Hearsay Hermeneutics: SEX, SEXUALITY AND IDENTITY IN THE HEART OF THE CHURCH.
IT IS MANY DECADES SINCE, AS A freshman at Notre Dame, I met my first openly gay Catholic--a junior. He was extremely devout, to the extent of running the almost Byzantine chanting of nightly evensong in the Log Chapel by St. Mary's Lake. At the time, open questions about sexuality and Catholic belief were nearly nonexistent, and the most sympathetic response was to refer to the issue as "a pastoral problem." After enough time in the confessional, and numerous discussions among a group of us, my friend blurted out at last, "I am so tired of being a fucking pastoral problem!"
That was the 1970s, and here in 2019, the Catholic church is again ablaze in controversy over, you guessed it, the "problem" of homosexuality, no longer in the quaint chapels of provincial American universities but in the very center of Roman Catholic power--the Vatican itself. Two explosive, though highly unreliable, documents have made sexuality the filter through which we see Catholic politics, policies and tensions. On August 25, 2018, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, former Nuncio to the United States, published his "Testimony," in which he first castigated members of the Curia for protecting then Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, despite his long record of sexual predation and then, startlingly, called on Pope Francis to resign for his alleged role in the affair. Along the way, Vigano asserted the existence of a cabal of cardinals actively defending and promoting gay ideologies and prelates, identifying several of them by name.
Less than one year later, with Vigano's allegations still reverberating through the Catholic world, Frederic Martel's equally explosive In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy (Bloomsbury, 2019) appeared. Somehow the title of the French original does it more justice: Sodoma. Juicy, flamboyant, lurid even, Martel's book is distinguished by the freedom its author--an openly gay journalist with excellent connections in places high and low--feels to discuss and assess the matter of homosexuality and homophobia in the Vatican and throughout the Catholic church. Most important, by timing if not by design, Martel has written the "anti-Vigano" testimony, though at far greater length.
To comprehend the parallel universes described in these texts, one should turn first to the sordid events that occasioned Archbishop Vigano's wrath. McCarrick himself had just resigned from the College of Cardinals in July of 2018, after being removed from public ministry of any sort following widespread allegations in June. Vigano's letter details the string of rumors and accusations reaching back decades to McCarrick's time as archbishop of Newark. For Vigano, though, the story was less about July of 2018 than about the years following 2000, when individuals--including Vigano himself--were bringing charges against McCarrick in secret. Vigano was mystified by the apparent lack of action (though he claims to have later learned that, by 2010, Pope Benedict had secretly imposed sanctions similar to those outlined publicly by Pope Francis) and then again by McCarrick's seeming rehabilitation after the election of Francis in 2013. Despite a long trail of abuse, sanction and cover-up that predated Francis's election by more than a decade, Vigano exempted both John Paul II (too sick to act?) and especially Benedict xvi from fault:
"I do not know when Pope Benedict took these measures against McCarrick, whether in 2009 or 2010, because in the meantime I had been transferred to the Governorate of Vatican City State, just as I do not know who was responsible for this incredible delay. I certainly do not believe it was Pope Benedict, who as Cardinal had repeatedly denounced the corruption present in the Church, and in the first months of his pontificate had already taken a firm stand against the admission into seminary of young men with deep homosexual tendencies. I believe it was due to the Pope's first collaborator at the time, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who notoriously favored promoting homosexuals into positions of responsibility, and was accustomed to managing the information he thought appropriate to convey to the Pope."
The original complaint of 2000 had been delivered to Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, whom Vigano accused of repeatedly covering for and even promoting the appointment of clerics known to have abused minors or seminarians. For Vigano, the crime lay not with these two stalwart conservative popes, but instead with a curial cabal of homophiles, who had also been active in promoting progressive and "deviant" causes, for example, toleration of LGBT activities at Georgetown University. To the Curia, Vigano added "the deviated wing of the society of Jesus," now in the majority, with members like Congressman Robert Drinan, S.J. ([dagger]2007) and Vincent O'Keefe, S.J. ([dagger]2007, former president of my employer, Fordham University). A "sad recent example of that deviated wing of the Society of Jesus" is "Father James Martin, S.J. ... appointed Consultor of the Secretariat for Communications, well-known activist who promotes the LGBT agenda, chosen to corrupt the young people who will soon gather in Dublin for the World Meeting of Families."
Regarding Pope Francis, Vigano's central claim is that, despite knowing of McCarrick's censure by Pope Benedict, "It was also clear that, from the time of Pope Francis's election, McCarrick, now free from all constraints, had felt free to travel continuously, to give lectures and interviews." Francis also immediately relied on McCarrick as a "Kingmaker" in clerical appointments. These US appointments furthered the interests of a "pro-gay ideology," which refused to acknowledge that it was homosexual behavior, rather than "clericalism," that lay at the center of the abuse scandal. Francis' accommodation and even promotion of this ideology, at least passively, is the sin that demands his resignation.
For Vigano, the McCarrick affair confirmed the existence of a left-leaning pro-gay cabal among the Curia that is responsible for the doctrinal and moral laxness afflicting the 21st-century church. Clerical sexual abuse, the scandal that will not go away (besides McCarrick, 2018 witnessed the depressing account of how widespread clerical sexual abuse was in a single US state--Pennsylvania--over a period of 70 years), is--to the archbishop--a result of permissiveness towards homosexuality that allows, perhaps even encourages, gay men to seek ordination.
In his book, Francois Martel also claims to detail a gay culture among the Curia, but takes a far more widespread approach than Vigano's carefully selective account. Reading Martel, Vatican City itself seems more a clerical Christopher Street than the chaste home of celibate prelates and priests, full of secret codes and nicknames, given double lives led in the Vatican by day and in the Roman demi monde at night. Martel's inside informant, Francesco Lepore, estimated that 80 percent of the clergy in the Vatican are gay. This allows Martel to ask, rhetorically, "Priests and homosexuals: two sides of the same coin?" and to introduce the first of several "rules" that are key to understanding the Vatican closet: "For a long time the priesthood was the ideal escape-route for young homosexuals. Homosexuality is one of the keys to their Vocation." Ultimately, this leads to a form of "natural selection," in which "homophilic cardinals privilege prelates who have inclinations and who, in turn, choose gay priests." Following that, the second rule of the "closet" follows logically: "Homosexuality spreads the closer one gets to the holy of holies; there are more and more homosexuals as one rises through the Catholic hierarchy. In the College of Cardinals and at the Vatican, the preferential selection process is said to be perfected; homosexuality becomes the rule, heterosexuality the exception."
Martel does not stop there, for if the "celibate" population of the Vatican is so gay, how does one understand the widespread homophobia that seems so deeply rooted in the hierarchy? To explain this seeming contradiction, he introduces the two main rules of "the Closet" that govern his approach throughout the book, and it is not a coincidence that he introduces them in discussing the character of American cardinal Raymond Burke, more or less while observing the prelate's preciously appointed apartments in the Vatican. Burke, as many know, has become renowned as the conservative scourge to Francis' papacy, notorious for both extreme homophobia and Islamophobia. Referring to such extreme homophobia in the Vatican, Martel presents the third and fourth "rules" of the Closet: "The more vehemently opposed a cleric is to gays, the stronger his homophobic obsession, the more likely it is that he is insincere, and that his vehemence conceals something." And lastly, "The more pro-gay a cleric is, the less likely he is to be gay; the more homophobic a cleric is, the more likely he is to be homosexual."
One more statement completes the hermeneutic for Martel's tome. On October 24, 2016, Pope Francis celebrated mass at the House of Martha (Domus Sanctae Marthae), where many prelates reside. In his homily, the pope stated, "Behind rigidity there is always something hidden, in many cases a double life." Employing these tools, Martel turns the Vigano discussion upside down for the entire five-hundred-plus-page book. From his description of Cardinal Burke, his clothes and his domestic tastes, in the first chapters down to the papacy of Benedict towards the end, the author is unsubtle in identifying and skewering the hypocrisy of prelates who attempt to root out gay priests or blame them for the crimes of the abuse scandal.
One must note that Martel, unlike Vigano, is concerned with hypocrisy rather than political maneuvering and personal payback. In the Closet of the Vatican is a fierce book at times, but along the way it documents with great sympathy the men who inhabit this deliberately darkened closet. From his earliest interviewee, Lepore, to aged couples who spent their lives working for the hierarchy in organizations like Vatican Radio, Martel has a soft spot for many of his subjects. Weirdly, one of these soft spots is for Benedict xvi, Papa Ratzi himself. On the one hand, just as in describing Burke's apartments and flowing gowns earlier, Martel insinuates the pope's proclivities through his taste in fashion, stating, "But let's not misunderstand our queenie: here he is again, taking out of the cupboard a fluorescent red mozzetta with ermine edging." Even in Ratzinger's decidedly explicit (and obsessive?) condemnations of homosexual behavior, Martel can find a sublimated and aesthetic sensibility of homophilia worthy of Plato and even Oscar Wilde. And, [i]n the end, and more than when I began this investigation, I feel a certain tenderness towards this introverted, locked-up, thwarted man, for this tragic figure whose anachronism haunts me" (page 451). At this point, the less said about Georg Ganswein, the better.
Martel's goal is to describe the gay microcosm of the Vatican and the way in which its pervasiveness and hiddenness condition the behavior and character of the institutional Catholic church as a whole. The book, though, is hard to recommend or even review. So many claims are undocumented or demonstrated, either through innuendo or suggestion (Burke's domestic decor? Benedict's shoes?), that one cannot in good conscience credit them fully. Martel's gaydar may be unerring (and fun, by the way), but it is not proof. Neither are the rules he establishes early on (suggestive though they may be) sufficient, and they fail occasionally. McCarrick was not known as a homophobe, after all. As for Burke, distasteful as I find him and his politics, his deep homophobia does not prove closeted homosexuality any more than his equally deep Islamophobia shows him to be an Islamophile practicing sharia at home. Much as I sympathize with (and even mostly agree with) the author, I can't review the book favorably.
That, however, is not the end of the story, for both in Martel's tome and Vigand's screed, the issue of sexuality--male sexuality--is at the heart of Roman Catholic clerical identity and even politics. In the Curial cabal identified by Vigano, it is a "pro-gay" ideology that drives all the other issues, whether or not the prelates themselves are gay (as one can, however, infer). Thus, McCarrick's softness on abortion is inseparable from his fondness for seminarians, and even Martel's rules of the Closet stipulate that gay prelates, by natural selection, draw into their orbit gay priests and more gay prelates. One might note here that McCarrick, ironically enough, was ordained in 1958 by none other than Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, himself notorious for his homosexuality (and notorious homophobia). Vigano, along with other arch-conservatives, seeks to root out these tendencies by preventing gay men from the priesthood in the first place. Martel, though, thinks that openness, acceptance and transparency are the answer that would allow the Vatican and its inhabitants to celebrate their true identity.
For both, though, the focus is on men--whether or not the Vatican is homosexual, it is thoroughly homosocial, a male institution in the eyes of these authors and polemicists. One seeks in vain for the presence of women in either version of Catholic society, a constant in the history of the religion. Its leaders one and all prefer the company of men to women. The institution is a lopsided mutation of human society. The recent controversy reinforces the fact that the Catholic church operates by and for men, and that the greatest threat is less the clerical abuse scandal than the sudden insecurity of male identity. Perhaps the real solution, though, is to introduce into this boy-dominated domain the other half of humanity, with their concerns, experiences and insights. That would be a matter of justice, but it might also help cut through the toxic masculinity that distorts Catholic culture as much as it does American life. An important fact to consider is that most of the prelates who appear in both Vigano's screed and Martel's book, along with a great number of abusive priests, were ordained in the 1950s or shortly after. They were not the products of the "sexual revolution" or a Vatican Council that conservatives consider the root of the problem. Instead, they came of age at a time of supposed glory and triumph for the Catholic church worldwide and in America. This means that, when I met my old friend at Notre Dame, the culture Martel describes and Vigano castigates was already in place. Its consequences beyond the walls of the Vatican are apparent everywhere in the lives of the faithful, men and women, straight and gay. The truth is that only when this exclusively homosocial and male culture changes, and changes radically, will that first gay Catholic I met some 40 years ago cease to be a fucking pastoral problem.
DAVID MYERS IS professor of history at Fordham University. He holds a PhD from the Department of Religious Studies at Yale.