There is a reason why when Christians give up Christian sexual morality, they sooner or later give up Christianity. The Biblical rules of Christian sexual conduct are inextricably rooted in a particular vision of what the human person is, under God, and how believers are supposed to treat the material world, their bodies (and the bodies of others) first of all. Whatever the German Catholic and Anglican bishops think, it is not possible to reconcile contemporary sexual morality, including homosexuality, with Christianity. It simply cannot be done. Those who believe it can are lying to themselves.
That image above is a sculpture of the early church virgin martyr Cecilia in the Roman church that bears her name, in the city’s Trastevere neighborhood. The photo is by Richard Stracke. The sculpture is made from a description of an eyewitness who said the saint’s incorrupt body looked like this when the tomb was opened in 1599.
As I’ve written in this space in recent days, my trip last week to the ruins of the ancient Asia Minor cities, where the Seven Churches of Revelation met, jarred me into considering the vast difference between early Christian ideas about sex and sexuality, and that of the polytheistic Roman world in which the Christians lived. Curious to know more, I bought and read historian Kyle Harper’s 2013 book about how the advent of Christianity caused a sexual revolution in Rome of late antiquity. It’s really quite something. Let me tell you what I learned, and what it has to do with our situation today. It’s more complicated than you might think.
In Rome (the term I will use to describe the entire Empire), sex was seen as something very different than how even post-Christian morality sees it today. Harper says that sexual acts were judged solely as a matter of “social reproduction” — that is, affirming and reproducing the social order. That was an order that gave maximum privilege to freeborn Roman men; freeborn Roman women, though, were strictly confined to matron status. Freeborn men were entitled to have sex with unmarried women not of their social class, and also with men — but they were strictly forbidden from being the passive partner in gay sex. (Indeed, the word “gay” is inappropriate here, as male sexual desire was considered to be fluid; you were not thought to be exclusively homosexual just because you enjoyed sex with males.) The fundamental principle governing sex acts was that “a sexual act was composed of an active and a passive partner, and masculinity required the insertive role.” Sex with boys and girls was considered normal. Slaves and prostitutes were treated as subhuman under Roman law and custom, and were the sexual playthings of free Roman men.
It is hard to overstate the mass suffering this social order caused. Writes Harper:
Slave ownership was not just the preserve of such super-rich aristocrats, though; the sheer extent of slave owning meant that the mechanics of Roman sexuality were shaped by the presence of unfree bodies across the social spectrum. One in ten families in the empire owned slaves; the number in the towns was probably twice that. The ubiquity of slaves meant pervasive sexual availability. “If your loins are swollen, and there’s some homeborn slave boy or girl around where you can quickly stick it, would you rather burst with tension? Not I—I like an easy lay.” Slaves played something like the part that masturbation has played in most cultures: we learn in a book on dream interpretation that if a man dreams “he is stroking his genitals with his hands, he will obtain a slave or slave-woman.”
Nothing summarized the abject depravity of Tiberius as his use of young slave children on Capri. Nero’s reputation for philhellenism and debauchery fused in his three reputed marriages to eastern eunuchs. Eunuchs did in fact come to occupy an ever more important place in pederastic practices of the Roman Empire; Domitian, whose favorite was a eunuch cupbearer named Earinus, banned castration within the empire, but the transfrontier trade was able to pump eunuchs into the empire at a sufficient level that their prominence continued to gain into late antiquity. The outsized villainy of Commodus could be seen in his incest and voyeurism, his three hundred concubines, and his infamous behavior, in which he “polluted every part of his body and hi mouth, with both sexes.
Nobody cared about slaves and prostitutes. They were non-persons. But their presence in society was absolutely required to maintain the social order. Sex for the Romans was all about the erotic embodiment of class and gender roles. Harper puts it succinctly here:
The sexual culture of the high Roman Empire was dominated by the imperatives of social reproduction. The symphony of sexual values, in all its various movements and complex harmonies, was set to the rhythms of the material world: early marriage for women, jealous guarding of honorable female sexuality, an expansive slave system, late marriage for men, and basically relaxed attitudes toward male sexual potential, so long as it was consonant with masculine protocols and social hierarchies. Moral expectations were in tune with social roles, and social roles strictly determined both the points of release and the rigid constraints in ancient sexual culture. The value of a sexual act derived, first and foremost, from its objective location within a matrix of social relationships.
Homosexuality, understood as male-on-male sex, was everywhere present in Rome — but again, it would be an error to think of pre-Christian Rome as the French Quarter with togas. Harper:
Yet despite the vitality of various forms of same-sex erotics in the high empire, it would be a grave mistake to say that the Romans had anything resembling tolerance for homosexuality. The code of manliness that governed the access to pleasures in the classical world was severe and unforgiving, and deviance from it was socially mortal. The viciousness of mainstream attitudes toward passivity is startling for anyone who approaches the ancient sources with the false anticipation that pre-Christian cultures were somehow reliably civilized toward sexual minorities.
The most despised sexual figure of all in Roman society was the kinaidos, an effeminate male who was the passive partner in male-male couplings, and always ready for sex. This is but one example of how the reality of Roman mores confounds any attempt to read contemporary sexual values onto late antiquity. Sex back then was what you did, not who you were. Modern notions of “sexual identity” would have made no sense to the Romans.
Harper writes with banked horror at the enormity of prostitution in Rome, and its connection to the slave trade, and to Roman economic life. Sex trafficking, as we would call it today, was a fundamental part of Roman social and economic life. The historian’s tone is even throughout the book, but he is at his most passionate imagining the immense suffering of countless enslaved women and girls, compelled to service Roman men, even to the point where, in the words of one observer of the era, the exhausted women looked like corpses. Is there any wonder why Christian sexual morality was greeted by the poor as liberation?
It is true that a small minority of Roman philosophers opposed the robust eroticism of their culture, but Harper says it’s a serious mistake to think of the early Christians as simply siding with the few Roman conservatives. Christianity’s conception of sex and eros, an essentially Hebraic one, was radically different, and opposed to Rome’s. For St. Paul and the early Christians, sex was bounded by gender. It cannot be overstated how much they despised homosexuality. And like the Romans, sex expressed a concept of the social order that entailed a concept of the human person. In the world of antiquity, people were fatalistic, chalking up their behavior to destiny written in the stars. Not so with Christians, who taught that every soul bears the image of God, and is morally responsible:
For Christians, there could be no ambiguity about a matter so fundamental, and so eternally consequential, as the cause of sin. Nothing—not the stars, not physical violence, not even the quiet undertow of social expectation— could be held responsible for the individual’s choice of good and evil. The Christians of the second and third centuries invented the notion of free will.
(Harper discusses briefly the teaching of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus on free will, but dismisses it as meaningfully connected to Christian teaching, which was of course vastly more influential.)
Moreover, for the early Christians, sex had everything to do with cosmic reality. That is, it mattered very much to God what one did with one’s body, because He expected His servants to subdue the passions of the flesh to the divinely mandated order. Christian marriage, for example, is an icon of Christ’s relationship to the Church. Prostitution and other forms of porneia (Paul’s catch-all term for illicit sex) are tied to idolatry — the worship of false gods. For the Christian, the sexual disorder of the Roman world was inextricable from its polytheism.
The severity of early Christian writing on sex had a lot to do with the fact that the apostles needed to convince the tiny new religious community to keep itself separated from the corrupt majority culture. After Christianity became the religion of Late Empire, the tone would moderate somewhat. Harper:
Indeed, the strident tone of so much early Christian writing on sexuality was nurtured in an atmosphere where the advocates of the religion were a small, persecuted minority. Christian sexual morality of the second century has a shrill tone precisely because it is the urgent message of an embattled, if confident, group of dissenters.
… For three centuries, Christian sexual ideology was the property of a persecuted minority, and it was deeply stamped by the ability of Christians to stand apart from the world, to reject the world. From the fourth century on, Christian sexual morality would be ever more deeply enmeshed in the world. The break was not necessarily sharp: there were married Christian householders from the earliest days of the church, and the ascetic movement carried on the world-rejecting style of the early church. But the changing center of gravity was decisive.
As Philip Rieff has elsewhere observed, sex was the linchpin of the Christian social imaginary. Harper writes, “Nowhere did the moral expectations of the Jesus movement stand in such stark contrast to the world in which its adherents moved.” The Romans might well have asked the same question as our modern post-Christians: Why does the Church care so much about sex? The answer then, as now, is: Because the way we exercise eros has everything to do with how we regard the human person, and even cosmic reality.
Harper does not like the word “fornication,” for good reason: it sounds so churchy and stilted. Its use by St. Paul, though, refers to all illicit use of sex. Harper:
Paul’s reflections on fornication, like a stone on the river bottom that suddenly catches the light, reveals the unexpected depths of the term’s meaning. Fornication was not just a marker of ethnic differentiation, providing a template of sexual rules setting God’s faithful apart from the heathens. Paul’s understanding of fornication made the body into a consecrated space, a point of mediation between the individual and the divine.
You see? Early Christian teaching did not come out of hating the body, but from regarding it as holy. More:
In the thundering introit of the letter, it becomes evident that for Paul the sexual disorder of Roman society was the single most powerful symbol of the world’s alienation from God. Paul draws on the deeply rooted association between idolatry and sexual immorality: sexual fidelity was the corollary of monotheism, while the worship of many gods was, in every way, promiscuous. But in Paul’s hands the association was transfigured into a fearful comment on the human condition.