The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology
By Mark D. Jordan
University of Chicago Press. 190 pp. $24.95
Of the writing of histories of sexuality there appears to be no end. The products of this growth industry (including works by Michel Foucault and John Boswell) are typically ambitious in scope and uneven in execution. The latest entry in this crowded field is a modest volume, although grandly conceived, by Mark D. Jordan, a professor in the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame. The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology, a poignant, deeply personal book, essays a critique of medieval Christian teachings on homosexuality. Jordan appears variously angry, puzzled, and saddened at the vehemence of the medieval Christian condemnation of sodomy. The book’s thesis is simply put: In discussing homosexuality medieval texts are characterized by “unstable terms,” “unfaithful descriptions,” and “inconsistent arguments.” The first fault Jordan associates with St. Peter Damian, the second with Alan of Lille and St. Albert the Great, and the third with St. Thomas Aquinas.
The book’s dust jacket announces a series of extravagant claims about the deconstruction of the Christian tradition to be found between its covers; fortunately, Jordan is too careful a scholar to bear more than a passing resemblance to the author trumpeted by the publisher. Indeed, he carries on a series of skirmishes with established gay historians in the footnotes, gently correcting their often unwarranted claims.
Jordan argues that the term “sodomy” was coined by St. Peter Damian (1007-1072), the zealous hermit and monastic reformer, thus “essentializing” homosexual acts. Jordan, however, acknowledges that “Sodom” had signified barrenness and sexual misconduct since the New Testament and male sexual crimes contra naturam according to the testimony of the Fathers (e.g., St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Gregory, et al.). By the seventh century the term “sodomite” was synonymous with male sexual perversion.
Given the Church’s unbroken witness of the first millennium, the author would seem to be guilty of committing the fallacy of misplaced concreteness in placing so much credit or blame at the feet of St. Peter Damian. The denunciations of this vice by the reformers and also in medieval penitentials and decretal literature are related to the association of sodomy with priests and monks. St. Peter Damian’s remarks were directed to the court of Pope Leo IX. The course of the papacy in the tenth and early eleventh centuries, prior to the advent of the reforming German popes, represents a nadir in the history of that institution, a “century of lead.” Jordan fails to take into account the context of the eleventh century reformers and the then recent, scandalous history of the papacy.
Jordan devotes a good deal of attention to the twelfth-century early scholastic, Alan of Lille, who wrote an epic poem entitled The Complaint of Nature in which a personified “Natura” complains about the unnatural acts of humans. Jordan disputes the logical consistency of Alan’s interpretation of the laws of nature. Alan conceived his argument in terms of natural law and exhibited a fondness for grammatical metaphors. Like most medieval thinkers, Alan saw a connection between grammar and nature. Grammar was a subset of ethics; for Alan, homosexuality violated the laws of nature just as a solecism disturbed the laws of grammar. Sodomy upsets the natural order of verbs, predicates, and noun declensions. When a man becomes passive in the sexual act, according to Alan, “he is (both) subject and predicate.” Alan depicts the correct healing of natural and grammatical dysfunction in his portrait of the creation of the “new man” in the Anticlaudianus, his poetic sequel to The Complaint of Nature, and a work that Jordan does not discuss.
Jordan is clearly more comfortable when considering the works of St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas. His earlier study, Ordering Wisdom: The Hierarchy of Philosophical Discourses in Aquinas (1986), is a well-regarded contribution to the understanding of St. Thomas. For St. Albert homosexual intercourse is a sin against grace, reason, and nature. Jordan laments “Albert’s refusal to think coherently,” that is, his citation of Arabic lore on most medical topics in contrast to his appeal to Christian moral teachings when it comes to homosexuality. Although Jordan rescues St. Thomas from the misreadings of other gay historians (such as John Boswell), he finds what he describes as “instabilities” in Thomas’ denunciation of sodomy as the unnameable vice that more than other sins is against nature and against God.
A close reading of several scholastic texts with an eye toward holes in the argument suffers from the same flaws as Jordan’s earlier treatment of monastic authors. Insufficient attention is paid to the historical and cultural contexts of these arguments. Why is it, asks Jordan, that so much energy is expended on denunciations of sodomy compared with the more lenient treatment of other sins in the medieval catalogue of vices, say, murder, usury, simony, or adultery?
Why, indeed. Medieval monastic and scholastic authors presumably had less pastoral experience than did the regular clergy with murder, adultery, and usury, or even with standard clerical sins such as simony, nicolaitism (clerical marriage), and concubinage. As members of male religious houses, however, Benedictine monks (like St. Peter Damian) had in common with Dominican friars (like Saints Albert and Thomas) a concern for the moral, spiritual, and psychological health of a same-sex religious community.
In his concluding postlude Jordan poses the question, “How does one honor the tradition while being faithful to the Gospel and to the impulses of God in the present?” He notes that Christian moral teaching has undergone sea changes in other areas-for example, the ethics of slavery and the conduct of war. Jordan argues that the biblical condemnation of homosexuality is not a proclamation in the face of social prejudice but a capitulation to it. In any reexamination of what it means to have a tradition, says Jordan, the first principle is the “rule of love.” “Words spoken from some motive other than love are not moral teaching at all.”
Well, yes, and that and a token will get you on the subway. What it means to have a tradition, presumably, is to enlarge our conception of democracy by extending the franchise, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, by giving our ancestors the right to vote. Here Jordan is guilty of what he accuses his opponents of doing, a tendency to “magnify what is microscopic and ignore what is enormous.”
In his conclusion Jordan appeals to the “Gospel’s priority of spirit over body,” criticizing Christianity’s degeneration into “fertility cults.” “The Christian criterion of fertility, of parenting, of filiation, is not bodily. That much was worked out with painstaking care in the early trinitarian debates.” Jordan defends “the deeply unbiological character of Christian love” in a remarkably confused passage that combines a Gnostic contempt for the body with a plea for the Christian church to “come out” and endorse homosexual pleasure.
What it means to have a Christian tradition, Jordan seems not to understand, is to “think with the Church” (sentire cum ecclesia) a little more clearly than he does on, among other topics, incarnation, embodiment, creation and procreation, family, community, and sexuality.
Paul A. Dietrich is Professor of Religious Studies and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Montana.