiritual friendship" opposed to "carnal" friendship (the expression is Augustine's, in the Rule for the Servants of God). The value of friendship is a very important aspect of patristic literature, in which it was greatly developed and represented a precise programme of the Christian paideia.

It is universally known that Augustine of Hippo was the theorist of Christian friendship in the ancient world. He first lived it intensely in his own life, leaving us immortal pages especially in his Confessions. He suggested it for everyone as the sole possibility for living human relations of interpersonal communion, and therefore placed it among the goods common to human existence: for Augustine friendship is one of those goods which distinguishes man, in the same category, for example, as the good of freedom.

His insight into the fundamental relationship of friendship, which binds God and man and human beings to each other, led Augustine to study human psychology through the category of the "heart": everyone possesses an "eye of the heart" ("oculus cordis"), thanks to which he can make contact with others and form friendships with his fellows regardless of their existential condition. Therefore friendship, both generally speaking and specifically between man and woman, between woman and woman, between man and man, was a very high value recognized by St. Augustine and promoted by Christianity from the beginning as a good for all people. The Bishop of Hippo pointed to it as the fundamental norm for the monasteries he founded, both male and female. In the Rule for the Servants of God, in fact, the only discipline that is imposed on those who choose to live in a monastery is that of "dilectio", that is, the continuous exercise of love for God and one's neighbour.

The value of friendship did not suffer in early Christianity from the hidden or obvious ambiguities belonging to some decadent areas of modern culture, which often, in a very irresponsible way, either love to cast suspicion on the friendship of those who choose the consecrated life (virgins or celibates) or, to the opposite extreme, have no interest in an ethical judgement of homosexuality and lesbianism.

Christ is basis of true friendship

The ancient world, in which Christianity revolved and developed, knew pedophilia, homosexuality, lesbianism, but such behaviour was not passed off as friendship. Among Christians of the patristic era we find evidence of these sins, often among the ascetics themselves, but they were considered a deviance, without their casting any shadow of suspicion on the cenobitic life of men or women. Among the cenobitic monks of the Christian East as also among those of the West, love of one's neighbour was the rule for living together, and it could hardly fail to become deep friendship. The friendship of Basil the Great for Gregory of Nazianzus, of Macrina (Basil's sister) with her companions, like that of John Chrysostom and Olympias, became symbols of Christian living for the Eastern Church; the friendship of Augustine with his companions in the ascetical life, of the virgin Demedrias of the Anici family with her handmaids who had chosen the consecrated life, of Jerome with the group of women on the Aventine are still a point of reference for the Western Church.

As we said above, Augustine brought the understanding of friendship to the anthropological level of human existence as such. He included it in the list of common goods, like freedom, etc., that is, among the inalienable goods of human existence. Man, unable to live human life as a friend, deprived of reciprocal communication with his fellow creatures, would live not in a communion worthy of human beings but in the slavery of those who pursue illusions. Friendship leads to that communion with one's fellow man which is true mutual knowledge. Without friendship, human relations would be mediated not by the reality of persons as they are and reveal themselves to be, but rather by the idea that they reciprocally have of each other, that is, by inconsistent illusions, as Augustine puts it. If friendship belongs to the category of common goods, i.e., offered to everyone by nature itself, it is inconceivable that it could be enjoyed only by the few endowed with a sensitive heart. Every human being must therefore be taught how to form friendships and be enabled to enjoy them. A human creature who is deprived of this good could not live his life at a human level, which presupposes reciprocal communication. The Christian Augustine also introduced Christ as the basis of friendship able to assure its durability and nourish its genuineness in prayer.

In order to understand the very rich meaning of many Augustinian statements on friendship and the vast patristic literature on this subject, we must return to the standpoint of Christian thought. As an example we quote some pithy phrases of Augustine: "In earthly things nothing is dear to man if he does not have a man as a friend" (Ep. 130, 4). "Nobody knows himself except through friendship" (83, q. 71, 5), because "every heart is closed to another heart" (Enarr. in ps. 55, 9).

In concluding these brief comments about the Fathers' evaluation of sexuality and friendship, we cannot fail to express our perplexity at some modern literary and cinematic attempts to raise the suspicion of homosexuality with regard to the great figures of Christian antiquity and the fundamental experiences that have resulted from the Gospel message. It is clear that these attempts cause widespread discredit to be cast on the healthiness of human relations between friends, in particular those who have chosen celibacy or the consecrated life and live in the same house. Often this discredit is fueled by inquiries and interviews about true or alleged deviances by consecrated or celibate persons, the results of which are presented as true information. Today's believer, besieged by so much suspect information, wisely examines his age-old Christian experience in order to find there guidelines and norms whose unexceptionable validity is confirmed by the remarkable success of a vast throng of witnesses.

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Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
9 April 1997, p. 10


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