Book Review: In the Closet of the Vatican

In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy by Frédéric Martel (English translation by Shaun Whiteside, Bloomsbury, 2019)

Before reading this book, I thought I had a fair idea of the high proportion of gay clerics in the ranks of the institutional Church. After reading it, I realise that I had badly underestimated the gay presence, and the level of corruption, in the Church’s central government. Like the author, Frédéric Martel, I have of course no problem with priests, bishops and cardinals (not to mention popes) being gay, or even seeking to find for themselves appropriate ways to give physical expression to their sexuality. But I do take issue with double standards, and the remarkable construction and preservation of an artificial and unintelligible “moral theology” and moral discipline motivated by the energy generated by the internal conflict of countless homophobic (and predominantly gay) Church leaders.

Frédéric Martel recounts that this book began to take shape in 2015, after an encouraging meeting with the Italian editor Carlo Feltrinelli. He had already been exploring the topic of homosexuality in the Church for over a year, and was looking for a way to address the topic. In the acknowledgements at the end of the book he gives some figures to illustrate the extent of his research: 1500 interviews, including 41 cardinals, 52 bishops and monsignori, 45 apostolic nuncios, etc. The result is a rather intricate narrative, structured in sections corresponding to the pontificates of Francis, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI (in that order).

The picture which emerges is astonishing. A vast proportion of the curial officials themselves (cardinals, bishops and high-ranking monsignori) are gay or “homophilic”, with a high proportion of those likely to be homosexually active in some way. Worse still, there is clearly more or less widespread culture of trading sexual favours for protection or promotion. Inevitably then there are fierce jealousies, and plenty of fear and blackmail. In the midst of this all are those particularly tragic figures who think of their own weakness for other men to be a shameful private misfortune and refuse to believe that so many of their colleagues are caught up in the same reality, sometimes with little restraint in seeking outlets for their passions.

The underlying theme is one of hypocrisy. He shows that many of the men responsible for draughting or promoting harsh homophobic decrees and teachings have been themselves notoriously conflicted homophiles. He notes that the more sexually active of the high-ranking curial officials seem to feel they are covering their tracks by frothing at the mouth about the damaging effects of sexual liberation and the “gay lobby”.

I was particularly drawn by the testimony of a number of his interviewees who had left the priesthood, having occupied significant roles in the curia, and found peace and wholeness through a process (often long and difficult) of re-learning what it really means to be human. And likewise angered by the stories of those who never found a way to overcome the dark and painful alienation caused by the Church’s repressive attitudes to sex and homosexuality.

Martel comments that he was often surprised at how readily some of his informants seemed to want to talk, as though they wanted to lance a boil in the hope of beginning to heal a foul wound. It will come as no surprise to the reader that the author could not have collected his information without promising confidentiality on many levels. Furthermore, the legal and moral restraints on reporting about living persons adds its own layer of anonymity. As a result, the reader can sometimes feel that the narrative evaporates into vagueness and innuendo. Martel will on occasion offer conjecture on the basis of his own hunches. But he is clear enough about his multiple evidence for many claims that I find most of his conclusions persuasive.

The translation seems on occasion to get bogged down in excessively literal terminology and phraseology which sometimes disturbs the flow and obscures the meaning of the text. The structure too, grouping his evidence around the various pontificates, makes for a certain amount of repetition and circularity, given that some of the issues persevere or recur in more than one papacy. If these or other factors make the book difficult to read, I think it is well worth persevering to get the full force of the narrative. Martel has given ample evidence of a very deep and very real wound at the heart of the Church. It must be healed. John Paul and Benedict have made this healing process even more difficult to achieve by heavy-handed doctrinal pronouncements. Yet, as Jesus said, “by their fruits shall you know them”, and the fruits of homophobic teaching and discipline are inevitably hypocrisy and profound injustice.

Edward Bruce

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