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From gay pope orgies to daydream romance, can history soften Catholicism?

‘Gay brain’ scientist Simon LeVay’s new book is historical fiction but can the real homosexuality of past pontiffs encourage Pope Francis to embrace LGBTI equality?

From gay pope orgies to daydream romance, can history soften Catholicism?

Homosexuality is a good thing – and that’s as true for popes as it is for regular mortals. But because the Catholic Church considers homosexuality a ‘moral disorder’, we’re not likely to hear good things about gay popes. If we hear anything about them at all, it’s in the context of shocking misdeeds.

The 11th century Pope Benedict IX, for example, seized the papal throne by force of arms on three separate occasions; he also established a male brothel in the Lateran Palace and presided over unspeakable orgies there. Even the pope-friendly Catholic Encyclopedia says he was ‘a disgrace to the Chair of Peter’.

In my just-published novel, The Donation of Constantine, I portray a very different kind of gay pope. This one, Stephen II, lived in the eighth century, when popes still took their jobs seriously.

That he was gay is an invention on my part –we have no record of his sexuality. What we do know is that Stephen saved Rome from destruction by the Lombards. This he did by forming an alliance with the Frankish King Pepin the Short (the father of Charlemagne).

In my novel Stephen’s homosexuality plays a significant role in bringing this about. Without giving away too much of the plot, I can say he falls under the spell of a teenage Muslim slave who accompanies him on a long journey to the Frankish court. What transpires on that journey convinces Stephen that popes must go beyond their tradition role of spiritual guidance and compete for control of medieval Europe.

The novel has many other elements besides an aging pope’s attraction to a curly-haired Arab; these include a forged document (that’s the ‘Donation’), a saint’s coffin that breaks open at an inopportune moment, conspiracy, spell-casting, murder, a flood, two heterosexual love affairs, two sieges, and a pitched battle.

But in spite of all this action, the book’s overall theme is a psychological one: the power of transgressive love in people’s lives.

I’m a neuroscientist whose research and writings about the ‘gay brain’ have gained me a degree of fame or notoriety, so you may be wondering what I’m doing writing a historical novel set in early medieval Italy. I actually started thinking about the novel when I was a teenager in England, over half a century ago, and before I became interested in science.

I read the historical facts behind the story in a book by the then 90-year-old British philosopher Bertrand Russell. (He and I were once arrested and jailed together, but that’s another story.) In addition, I had seven years of Latin in school, and this made it possible for me to read the ancient texts that fleshed out Pope Stephen’s history – so my schooldays weren’t wasted after all.

I didn’t get to write the book until very recently, when I had a scientific career and 11 previous books – most of them science-related non-fiction – under my belt.

I decided that it was time to get a bit more creative, so I and my partner Mike went to Rome to do the onsite research required to give the book its sense of place and time. We stayed in Trastevere, or Transtiber, the ancient working-class district where the ‘little people’ of my novel lived, far removed from the luxuries of the papal palace.

Whether the real Pope Stephen was gay or not, I’m sure there have been other popes whose homosexuality has been a positive force in their lives. It’s too bad that their stories are lost to history, because they could have inspired today’s Catholic leaders, from Pope Francis downward, to look more favorably on gay people – both within the Church and outside of it.

Simon LeVay is a British-American neuroscientist. He is globally famous for his studies about brain structures and sexual orientation which transformed nature-nurture debates about homosexuality.

His new novel, The Donation of Constantine, is available from Lambourn Books.