The Catholic Church has passed down many things that they should be ashamed of. Certainly, the castration of young men in order that they might retain their ability to keep hitting the high notes is not the single worst legacy of the Catholic Church. But it certainly wasn’t their shining moment, either. Come to think of it, what exactly would qualify as the Catholic Church’s shining moment? Hmm, let’s see: burning books of wisdom through the ages, killing out other competing Christian sects, those whole Galileo and Joan of Arc dealios. Nope, I’m at a loss.
So how does the Catholic Church fit into the story of castrati? Well, it all goes back to that bipolar apostle whose words, unfortunately, have appeared to hold a greater place in the construction of the Church than the words of Jesus. Remember how St. Paul during one of his less lucid moments admonished that women had no place in the Church? This, despite the fact that it had only been the women who hadn’t turned tail and run screaming like…well, certainly not women…when the chips were down and the Romans were rounding up anyone who had been close to Jesus. So, even though it had been women who had been loyal to Christ up to the end, and not men, brilliant St. Paul banned women from the church. And my oh my, hasn’t that worked out well?
Removal of the gonads to ensure high voices was discovered at some forgotten time in the early days of the AD period, and by around the second century after Christ it was already a boom business. It was the movement toward writing Christian choir pieces that really put a fire under the business of castration, however. But did the Catholic Church actually endorse the castration of young men to produce high voiced singers? You might look at how the Catholic Church reacted to the news that priests were raping young men (and girls) for guidance on the issue. To all outward appearance, the Vatican looked down upon this practice. And yet for well over 1500 years Catholic choirs across the world featured impossibly high-voiced teenaged boys. Of course, castrati were hardly relegated only to churches. Powerful Cardinals had their own private choirs and guessed who led them? Yep. Castrati. And why would young boys submit to this gross violation of God’s will? Well, they wouldn’t, of course.
So where did castrati come from? From the desperation of Catholic families who told that any form of birth control was an abomination, but who were also expected to tithe half their income to the Church. Yep, you guess it: priests paid families for the privilege of castrating their sons and were instructed to tell anyone who asked that the child had been involved in an unfortunate incident with a pig. You think I’m kidding, right? I’m not.
Again, however, there is another fact to this tale that absolves the Church of some of its guilt, though not much. Opera was not exactly interested in stories of Christian virtues and morality and opera employed nearly as many castrati as Catholic choirs.