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Pope Francis delivers his message from the window of the Apostolic Palace overlooking St. Peter's square during the weekly Angelus prayer on February 10, 2019 at the Vatican. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)

ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images

  • Title: In the Closet of the Vatican
  • Author: Frédéric Martel
  • Genre: Non-Fiction
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury
  • Pages: 576

Bernard Lonergan, the great Canadian Catholic theologian, once said: “The church always arrives on the scene a little breathless and a little late.” LGBTQ rights is one key scene to which the church is now arriving: Pope Francis has made historic gestures of love in the direction of queer people. But, why the institutional lateness?

Gay French journalist Frédéric Martel supplies some answers in his controversial new book, In the Closet of the Vatican, released on Feb. 21 in eight languages. Martel reports that a majority of prelates in the Vatican are gay. Many of these are celibate. But a striking number of the celibates, as Martel describes, are nonetheless deeply invested in an old-fashioned gay identity: campy, aesthetic and gender-bending. Many others are sexually active. A large number of those are discreetly partnered. Others employ adult male sex workers of various kinds, with differing degrees of frequency.

The exact number of queer men in the Vatican hierarchy is of course hard to pin down. But Martel insists that the number constitutes a majority, and may be as high as 80 per cent. Pursuant to Martel’s argument, the prevalence of gay men at the Vatican helps explain homophobia in the Church. The more homophobic the church leader, Martel reports, the more likely he is to be queer. The closeted cardinals thus seek to distract from their own sexuality with a universally painful smokescreen of anti-gay teaching.

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The research is damning because it’s credible. Martel researched his book full-time for four years. His 1,500 interviews included conversations with 42 cardinals, 52 bishops or high-ranking prelates, 11 Swiss Guards and 45 Holy See diplomats, in 30 countries. For significant periods of time, Martel actually stayed on Vatican grounds, supplied with apartments by gay priests eager to help the work. Some of his interview subjects provide information because they have axes to grind. Others simply yearn to be free.

One strength of Martel’s book is its description of the fascinating diversity of queer identities in the Vatican, across the spectrum of politics, philosophy, and sexual and artistic taste. Yet Martel reports that there are also sad, uniting factors. Conspicuously, these include (even among the moderates) misogyny and a general moral cowardice.

To his credit, Martel is compassionate to the gay cardinals and particularly to those who try to create some justice. He tenderly evokes the “homophile,” apparently celibate relationship between Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and his younger companion, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein (known as “Gorgeous George” in the media, owing to his conspicuous masculine beauty). “At the heart of the Church,” Martel writes, “in a highly restricted universe, priests are living out their amorous passions while at the same time renewing gender and imagining new kinds of family.” Benedict and Gaenswein (and their gay Vatican colleagues) are thus rendered with an ironic dignity.

Pope Francis is evoked as both helped and hindered by the queer men of the Vatican, in his quest for truth. Martel quotes conservative gay Catholic theologian James Alison to the effect that the papal court contains an “intra-closet war” – between moderate gay men, who support Francis’s desire for reform, and self-loathing gay men, who do not.

Pursuant to Martel’s argument, this war colours the Church’s response to clerical sex crime, and specifically to child rape. It is not, of course, that gay people are more likely than straight people to be child rapists or other kinds of predators. Rather (as Martel narrates), it is that bad precedent is created by the gay prelates’ personal coverings-up. The queer cardinals refuse to take strong action against sexual assault, for fear of drawing attention to the fact that they are gay. Martel thus describes an unholy circle: self-loathing begetting inaction, hypocrisy begetting false teaching, and around again.

Contrary to some of its press coverage this week, the book is not sexploitation. If the story is sensational, this quality is not because of any decision of Martel’s. The author has been criticized for discussing some of the identifiable living with innuendo. But in such a unique case, innuendo seems more just than stark outing.

Nor is the narrative anti-Catholic. Martel writes from the perspective of a secular Frenchman blessed with an appreciation for the riches of the Thomist philosophical tradition. For Martel, the scandal is not that the relevant prelates are gay. Rather, the scandal is the hypocrisy of a church that has such a leadership while at the same time condemning queer members.

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For many Catholics, the broad strokes of this report seemed like old news. What is new is the clear picture of gay life in and around the Vatican that Martel so expertly paints – from moving tableaux of love and self-loathing in the cardinals’ rooms, to the complexities and frequent harshness of the queer sex work scene in Rome’s downtown. What is also new is the fact of the hypocrisy’s sheer vastness. Those Catholics who have guessed that much of their hierarchy is gay turn out to have been right on a more spectacular scale than they ever could have known.

Marshall McLuhan, arguably the deepest of Canada’s Catholic intellectuals, wrote: “We drive into the future using only our rear-view mirror.” As Pope Francis drives the Church to a greener pasture, seeing in his wisdom that it is better to arrive late than never at all, the history Martel provides may prove instructive to the flock.

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