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In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, homosexuality, hypocrisy, by Frédéric Martel

17 May 2019

Mark Dowd tries to sift fact from innuendo in a Vatican gay exposé

“HELLO, Your Eminence, my name is Frédéric Martel: you may have heard of me. Some time ago, I wrote a book called Global Gay, but now I am working on Sodoma, a book about homosexuality and hypocrisy in the Vatican. I wondered whether you could set aside a couple of hours for a frank, no-holds-barred chat.”

“How splendid. Let me just consult my diary. I can’t think of anything more exciting than talking openly to a dangerous journalist on this most sensitive of subjects.”

I am fairly sure that the author of this book did not operate in this manner in securing interviews with more than 40 cardinals. Yet he claims, over four years, to have spoken to more than 1500 people at the Holy See. It prompts a simple question that raises doubts regarding the author’s modus operandi: what on earth did he tell them his book was about?

In more than 500 pages, he unearths, rarely by hard facts and often through nudge-nudge innuendo, enough material to cement his overriding thesis: the Roman Catholic Church is publicly so anti-gay, because it is so gay (“of the parish”, in clerical code). Inverted homophobia on a massive scale.

This is a quite maddening book. As a piece of organised writing, it is a complete mess. There is no index, nor any obvious logic to the progression of chapters, and, at its worse, it descends to the kind of gossip that one might overhear on a chance visit to the hairdressers.

Take Martel’s visit to Archbishop Renato Martino’s quarters. Inside the chapel at his residence, “I discover the Holy Trinity of LGBT artists: Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Caravaggio.” Goodness me, assuming the same guilt-by-association Martel logic, any self-respecting heterosexual might walk around the Uffizi and miraculously emerge overwhelmed by lust for the same sex. This sloppy approach reaches new heights when Pope Benedict XVI (referred to as “our Queenie”) is mocked for his notorious Gammarelli red shoes. Is he or isn’t he? We shall never know. Maybe he won’t, either.

Yet all this is a pity, because Martel has performed an important service in his four years of research. The section on the hypocrisy of the now deceased publicly homophobic Colombian cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo and his preference for sadistic sexual encounters with rent boys is revelatory, shocking, and important. It is important not because it is sensational, but because it allows a more knowing world to interpret public anti-gay utterances from senior prelates in a different light.

Some eminences have been protesting far too much, for far too long, it appears, none more so than in Cuba. This is one of Martel’s particularly strong sections, unearthing a Church at the highest clerical levels of such dysfunction and mendacity that it is offered as a straw that broke the camel’s back of Pope Benedict’s pontificate after his visit to the Caribbean in March 2012.

At its best, In the Closet of the Vatican (to give it its English title) casts light on the implications of secrecy for a wider Church. There is, it states, a link between orientation and priestly abuse. Not the causal one, rooted in same-sex preference per se, but, as the author states on page 92: “behind the majority of cases of sexual abuse 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 other words, Martel is on stronger territory when he discusses all this as a “system” and not such as a series of disconnected tales of tittle tattle.

A more truly analytical approach could have drawn out further implications. If the figure of gay men in the senior ranks is as high as 80 per cent, as one well-placed former Vatican official claims, this inevitably leads to questions of some import. Is the continued preference for celibacy, at least in part, a sub-conscious desire to secure the clerical closet (allow marriage, at least of the heterosexual variety, and a young seminarian would have some explaining to do if he remained in the single state)? What of the debate on the ordination of women, if one reasonably presupposes the presence of a historical trenchant misogyny within some (but not all, by any means) priestly gay ranks?

A world in which individuals do not feel free to state calmly who they are and cast off secrets — is this conducive to the flourishing of the gospel and challenging, honest Christian ministry? Had Martel drawn out these pressing questions from his, at times, eyebrow-raising research, he would have elevated his own work on to an altogether different plane.

Mark Dowd is a former Dominican friar who now works as a freelance writer and broadcaster specialising in religion.


In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, homosexuality, hypocrisy
Frédéric Martel
Bloomsbury £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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