Book’s Re-Release Inspires Debate on Same-Gender Marriages in Church

John Boswell’s 1994 book, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, stirred up controversy when it was first released with claims that Christianity once blessed same-gender relationships. Nearly twenty years later, Boswell’s work has started new conversations in light of shifting Christian opinions on LGBT equality and the book’s re-release in digital form this month.

In Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, Boswell, a history professor at Yale University and a gay Catholic man who died soon after the book’s initial release, claimed that ancient churches included liturgies uniting two men which were essentially same-sex unions. The blog i09 details more about the author’s research:

“Poring over legal and church documents from this era, he discovered something incredible. There were dozens of records of church ceremonies where two men were joined in unions that used the same rituals as heterosexual marriages. (He found almost no records of lesbian unions, which is probably an artifact of a culture which kept more records about the lives of men generally.)…

“Boswell had actually begun his research back in the 1970s, and published an equally controversial work in 1980 called Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. His Same-Sex Unions book refined and expanded a lot of what he’d learned over a lifetime of research into primary sources in scattered libraries and archives.”

Indeed, Boswell found texts of many of these union ceremonies in the Vatican library itself.

John Boswell

Though Boswell died a year after the book’s publication, debate continues over claims that Christian churches were essentially holding same-gender unions because of the modern implications this might have. With polls consistently showing high Catholic support for same-gender marriage rights, the discussion of sacramental marriage is inevitable. Assuredly debate over finer points in the book will continue, but i09 identifies the larger point about marriage and change that is the reason Boswell’s book has left many optimistic:

“Were these same-sex unions in the middle ages the same thing as today’s gay marriages? Probably not. People at the time may not have viewed two men forming a union as anything out of the ordinary. Marriage itself meant something different thousands of years ago, and social taboos against homosexuality had not yet solidified. Still, in Boswell’s work, we find records of institutions where same-sex couples were honored with the same ceremonies that opposite-sex couples enjoyed. Two men could live as ‘brothers,’ sharing wealth, home, and family. And yes, they could love each other, too.

“Though Boswell died before his country began to allow similar kinds of unions, he could draw hope from knowing something that most people did not. Even the most fundamental kinds of human relationships change over time. Those who have been banished today may be blessed tomorrow — just as they were over a thousand years ago.”

If you wish to read Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, you can find it in digital and hard copy on

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

3 replies
  1. Friends
    Friends says:

    Indeed, I remember the book, and the furious denials and negations it provoked among the “Opus Dei” clique of super-orthodox politically-right-wing Catholics! In retrospect, I’m surprised it was never (to my knowledge) mentioned here previously. It’s definitely worthy of renewed discussion — and I’d be thrilled (as would we all!) to hear Pope Francis’ own personal response to the work

  2. Stephen Sottile
    Stephen Sottile says:

    I reread the book recently and some of the more vile attacks against it. No one can deny that these ceremonies occurred and no one can deny his critical review of the evolution of the concept of marriage from Jewish to Roman and ultimately civil and canon law. Marriage was not even a full sacrament in the RCC until the Council of Trent. The footnotes and the document translations in the work are compelling and it really begs a discussion of the matter. I am not sure that the relationships blessed in Boswell’s work were the full equivalent of modern same-sex marriage (personally, I think there was a celibacy requirement) but that is part of the discussion.

  3. Annette Magjuka
    Annette Magjuka says:

    In light of the lethal laws in Uganda and now Russia, it is time for all Christians, and specifically Catholics, to stop discussing and start acting. The church has been “in dialogue” my entire lifetime regarding the ordination of women. While all this talking has been occurring, women are being discriminated against and marginalized. The time for dialogue regarding the right of GLBT people to live with dignity and to be included in all sacraments, including ordination and holy matrimony–this time should be OVER. It is now an issue of life and death. The Catholic church blew it during the Holocaust. It is time for unequivocal statements and action. ACTION.


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