St Louis & Adelphopoiesis

JMJ

By way of Introduction: this paper was for Church History with Dr Kevin Clarke. The assignment was to imagine I was teaching RCIA at a parish named for a “controversial” saint. A member of the class raises an objection to that saint, how do I respond? Further, the same person feels that (pick a common objection from Church history) is very important and wants me to address it. Some possible examples were the Inquisition, the Crusades, etc. As I did not understand the reasons people disliked King St Louis that was my pick for the Saint. I had decided to go with dispelling a common myth about “the Burning Times” (which didn’t happen) when, as I was writing the paper, the CDF dropped a document. The Responsum triggered a memory of reading bad history – John Boswell’s Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe – and I pictured my RCIA challenger citing Boswell’s quotations of actual church liturgies and asking why we couldn’t do these rites now. The assignment limited me to 2,000 words with a 200 margin either way. I made it at 2195, but my first draft of the St Louis section was 3,000 words long. There is so much more to say about St Louis and the Talmud! But the accusation of Islamophobia seemed more realistic a question at this time as much as the question about same sex unions seemed more realistic in San Francisco today than the one about the Burning Times. This is how papers are born, I guess.


SPEAKING ABOUT THE BIG statue of St Louis riding a horse on Art Hill in St Louis, MO, Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation in that city  says “If we’re not honest about our history we will never be able to dismantle the systems of oppression that we are living under.” (Haaretz 28 June 2020) Dislike for St Louis the king is focused in St Louis the city, there are echoes of the protest in other places. The objections to him are that he was antisemitic and anti-Isalm. We will have time tonight to look at the issues around Islam. 

The crusades are the entirety of the argument for the “Islamophobia” of our Patron Saint. Louis was fighting Muslims. It is very easy to see this as a badge of what we understand to be racism today. It carries quite clear marks of it: fighting Muslims because they are Muslims. This idea of branding as evil all Muslims because they are Muslims is one we should oppose. But it’s not one that we can use against Louis. 

Our patron saint is renowned for his piety, his charity, and his bravery. He is also known for his skills as a governor and a diplomat. He is devoted to his wife. An article in Christianity Today says he called his wife a “girl of pretty face, but of prettier faith” which I really like, but I can’t find a source for that anywhere else for that quote. The Catholic Encyclopedia at New Advent says he always followed his mother’s advice  I would rather see you dead at my feet than guilty of a mortal sin. And they cite him as saying The peace and blessings of the realm come to us through the poor. He took his family with him on the crusade. The Church teaches Louis’ holiness in that she has named him a Saint. 

Beggars were fed from his table, he ate their leavings, washed their feet, ministered to the wants of the lepers, and daily fed over one hundred poor. He founded many hospitals…. a man of sound common sense, possessing indefatigable energy, graciously kind and of playful humour, and constantly guarding against the temptation to be imperious. (Catholic Encyclopedia)

Our secular age teaches us “religion” and “everything else” are different categories. This was not so for King Louis IX: there are times when we want to say he was “acting religious” when, in fact, he would not see it that way. Founding hospitals and feeding the poor are works of charity, certainly, but they are also acts of government. They are “secular”. But not in France at this time. For another example, while he was on Crusade, he allied with some Muslims – helping out some Muslim kingdoms if they would help him. He also reached out to the Golden Horde, pagan Mongols who were part of the invasion/migration from the east seen as enemies by all the peoples in Europe and the Middle East. These could be seen as political choices. But they are also religious.

In the 21st Century, we see Louis as a “Christian King” of “the Nation of France” while imagining 13th Century France to be the same as today: a cultural and economic center, diverse and largely “like us”. That is, we think of 13th Century France as a secular state ruled by – almost by accident – a Catholic King, just as we may elect a Catholic President or a Masonic one. However, France was not a modern, secular state ruled by a leader who was accidentally (if very piously) religious. Pick up a copy of Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX, by Andrew Willard Jones (Emmaus Academic, 2017). There’s an entirely different worldview here: one where the whole understanding of things is religious.  

Muslim states today and in Louis’ time work in the same way: systems where “sacred” and “secular” are woven as tightly together as they were for Louis’ France. Yet we often imagine them as mirrors of our modern, secular way of life where there just happens to be a Muslim veneer as we have a Christian one. We visualize the Muslims of the Middle Ages in their peaceable kingdoms attacked by Christians from the west. The image is one of trying to win converts by the sword. 

Yet Louis was not out to convert Muslims. Neither was the war about eradicating their religion, nor one of territorial expansion. St Louis’ crusade was one of liberation

In Syria, Muslims had conquered some Christian towns and were enslaving the people there. Louis decided (on advice from allies) to conquer some Egyptian towns and hold them for ransom: to make a trade. This is very much a modern war tactic, still: Israel traded Palestinian prisoners for one soldier in  2011. It’s secular politics, sure, but this also sounds like the charism of the Trinitarians who were always Louis’ spiritual advisors: To the Glory of the Most Holy Trinity and to Ransom Christian Captives. We might wonder at the means the King chose for his ends, but see the weaving of political and religious here: how hard it is to dissect them. He is fighting “systems of oppression that we are living under” using the best means of his day – diplomatic alliances (even with “bad people”) and ransom.

Jones offers a very brief account of a conflict between Louis and some bishops asking him to enforce some declarations of excommunication. The king said he would look into the issue and enforce it if the action was just. The bishops replied that to let him investigate that way would be to “give the king cognizance of what pertained to [the Bishops]” – letting him snoop in on religious matters. But Louis replied that for him to act without first determining the justice of the matter would be to “give [the bishops] cognizance over what pertained to” the king. The idea of “church and state” is not valid when we look at Louis’ France. Louis is not imposing Catholic ideals on a secular order, but rather embodying the ancient idea of Sacred Kingship as a Catholic. The State is seen as sacral, as part of God’s plan for working out our salvation. Louis acts as a Catholic king, sacramentalizing his actions. 

Viewing Louis through our modern eyes we miss something of what CS Lewis called (in his The Discarded Image, 1962) the Medieval Synthesis “the whole organisation of their theology, science, and history into a single, complex, harmonious mental Model of the Universe.”  Lewis thinks of this Model as sharing equal standing with Aquinas’ Summa and Dante’s Divine Comedy. The three form a Map for a reality we can no longer see or even imagine in our world. We can see, though, these three pillars of this reality – the Summa, the Comedy, and the Model of reality – as manifestations of our Catholic Faith. 

Catholic means whole. Our faith seeks an integral whole. One of the ancient Eucharistic Prayers, going back to the 2nd Century (maybe the 1st) refers to the bread as coming from grain “scattered on the hillsides” and gathered into one loaf (Didache). We like things in separate boxes not touching each other: the work box, the God box, the leisure box. Life can’t be divided that way. My life is not 8 hours of customer service for a website and then a couple of hours for God. I’d break: and so will all of us. So will our world if we divide it only further. Catholicism seeks to bring it all together into one loaf to offer it to God in thanksgiving (Eucharist).  Let us ask for the intercession of our Saint Louis to help us see the world we are seeking to offer to God, not cut up into parts, but offered as one whole in Christ.

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Rabbi Talve said, “If we’re not honest about our history we will never be able to dismantle the systems of oppression that we are living under.” It’s important to realize that we are part of the “oppression” she indicates: the idea that Christianity is the fullness of God’s Truth and that we – as Christians – are not only morally obligated to act as such, but that we believe in our hearts that doing so will make everything better for everyone – including those who reject our ideas or Truth. Allowing the world to drift away from Christ’s Kingdom through our inaction or because we’re afraid of what people will say allows things to fall apart.

The question we received was about John Boswell’s 1994 book, “Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe” wherein he posits the idea of a liturgical tradition of blessing same-sex couples. These rites exist: they are called “Adelphopoiesis” or “brother-making”. Common in the whole church until the 14th Century,  continuing in the East until the 20th, the rite is a blessing whereby two people of the same sex adopt each other as siblings, usually two brothers but sometimes two sisters. Boswell argues that the rite of Adelphopoiesis was a cultural continuation of the sexually intimate (mostly male) couples of ancient Greece and Rome. He implies that the Church simply adopted this cultural practice and that modern opposition to such couples is a relatively recent development in theology. The book includes English translations of the rites.

This week the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a document called a Responsum (Response) answering a Dubia (doubt or question). This document was called, Responsum of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding the blessing of the unions of persons of the same sex, and it was answering the question, “Does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?” The Responsum never says “Adelphopoiesis” it reads as if whoever posed the original question was holding the book and asking, “Can we do these rites?” Tl:dr Negative. Then the fewmets hit the windmill.

The use of Adelphopoiesis rites in the past to bless what we would call “gay relationships” assumes that our ancestors had these relationships to bless.  Boswell makes a leap many moderns do assuming (with a wink) that these were obviously sexual unions, even though this goes against the teachings of the Church. Boswell reads our modern assumptions into the past: a person’s identity is based on their desires. This is a type of what CS Lewis called “Chronological Snobbery” in Surprised by Joy: we know better than our ancestors about things like sex and know more about our ancestors than they did – especially in areas like sex. We know that when those people did these things they really were doing what we do even if they didn’t have the words for it. Critics of Boswell point out the use of these rites as political tools, ways to cement family alliances, and also ways to officially recognize reconciliations between opposing factions. Theological critics point out the historic teachings of the church on sexuality.

The modern idea of “sexual desire = identity” trips us up. If one’s desire defines oneself then should not the Church allow for the self to be celebrated? The theological response to that question is not our topic tonight but it is important to see that it is a new question

While there were women and men engaging in such actions, some arguing them to be good or neutral, the idea that these actions constituted a different type of person is very new – only about 100 years old. David F. Greenberg’s 700-page tome, The Construction of Homosexuality (University of Chicago, 1988) argues that  “homosexual” is a category that we have now as a result of the rise of market economies. Greenberg suggests the idea of “gay” is very modern. The only thing more recent than “gay” is “straight” which was formed in reaction to gay as a label. In 2014, First Things magazine published an article called “Against Heterosexuality” that rehashes much of this: worth a read.

Try reading ancient writers commenting on the morality of sex without reading  our ideas of identity into them. Paul did not condemn “alternative identities” nor did Jesus ever talk about “gay relationships” because those things did not exist as social categories. We cannot imagine their silence to indicate their approval any more than we should imagine their silence on television to be a sign of approval of Game of Thrones. Jesus and Paul discussed sexual sin.

This idea of “sin” is one that causes great concern in today’s society. It seems to be one of the “systems of oppression”: simply a way in which the church tries to control people. In fact, many Catholics seem to believe this as well. 

The Church sees her teachings on the human person as liberation. Being “honest about our history” includes being honest about the history of human sin. We remember that the Church’s teaching is freedom is not the ability to do whatever one wants but rather the ability to do the good. As Catholics, the culture of do whatever you will is the system of oppression from which we seek liberation. 

Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He has worked in tech (mostly) since 1999 and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.