Theology of the Odd Body: The Castrati, the Church, and the Transgender Moment

Leah Mickens

Transgender issues have become a major concern within the last few years, both in popular culture and in the realm of public policy. Once dismissed as mentally ill, transgender people are demanding the right to have their lives, their bodies, and their identities taken seriously by mainstream society.

For conservative religious bodies such as the Catholic Church, which have yet to reconcile themselves with the existence of cis-gender lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and asexuals, this “transgender moment” must be particularly baffling. To my knowledge, there has been no official statement from Rome explaining how “orthodox” Catholics ought to make sense of transgenderism (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, for example, makes no mention of the subject), but this passage from a December 2012 speech by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI seems to be as authoritative as anything else on the matter:

According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed. The words of the creation account: “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27) no longer apply. No, what applies now is this: it was not God who created them male and female— hitherto society did this, now we decide for ourselves. Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist. Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will. The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned. From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be. Man and woman in their created state as complementary versions of what it means to be human are disputed. But if there is no pre-ordained duality of man and woman in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation . . . When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being. The defense of the family is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man.

Benedict links the ability for transgender people to change their sex to blurred gender roles, the denial of God, the breakdown of the “traditional family,” and the usual ills religious conservatives attribute to the growing acceptance of LGBT rights. For conservative theologians such as Benedict, being male or female takes on a transcendental meaning, so that any attempts to alter gender roles, much less external genitalia, is interpreted as mocking God’s intentions to place each person in a specific body for a specific reason. Humans are either male or female, men and women, with nothing in between.

What then, are we to make of the castrati?

For readers unfamiliar with this term, castrati were male singers castrated in childhood to preserve their high singing voices into adulthood. Castrated males have existed for a variety of reasons since antiquity, but the castrati were a peculiar creation of the Christian church. For much of its history, the Catholic Church believed that the New Testament prohibition of women speaking in churches (see 1 Corinthians 14:34 and 2 Timothy 2:12) extended to singing, meaning that the soprano and alto parts in church music needed to be sung by young boys or adult male falsettists. However, neither of these options was considered ideal, especially for the complex polyphonic music that emerged in the sixteenth century. Boy sopranos by nature had short careers, because the inevitable effects of puberty changed the timbre of their voices, and their small larynxes made it difficult for them to project their voices in large cathedrals and chapels—a not insignificant problem in the centuries before electronic amplification. Falsettists had the vocal prowess that boy sopranos lacked but produced an inferior sound that lacked sonorous depth.

The castrati combined the pure sound of the boy soprano with the lung capacity of the adult male to create a unique sound that has no equivalent in the singing voice of the intact male or the adult female. However, producing a castrato required parents to have their sons forcibly castrated, usually between the ages of six and nine. A boy who survived the crude operation (many died from blood loss or overdosed on the opium or cheap alcohol that was used to sedate them) was then placed in a music school, where he would endure a brutal regime of music instruction that would last until he was in his middle to late teens. Those students who succeeded at their studies were placed in choirs in churches, cathedrals, and chapels; failures faced a life of penury and loneliness, as there was no place for the castrati outside of a musical setting.

The first castrati entered the Sistine Chapel Choir in the late sixteenth century. They quickly became a staple of church choirs throughout Italy, particularly in the Papal States. The Catholic Church’s employment of castrati ran counter to canon law, which forbade the deliberate amputation of body parts except in the case of medical emergencies, but the popularity and skill of castrati singers was such that their existence was rationalized as a means of glorifying God through music. The peculiar charm of the castrati voice soon found a home in the new art form of opera, and some superstar castrati such as Farinelli (born Carlo Broschi, 1705–1782) and Caffarelli (born Gaetano Majorano, 1710–1783) were the object of hysterical devotion by fans across Europe. Since it was considered unseemly for women to appear on stage in many countries during the Baroque era, castrati often played male and female roles in opera performances, as the intense musical education the castrati received made them more technically versatile than normal adult singers of either sex. Famous classical composers including Handel, Mozart, and Johann Christian Bach wrote music specifically with the castrati voice in mind; Philip V of Spain so loved the voice of Farinelli that he kept the famous castrato as his personal performer for twenty-two years. Far from being fringe characters, the castrati were a vital part of sacred and popular culture for hundreds of years.

The castrati had a peculiar “in-between” status in European society, in that they were biologically male but weren’t considered men in the social or psychological sense. Canon law forbade them from getting married (though some did anyway under false pretenses), which prevented them from enjoying normal family life. Although most castrati worked in ecclesiastical settings, they were forbidden from becoming priests because their incomplete anatomy disqualified them from being acceptable as an “other Christ” in the Mass. Castrati were also forbidden from serving in governmental posts or in the military. The effects of prepubescent castration caused the castrati to develop unusual physical features, including excessive height, stoutness, unusually long limbs, and hairlessness, particularly as they aged. Some castrati had more feminine features and were subject to accusations that they led “honest men” into homosexuality with their sexual ambiguity. Run-ins with pretty androgynous castrati pepper the memoirs of noted sexual adventurer Giancomo Casanova, including this one: “In the middle of the confusion
, I saw a priest with a very attractive countenance come in. The size of his hips made me take him for a woman dressed in men’s clothes, and I said so to Gama, who told me that he was the celebrated castrato, Beppino della mamana. The abbe called him to us, and told him with a laugh that I had taken him for a girl. The impudent fellow looked me in the face, and said that, if I liked, he would shew me whether I had been right or wrong.”

As Casanova’s anecdote implies, it was not unusual for some castrati to become the sexual favorites of high-ranking prelates in the Church, much to the indignation of Christian moralists and social reformers. The association of the castrati with homosexuality and effeminacy, combined with the widespread distaste in which performers in general were held by “respectable” people, meant that even the richest and most famous castrati were viewed as freakish musical adepts at best and degenerate monstrosities at worst.

Despite the immense popularity of the castrati during the Baroque and Classical periods, changing musical tastes—as well as the gradual inclusion of women on the dramatic and musical stage—caused them to fall out of favor with audiences by the late eighteenth century. The “heroic tenor” became the preferred singing voice for leading male roles in the opera, and composers ceased writing music for the castrati. However, only the most skilled castrati ever worked in opera, as most of them were produced and employed for the purposes of singing in Catholic institutions. A more serious threat to the future of the castrati was the French Enlightenment, which considered the practice of forced child castration to be a perversion of the duty for parents to care for and protect their young. Rousseau, for example, accused the fathers of boys sent to be castrated of being little better than pimps, deploring the existence of “fathers so cruel as to sacrifice nature to fortune, and . . . submit their children to this operation that they may gratify the pleasure of the voluptuous and the inhuman.” Aside from the savagery inherent in the mass mutilation of children, the Enlightenment philosophes also believed that the castrati were “against nature” because they had been deprived of their manhood in every sense of the word and socialized to exist in a sort of sexual no-man’s-land between male and female. Noticing the sexual dimorphism that existed in many nonhuman animal species, Enlightenment thinkers regarded the sexually ambiguous castrati to be a violation of the natural order that seemed to decree a clear delineation between the sexes.

By the time of the French Revolution, castrati were considered a symbol of ancien regime excess and degeneracy that had no place in a modern republic based on reason and secular values. The Napoleonic Code, which outlawed castration for musical purposes, spread the French distaste for the castrati throughout Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. Thus, by the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church in general and the Papal States in particular constituted the only source of demand for the services of the castrati.

The Enlightenment critique of the castrati and the subsequent loss of France, the so-called “Eldest Daughter of the Church,” to revolutionary anti-clericalism and republicanism caused many in the Catholic hierarchy to regard any criticism of castration as an attack on the Church itself. Consequently, the castrati were still a presence in the Papal States, including the Sistine Chapel Choir, when the temporal kingdom of the pope was absorbed into the Republic of Italy in 1870. In fact, the only thing that finally ended the production of castrati in the former Papal States was the Republic of Italy imposing its law against castration on the areas in question. Although Leo XIII began phasing out the castrati from the Sistine Chapel Choir in 1878, I suspect his decision was based on the realization that Italy’s anti-castration laws would make it impossible to obtain replacements for retiring castrati, not because he thought that castrating children to sing in church was inherently wrong. Indeed, the last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, didn’t leave the Sistine Chapel Choir until 1902.

Given the Vatican’s long, sordid history as a castrati provider, it begs the question of why is it permissible to alter one’s genitals to sing in the Sistine Chapel Choir, as the castrati did for hundreds of years, but not okay to alter one’s genitals because one is transgender. Were the castrati mocking God when they took advantage of their artificially high voices to sing Allegri’s Miserere Mei during Easter? What about the thousands of people who profited from the castrati, ranging from the back-alley surgeons who performed the operations right up to the popes who employed them, most of whom probably considered themselves to be good, even orthodox Catholics? As with many of the Catholic Church’s more dubious actions, the existence of the castrati depended on hundreds of years of institutional support at the highest level, so the Church’s use of them cannot be blamed on the actions of a few misguided people.

The castrati issue needs to be raised more as a reminder that in the not-so-distant past, the Catholic Church didn’t have a problem with certain people modifying their bodies in ways that it would now consider to be “against nature.” In fact, the current Church teaching that a person’s birth sex should never be altered or blurred has more in common with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment view that the Church once found so threatening than its own previous opinion that considered the existence of a perpetual eunuch class to be essential to the operation of the Church. The Catholic Church of the Baroque and Classical eras could appreciate and exploit the sense of the grotesque and the uncanny that castrati evoked, whereas the contemporary Church must defend a rigid gender binary to justify its reactionary teachings on the all-male priesthood, LGBT rights, and the role of women. The production of the castrati also happened within a Catholic context that the hierarchy was able to control and from which it could benefit, whereas transgenderism is a secular phenomenon based on modern ideas about the ability of the individual to craft one’s own identity free from traditional constraints such as religious dogma, family pressures, or biology. At least modern transgender people are deciding of their own volition as to whether they want to change their gender, rather than being forced into it by some combination of parental greed, poverty, or the Church, and they are slowly receiving the respect that the castrati never received from their own societies.

Further Reading

“Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI on the Occasion of Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia.” December 21, 2012. Official website of the Vatican. Accessed February 7, 2015.

Feldman, Martha. 2009. “Denaturing the Castrato.” The Opera Quarterly 24, no. 3-4: 178–99.

Franklin, James L. 2010. “The Castrati: A Physician’s Perspective, Part 1.” Hektoen International: A Journal of Medical Humanities, Spring. Accessed February 13, 2015.

Hatzinger, Martin, Dominick Voge, Matthias Stastny, Friedrich Mol
l, and Michael Sohn. 2012. “Castrati Singers—All for Fame.” Journal of Sexual Medicine 9, no. 9: 2233–2237.

Jenkin, J. S. 1998. “The Voice of the Castrato.” Lancet 351, no. 9119: 1877.

Leah Mickens is currently a PhD student in relgion at Boston University. A researcher and freelance writer whose work has appeared frequently in Free Inquiry, she wrote “The Real Old-Time Religion: Magic, Superstition, and the Challenge to Fundamentalism” in the April/May 2015 issue.

Leah Mickens

Leah Mickens is an independent scholarly researcher who is currently a PhD student at Boston University in the Graduate Division of Religion. She has previously conducted archival work at major repositories of southern U.S. history. Mickens is a frequent contributer to Free Inquiry.