In the Closet of the Vatican: power, homosexuality, hypocrisy
by Frederic Martel
Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019, 576 pp
In his just-released book In the Closet of the Vatican: power, homosexuality, hypocrisy, French gay activist Frederic Martel posits that the majority of the priests, bishops and cardinals in the Vatican are gay. “Up to 80 percent of them,” claims ex-priest Francesco Lepore, one of the key informants in the book, who left the priesthood to pursue a homosexual life, though other people interviewed give a lower figure, around 40 to 50 percent.
The Vatican is painted as a dysfunctional institution, rife with sexually active priests and bishops who frequent male prostitutes, and cover up their sins in ruthless ways. According to Martel, the omnipresence of homosexuals in the Vatican isn’t a few bad sheep, a dissident movement or a freemasonry inside the Holy See – it’s a system, a system based on settling scores, revenge, rumours and gossip.
At almost 600 pages this appears a serious book, fruit of four years of work, 1500 interviews in Rome and many other countries (including 41 cardinals and 52 bishops and 45 nuncios and foreign ambassadors), with over a thousand statements plus a further 300 pages of appendices to be made available in the web.
The author says he does not want to “out” anyone. As far he is concerned, he sees nothing wrong with cardinals, bishops and priests having lovers. “Not being Catholic, I couldn’t care less if they appear to be betraying their vow of chastity, or if they are in contravention of the rules of the Church … The profound hypocrisy of such clergy, however, is questionable: that is the principal subject of this book.”
What are we to make of this? By his own reckoning Martel’s count includes “practising homosexuals”, “homophile”, “initiates”, “unstraights”, “wordly”, “versatile”, “questioning”, or simply “in the closet”. “Homophiles” are those who have many homosexual friends. “Unstraight”, he explains, is a “neologism to describe a non-heterosexual or one who is sexually abstinent”. It seems even those who are faithful to their vow of celibacy are to be included.
In addition, for Martel, a handsome male secretary, a signet ring with a goldstone, a garish bed-cover, a set of ornate liturgical vestments… are all signs that the person in question is gay, or perhaps homophile, definitely unstraight… or at least in the closet. “Nothing is too small to have a meaning,” he admits. Apart from a few named individuals, a lot of the book is based on innuendo, rumour, gossip and hearsay, which makes it very easy to bump up the numbers. And several of the people so accused have now died and cannot answer for themselves.
But it is bigger. For Martel, the gay question is at the heart of the Church, and all recent controversies are to be interpreted with this in mind. Without this key, he tells us, the most recent Vatican history remains opaque: the release of and backlash against Humanae Vitae, the fall in priestly vocations, the rejection of condoms to combat AIDS, the Vatican bank scandals, Vatileaks… Everything is gay and gay is everything.
During the pontificate of John Paul II, we are told, “homophobia spread ad nauseam through dozens of declarations, exhortations, letters, instructions, considerations, observations, motu proprio and encyclicals, so much so that it would be difficult to list all the ‘Papal bulls’ here.”
Even Pope Francis’ famous expression that the Church should stop being “self-referential” is a “secret code to talk about practising homosexuals.”
And yet, the reality belies this. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a 1992 publication of John Paul II, fruit of the work of Cardinal Ratzinger, later Benedict XVI, homosexuality dealt with in three points out of a total of 2,865. Clearly the Catholic Church is not obsessed with homosexuality, even if Martel is.
Perhaps the main problem is that Martel cannot understand priestly celibacy, seeing it as an unnatural and impossible imposition, instead of what it is: giving up the exclusive love of one person to be able to love many people very intensely, in a total gift of oneself to God and other people. This high calling applies to all consecrated celibates, independently of sexual orientation.
Celibacy is of course a challenge, and often involves struggling against one’s passions or addictions with the grace of God. But it is a fruitful struggle, and many studies indicate that priests are found to have levels of personal happiness and “job” satisfaction far higher than the median.
It’s the “Maritain code”, Martel tells us. He is referring to Jacques Maritain, a French philosopher of the early 20th Century who allegedly had homosexual inclinations but who practiced abstinence all of his life, including within his late marriage. He also encouraged several homosexual friends to live a celibate life. Martel pokes fun at Maritain’s efforts to be chaste.
Martel explains, “Apart from Christ or St Thomas Aquinas, the other great preoccupation of Jacques Maritain’s life was the gay question… That’s Maritain’s secret, and one of the most hidden secrets of the Catholic priesthood: the choice of celibacy and chastity as the product of sublimation or repression.”
And he continues, “Settling the question of homosexuality through chastity, this form of castration, to give pleasure to God: Maritain’s idea, with its hint of masochism, is a powerful one … Sublimated, if not repressed, homosexuality is often translated into the choice of celibacy and chastity, and, even more often, into an internalized homophobia.”
Martel takes the side of discredited sexologist Alfred Kinsey, who is reputed to have said that “the only real remaining perversions were three in number: abstinence, celibacy and late marriage.”
He is surprised at a cardinal who in the preface to a book, “proposes for homosexuals neither “charity” nor “compassion” but total abstinence,” adding that this brings the cardinal in question “strangely to the position of many homosexual Catholic writers and thinkers who have placed value on chastity so as not to follow their tendencies.” Strange indeed.
Throughout one chapter he makes fun of the expression “loving friendship” assuming it must have an erotic dimension, and therefore poisoning the wells: the more friends a priest or bishop has, the more suspect he becomes.
This is the opposite of what the Church proposes to homosexuals, as God calls them to no less than the highest holiness, like everyone else in the Church. Ron Belgau, a homosexual Catholic who runs the website Spiritual Friendship, encourages people to give themselves to others in chaste friendship and to have many friends, like Christ did.
Should gay priests “come out”? No, suggests Fr Timothy Radcliffe, a former Master of the Dominicans now living in Blackfriars Oxford, who was interviewed for the book. In a review for the international weekly The Tablet, Fr. Radcliffe says: “Should priests go public about their sexual orientation? I have my doubts about that. If a priest speaks openly about being straight or gay, unless there is overriding need, this might make it harder for him to be pastorally available for everyone.” And then he adds, “I have never felt, with the thousands of priests that I have met, that their sexuality is of any interest or importance.” Fr Radcliffe also mentions that most of those priests were happy in their vocation and were living it honestly.
Pope Francis is the hero of this book, but Martel can’t quite make him out. Is he gay-friendly or a gay-basher? One moment he is welcoming a transgender man to the Vatican, the next one he is railing against gender ideology. One day he tells a gay man that God loves him as he is, and the next day he confirms the guidelines discouraging seminaries from accepting young men with deep-seated homosexual tendencies or who support the gay lifestyle. He is happy to receive a gay couple but just as easily speaks against gay marriage.
Martel’s perplexity is shared by some traditionalist Catholics who say Pope Francis sends confusing messages. But the Pope is only following the tradition of St Augustine who enjoined people to “hate the sin but love the sinner” or, in an updated version, “love the person but reject the ideology”. Francis does not like any ideology, from the right or from the left, and will resist efforts to be imposed upon. On the other hand, every single person is the target of his love, whoever they are, whatever they have done. He is trying to imitate God, who loves unconditionally.
Having said all this, there is an important truth at the heart of Martel’s book but it isn’t about sexual orientation. It is about integrity and therefore the ability of the Church to proclaim its message with credibility.
Most people at the Vatican work with great dedication for little reward, but some are living a double life, even if not as many as Martel claims. They preach one thing and do another. They have made vows and promises but secretly are not keeping them. They have lost their integrity.
They may even be desperately unhappy. Francesco Mangiacapra, a high class Neapolitan escort who made public the sex lives of 34 priests in Naples in a 1200 page document in 2018, reveals that “when I sleep with rich married lawyers, important doctors or all those priests with their double lives, I can tell that they aren’t happy.” In fact, if they are victims of violence, they never report it for fear of discovery.
Their double lives are subject to blackmail and therefore lead to corruption. Networks of secrecy and extortion arise. Mantel argues that this leads to covering up for other problems such as the sexual abuse of minors.
“Behind the majority of cases of sexual abuse,” says Martel in one of his 14 rules, “there are priests and bishops who have protected the aggressors because of their own homosexuality and out of fear that it might be revealed in the event of a scandal. The culture of secrecy that was needed to maintain silence about the high prevalence of homosexuality in the Church has allowed sexual abuse to be hidden and predators to act.” This is serious stuff.
Francis seems to get this. Rather than rail against homosexual priests (“if someone seeks God and is gay, who am I to judge?”) he repeatedly condemns hypocrisy and corruption.
In his famous Christmas 2014 address he mentioned, among the “15 curial diseases”, existential schizophrenia: “This is the disease of those who live a double life, the fruit of that hypocrisy typical of the mediocre and of a progressive spiritual emptiness which no doctorates or academic titles can fill.” And then the condemnation: “they create their own parallel world, where they set aside all that they teach with severity to others and begin to live a hidden and often dissolute life. For this most serious disease, conversion is most urgent and indeed indispensable.”
The reform of the Vatican Curia that Pope Francis is undertaking is not so much a structural reform (abolishing some departments and creating new ones) but a reform of the people. Those who are involved in corruption or live double lives, however high up in the Church, should repent and change their lives or leave.
In the measure that Martel exposes what is wrong with the individuals involved, he is contributing to the renewal of the Church and Catholics should be grateful to him for making them face this truth.
Jack Valero is co-founder of Catholic Voices.