Symposium Introduction

What kind of book is Frédéric Martel’s, In the Closet of the Vatican? Is it a work of serious investigative journalism, or is it dishy gossip meant to distract from serious discussions about clergy abuse? Maybe it’s French social theory using the homosexuality of the Catholic hierarchy as a case study. Some have described it as a complex, multifacted work, destined to be widely misunderstood, partly because of its campy humor, and mostly because of the filters through which it must pass: the sensationalism of the media, the casual homophobia of the public, and the malice of the network of right-wing Catholic blogs, Breitbart-style “news” sites, and supportive prelates intent on equating homosexuality and pedophilia. From another angle, it can be read as a work of queer studies, which provides a detailed account of a particular gay subculture. Perhaps it is some combination of the above.

The ambiguity of genre befits the ambiguities inherent in the topic of homosexuality in the Vatican. It is like a Rorschach test. I believe we can learn a lot from the responses. The most obviously revealing response comes from those who reflexively relate homosexuality to some form of corruption. This response reifies homosexuality and assigns it agency or causal power. That is how a priest’s homosexuality not only describes his sexual attraction to other men; it also causes, as if by magic, pedophilia, sexual abuse, moral decline, social degradation, and intellectual and spiritual darkness. The suggestion that gay priests are more likely to rape children, however, only works if homosexuality inclines anyone to do so. The response evident of mainstream journalists, no doubt playing into the publisher’s marketing strategy, have presented Martel’s work as salacious exposé. They focus on the suggestion that a great majority of Vatican officials are either gay men who have active sex lives or “homophiles” who replicate older forms of closeted gay culture. The implicit assumption is that homosexuality itself is somehow scandalous. Otherwise, such headlines wouldn’t be attention-grabbing. Another response, characteristic of liberal Catholics, concerns the timing of the book, which will be released on the day a major Vatican meeting about the abuse crisis is scheduled to begin. Will Martel’s book draw attention away from the response to that crisis? Worse: will it give fodder to the Catholic right, who are already weaponizing the clergy abuse crisis as they try to purge the priesthood of gay men? This defensive crouch, I think, concedes the framing of the narrative to the right.

Martel is not coy about what he thinks he’s doing and what it means. Using the methods of investigative journalism and relying on his advanced training in French social theory, he aims to uncover and detail “the homosexual sociology of Catholicism.” Martel clarifies the object of his study by contrasting it with the Vaticanologists who denounce “individual excesses.” “I am less concerned with exposing these affairs than with revealing the very banal double life of most of the dignitaries of the Church. Not the exceptions but the system and the model, what American sociologists call ‘the pattern’” (xiii). The system, constructed “on the homosexual double life and on the most dizzying homophobia” (xii), is expressed by 14 “great laws” or “Rules of the Closet” (xii). These rules, scattered throughout the sprawling and detailed text, return the reader continually to the systemic nature of his undertaking. I present them, decontextualized and in Martel’s words:


Rules of the Closet

  • For a long time the priesthood was the ideal escape-route for young homosexuals. Homosexuality is one of the keys to their vocation. (8)
  • 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. (10)
  • 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. (34)
  • 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. (41)
  • Rumours, gossip, settling of scores, revenge and sexual harassment are rife in the holy see. The gay question is one of the mainsprings of these plots. (60)
  • 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 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. (92)
  • The most gay-friendly cardinals, bishops and priests, the ones who talk little about the homosexual question, are generally heterosexual. (123)
  • In prostitution in Rome between priests and Arab escorts, two sexual poverties come together: the profound sexual frustration of Catholic priests is echoed in the constraints of Islam, which make heterosexual acts outside of marriage difficult for a young Muslim. (129)
  • The homophiles of the Vatican generally move from chastity towards homosexuality; homosexuals never go into reverse gear and become homophilic. (169)
  • Homosexual priests and theologians are much more inclined to impose priestly celibacy than their heterosexual co-religionists. They are very concerned to have this vow of chastity respected, even though it is intrinsically against nature. (176-177)
  • Most nuncios are homosexual, but their diplomacy is essentially homophobic. They are denouncing what they are themselves. As for cardinals, bishops and priests, the more they travel, the more suspect they are! (311)
  • Rumours peddled about the homosexuality of a cardinal or a prelate are often leaked by homosexuals, themselves closeted, attacking their liberal opponents. They are essential weapons used in the Vatican against gays by gays. (388)
  • Do not ask who the companions of cardinals and bishops are; ask their secretaries, their assistants or their protégés, and you will be able to tell the truth by their reaction. (537)
  • We are often mistaken about the loves of priests, and about the number of people with whom they have liaisons: when we wrongly interpret friendships as liaisons, which is an error by addition; but also when we fail to imagine friendships as liaisons, which is another kind of error, this time by subtraction. (538) 1


Martel believes these rules have vast explanatory power. They constitute a “key for understanding”: the nature of some magisterial teachings, the direction and emphases of doctrinal enforcement, along with a host of recent scandals, political and diplomatic intrigues, the shape of the misogyny of priests and prelates, Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication, the current curial and right-wing opposition to Francis, the pervasive cover-up of sexual abuse, and the decline of vocations in Europe (xii-xiv).

These rules elucidate the book’s central theme: the duplicity or double lives of many Church dignitaries. What is the system that empowers so many to lead double lives? Mainly, this involves describing the central characteristics of the system, discerning its effects, and relating them to one another. Martel collects fragments he finds in archives, hears in personal testimonies, and discerns through interviews, including in interview subjects’ unintentional but revealing slips. His book connects these fragments to only to the Church’s public teaching, but to the personal intellectual influences of senior Church leaders, to character profiles he develops, and to the broader culture of Vatican priests, bishops, and nuncios.

The organization reflects Martel’s systemic aims. Between the introduction and the epilogue are four main headings: Pope Francis, Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI. Each major section is further subdivided into chapters, which address various topics, influences, events, characters, or intrigues. Together, they frame how Martel has come to understand the power-structure, culture, and ideological underpinnings of each papacy. At the start of each chapter, Martel provides a chart that lays out the main characters in each pope’s inner circle: the pope’s personal secretary, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the Secretary of State, and those who work under him. Of the four popes, Francis is by far the most sympathetic. Martel presents his analysis as a complement to what Francis has suggested at various points about the rigidity of those who lead double lives.

Besides the theme of duplicity, there are other, less obvious threads that weave throughout the sprawling text. Martel often notes when he finds a living interview subject effeminate. I take this to mean that the man has activated Martel’s gaydar. I suspect that this book, released internationally, is subject to more than one set of libel laws. Martel also compares what he calls “the parish” of gays in the Vatican to different gay communities. This includes mainly the “practicing” or “very practicing” homosexuals and the non-practicing “homophiles” who maintain an older form of closeted gay life. This, I think, makes some sense of the book’s campy jokes and sometimes its severity. Martel also consistently notes when he is impressed by someone’s French. He also tends to highlight the influence of French literature, philosophy, and theology. It turns out a substantial number of Church dignitaries have been influenced by Martel’s canon of gay French authors. Martel is clearly, unapologetically French. He finds the French church/state arrangement optimal. His own “Catholic atheism” has been influenced by French philosophy. It corresponds to the progress narrative regarding matters of sexual morality and gay liberation. A theme that comes out, especially at the end, is Martel’s examination of the Church hierarchy and the society of priests as a specifically gay culture. The Epilogue briefly lays out Martel’s analysis, and it does so sympathetically and movingly. I hope he expands on it.

I’ve tried to frame In the Closet of the Vatican as a whole, partly so that I could make sense of the symposium Luigi Gioia and I have organized. Formal aspects of the work invite critical engagement, including the methodology, theoretical apparatus, and object of study. Methodologically, does it work as a piece of investigative journalism? What is the underlying social theory, and what should we make of it? Objectively, does such a system or pattern exist? What would it mean to describe it accurately? This raises further questions about Martel’s execution: his decision to include salacious details, to make insinuations, to joke, and even to jab. Is the rhetoric befitting of the topic? For example, was it really necessary to portray Cardinal Burke as a Liturgy Queen? It’s also possible, as some already have, to engage the book’s motives and speculate about its intended and unintended consequences: is Martel trying to help Francis? Will it backfire? Might it distract from clergy abuse or be weaponized to scapegoat gay priests? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s worth engaging the central, substantive theme directly. As Maeve Heaney’s essay aptly summarizes: “the paradoxical and duplicitous stance between rigid morality and obsession with sex that emerges from repressed, unaware, or unintegrated human sexuality; and how destructive this is when pervasive in” the church’s leadership. This invites engagement from both psychology and from theology.

The following symposium will eventually consist of 11 essays by scholars and practitioner, who engage the book from a variety of disciplinary perspectives: sociological (Guhin), journalistic (O’Laughlin and Martin), pastoral (Martin, Gioia, and Alison), psychological (Hayward), moral (Ford), ecclesiological (Flanagan), and various other theological (Heaney, LaCouter, and me) perspectives. Each wrote in response to our fairly open-ended invitation. Though the panel is far from exhaustive or representative, we have tried to begin a responsible conversation about the book in some of the ways we think are important. Various constraints on the organization of this symposium, it will depart from the typical Syndicate format in a number of ways. The essays will initially be posted without responses. Martel’s responses will be posted as they are received. Rather than releasing the essays on a regular weekly or semi-weekly schedule, I will post the essays as I receive them.


  1. Two unenumerated rules are also worth mentioning. “If you want to integrate with the Vatican, adhere to a code, which consists of tolerating the homosexuality of priests and bishops, enjoying it if appropriate, but keeping it secret in all cases. Tolerance went with discretion. And like Al Pacino in The Godfather, you must never criticize or leave your ‘family’. ‘Don’t ever take sides against the family’” (5). A second is related: “Everybody looks out for each other” (466).

Luigi Gioia


The Power of Description

Many in the Church will try to dismiss Frédéric Martel’s book as sensationalist. Others will approach it selectively by isolating the findings that best serve their liberal or conservative agenda. Even those (hopefully the majority) who will acknowledge the hard work that went into this investigation will struggle to welcome it positively and constructively out of institutional loyalty (known in Catholic jargon as ‘pastoral concerns): they will argue that the book emphasizes the dysfunctional traits of the Church at the cost of obscuring her many good and healthy aspects, that it underestimates the self-effacing but profound impact of loyal celibate priests, whether gay or straight, that it fuels anti-Catholic prejudices, and that it might lead people to conflate chaotic but still normal sexual behaviours with pathological forms of abuse that have plagued the Catholic Church during the second half of the 20th century.

Wittingly or unwittingly, these pastoral concerns remain the default position of many dedicated Catholics and especially of those with canonical responsibility: priests, bishops and popes. These concerns are based on the assumption that the institution might be slow in reacting but retains the capacity to deal with its anomalies internally and that there are two categories of people in the Church: those who have the right to know because they can handle scandal without harm to their faith and those who are best kept in the dark lest their trust in the institution might be fatally compromised.

The main diagnosis of Martel’s investigation confirms just how problematic this attitude is. For the Church has not shown any willingness to deal with this issue internally and will never do so because the crisis is not first of all ethical (the behaviour of some individuals) but structural (institutional self-preservation). When it comes to holding its leadership accountable, the Church never acts; it only reacts when it is forced to do so from the outside. And this can happen only if revelations appeal to the wider public’s appetite for sensation while retaining their credibility. This is the challenging balance that Martel’s book manages to strike. Countless previous attempts to expose the connection between clericalism and homosexuality failed because they were based on unverifiable rumours, did not rise above tabloid-style gossip and failed to prove the truly systemic nature of the problem. Martel entices the interest of the reader through portrayals that are alternatively playful (references to cardinal Burke), poignant (the rent boys of Roma Termini and the final story of Father Louis), hilarious (especially the chapter Passivo e bianco) and often truly shocking (cf. figures like Sodano, Bertone, Dziwisz, Lopez Trujillo, Maciel, Tony Anatrella) but never loses sight of the wider picture, combining his journalistic talent with the analytic skills he owes to his sociological training.

As he has argued in several interviews, Martel was not driven by anti-clerical sentiment, but by fascination for a very peculiar gay community and for the way it has had to morph to survive in an environment that offered safety to gay people at the cost of denial and forced them into a secrecy that has bred dysfunctional behaviours, misuse of power, and loss of integrity.

Among many others, two lessons in particular can be drawn from reading this book: (1) (homo)sexuality in the clergy cannot be dealt with through a prescriptive approach; (2) the phenomenon explored in the book is a subset of the much wider distortion of sexuality caused by clericalism and the best way to tackle the latter is accurate description.

With regards to the first point, the need to avoid a prescriptive approach, it might sound paradoxical, but the closet described by Martel thrives on morality. One of the most fascinating sections of his book is dedicated to what he calls “the Maritain code,” derived from the name of the 20th century French thinker who is credited with inspiring a number of closeted gay clerics and possibly even two popes to sublimate their homosexual tendencies through intellectual endeavor, loving friendship, cultural refinement, and loyal celibate behaviour. It bred a generation of people who displayed real intellectual greatness alongside catastrophic lack of judgment as the case of Pope Benedict tragically exemplifies.

This attitude presupposes the odd construct developed in recent Church teaching that separates homosexual tendency from sexual acts and casts the former as ‘objectively disordered’ and yet not culpable as long as it is not acted upon. The focus is on the acts, whether to ban them or to treat the occasional lapse (ranging from pornography and masturbation to sexual intercourse with a member of the same sex) as of no real consequence as long as it is confessed. According to A. W. R. Sipe, the “act is isolated from its developmental and relational implications. This element is reinforced by equating incidents with sin” (A. W. R. Sipe, A Secret World: Sexuality And The Search For Celibacy, 113). This resonates, of course, with the general approach to celibacy in seminaries: sexual abstinence can be achieved by inculcating a strong sense of self-discipline, routine of prayer, avoidance of temptations and the matter could be truly discussed only in the secret of the confessional.

The assumption is that a prescriptive approach is enough to ensure proper behaviour. A veneer of spirituality and some perfunctory notions of emotional, sexual and psychological development handed out during the initial formation are all one needs. For the rest, priests are left to their own devices in dealing with the emotional and sexual aspects of their lives. No surprise if one of the rare surveys of the actual practice of celibacy in Roman Catholic Clergy in the late nineties conducted by Richard Sipe concluded that only 2% of priests reach what he calls “celibate achievement”, a further 8% is on the way to “celibate consolidation”. The most troubling finding of this survey was not so much that 50% of priests engage in sexual activities or relationships whether heterosexual or homosexual, regularly or occasionally, but that a staggering 40% while abstaining from sex (which technically would qualify them as ‘celibate’), fall into life patterns that denote what Richard Sipe (quoting Eugene Kennedy) describes as ‘asexuality’ (by which he means lack of sexuality rather than the contemporary use of “asexuality” to describe a sexual orientation) that is a “lack of personal development, an immaturity characterized by a failure to achieve adequate differentiation of sexual identity. It is observed in many persons who use power to dominate others. The gratification experienced from this asexual model of functioning is in some sense a substitute for mature sexual gratification” (Sipe, op. cit., 84). Focus on the acts leads to mistaking this distorted form of asexuality for celibacy and is blind to the depressing human, spiritual and pastoral cost of this travesty.

This leads us to the second lesson we are invited to draw from Martel’s book: nothing frightens an institution that thrives on denial and secrecy more than truthful, accurate description. No truly comprehensive sociological research on the actual practice of celibacy has ever been conducted and will ever be authorized for as long as this depends on the Church. The institution cannot afford to face the reality known to everyone who has been able to observe the sexual life of priests and bishops –  namely that Sipe’s findings (based on small but representative samples) are correct. The institution is so afraid that obligatory celibacy will be disqualified that it is not ready to allow any clear and honest debate on it.

Martel’s book shows the way. We need to meet the characters, hear the stories, understand the fears, face the contradictions, decipher the codes. We need to listen to the voices of the priests who have found a balance in their celibate lives but also of those who struggle with it. We need to understand the strain and the heavy burden imposed on gay priests: they are supposed not even to exist, since gay people are theoretically not allowed in the priesthood; they are scapegoated for the abuse crisis by those who are unwilling to acknowledge the latter’s real cause, namely clericalism. Truthful description is the only antidote to a denial so fierce and so entrenched that its very enforcers have become numb to its absurdity and its alienating character.

James Martin, SJ


Facts and Fictions about Gay Priests, Bishops, and Cardinals

Over the past 20 years, I have reported on the phenomenon of gay priests in the Catholic church, but mainly in the United States.

In the Closet of the Vatican is a reminder that the experience of gay priests may differ from place to place.  For I have limited experience with the Vatican, never having lived in Rome and having visited only a handful of times in my Jesuit life.  Frédéric Martel’s book purports to reveal a dark side to the church, specifically that many priests, bishops and cardinals living and working in the Vatican who (according to his research) are not only gay, but also sexually active.  His thesis, which he states in the introduction, goes deeper: “The more homophobic a priest is, the greater chance that he will be homosexual” (xiv).

The rest of his 600-page book attempts to support that conclusion.  He strives to do so with an impressive amount of research: interviews with 1,500 people–including 41 cardinals, 52 bishops, 45 apostolic nuncios and 200 Catholic priests and seminarians, mainly in the Vatican.

His book attempts to paint a picture of a louche, licentious and libertine culture populated by sexually active priests, bishops who frequent male prostitutes and cardinals who attempt to cover up their unchastity in ruthless ways.  At the top of this ecclesiastical pyramid are the various popes from Paul VI to Francis, who are, according to the book, either clueless or unwitting participants in this culture.  The organizing principle of this wide-ranging but often maddeningly diffuse book is to investigate the cultures under each pope from Paul VI to Francis (though, oddly, not in order).

Early on M. Martel says that his book is not about what he calls “the American practice of ‘naming and shaming’” (xii).  Nor is he interested, he asserts, in what he attributes to one group of clerics: “Old cardinals live only on tittle-tattle and denigration” (6).

Yet what prevents his book from presenting a convincing portrait of a decadent culture, despite four years of research, is precisely that.  Essentially, it is a book largely about naming and shaming, tittle-tattle and denigration, both of groups and, especially, individuals.  To wit:

The Order of Malta?  “A mad den of gaiety” (24). The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre?  “An army of horse-riding queens” (40).  Cardinal Raymond Burke, who is the subject of the author’s special ire: “A Viking bride!” (27). Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò is a “drama queen” (50).  Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo is a “tacky apostle” (288).  St. John Paul II?  A man “of great vanity and misogyny” (247).

Much of what he says about the gay subculture in the Vatican may be true.  Even if a tenth of the book is accurate, it would be awful: the worst perhaps being his description of a cardinal who enjoyed beating male prostitutes.  (Martel’s long chapter on prostitution in Rome, with interviews with not only prostitutes but police officers, is compelling).

Yet one’s ability to rely on the narrator is fatally compromised by the style in which he writes: hard-won research buried under an ocean of gossip, innuendo and what he would call bitchiness.  Martel also uses that worst of reporting techniques: imagining, guessing, hypothesizing:

“I guess that Burke is a hero to his young assistant, who must lionize him” (259).  “I have a sense that the Jesuit father wants…” (57). Cardinal Gerhard Mueller places a phone call in the author’s presence and though Martel apparently does not speak German, he insinuates that the cardinal is speaking to a lover. When Martel peers into a priest’s bedroom, even his bed is suspect: “A place for a secret rendezvous?” (305). About Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: “Did he discover a wound cauterised by chastity?” (427).  But Benedict is suspect for other reasons.  He likes Mozart, “the most ‘gender theory’ of all operatic composers” (430).

Another technique is his reliance on a skill not available to all reporters. “My gaydar works quite well” (42), he says often. This convinces him that Cardinal Francis Stafford is “probably not homosexual himself” (42).

Likewise, few things escape the author’s predilection for innuendo. Even the most common sign offs and salutations in letters and emails (the kind I use regularly), as when a cleric writes, “Please accept my very best wishes in Christ” are “gushing endearments” and “obsequious” (171). Cardinal Stanislaus Dziwicz, the former secretary to St. John Paul II, invites the author not into his office but into his “lair” (200). (Also, Dziwicz has, we are told, a “greedy and idolatrous eye” 204) Cardinal Zenon Grochelewski is suspect because he “shares the first name of the bisexual hero of The Abyss by Marguerite Yourcenar” (400).

Added to the innuendo are lines that are outright cruel, out of place in book purporting to be a serious work: “Laughing at Burke is almost too easy!” (26) “Is Bertone an idiot?” (455)  About Pope Benedict. “But let’s not misunderstand our queenie” (432). Another man is quoted as being, simply, a “nasty old queen” (506).

Ironically, Martel, a gay man, traffics in gay stereotypes and even slurs.  Pope Francis is not among detractors, he’s “among the queens” (xv).  As an aside, the book has seemingly been translated by Google Translate.  We read of “seminarists” rather than seminarians (35).  And my favorite poorly translated (I hope) line: “To say that this document ‘was like a bomb going off’ would be a euphemism crossed with litotes!” (45).

An old trick of reviewers is to point out small flaws to distract from a conclusion with which they don’t agree.  So to be fair, his book includes some important information and insights.  Martel’s commentary on the Viganò “testimony” is astute: “it mixes up abusers, those who failed to intervene and those who were simply homosexual or homophile [his term for someone sympathetic to LGBT people]” (51). Likewise, his insight that when Pope Francis speaks about duplicity in the Curia, he is referring to homophobic and sexually active gay clerics may explain the force and regularity with which Francis attacks these themes.

But it is nearly impossible to separate the fact from the fiction: the gossipy tone overwhelms the reader, or at least this one.

In the end, even after 1,500 interviews, someone is absent: the faithful gay priest.  But that is an oxymoron, according to Martel, because the gay priest either opts for the “closet” (which, in his view, means being repressed and/or sexually active) or “the door.”  So there are only two options for the gay priest: secretly break his vows or leave the priesthood.

The idea that priests could live their vows of chastity and promises of celibacy with any peace or fidelity is absent from the book, save a few throwaway lines.  Even being in favor of chastity (by which he means celibacy, since everyone is called to chastity in their own lives, married or single) is dismissed: “The most fervent advocates of chastity are therefore, of course, the most suspicious” (177). That would include, by way of a partial list, Francis of Assisi, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Mother Teresa.

According to witnesses, he says, faithful gay priests are in the “minority” (417).  With this book, however, not only would you not be able to tell, for so relentless is his focus on the evils of the gay priest; but because of his book’s predilection for guesswork and innuendo, you would never be able to know.

Travis LaCouter


Speaking Up

Frédéric Martel’s In the Closet of the Vatican is a book that invites certain misunderstandings. At first blush it seems like a lurid exposé—a gossipy romp through the hallowed halls of the Vatican in which a self-described atheist names names and ‘outs’ various gay cardinals, bishops, and monsignori. This impression (not inconsistent with the book’s own marketing, it must be said, or Martel’s often chatty tone) has already led to various news outlets labeling it ‘explosive’, a ‘bombshell’, and ‘scandalous’. On the other hand, some worry that Martel’s carefully-investigated study of the homosexual subculture at the highest levels of Catholicism will merely play into the hands of the Church’s most reactionary elements. Clearly, as we saw in the wake of the infamous ‘Viganò testimony’ last August, there are those who will jump at the chance to blame gay priests for the Church’s ongoing abuse crisis—an association as specious as it is slanderous.

Martel, of all people, knew full well that these dangers applied when he set out to write this book more than four years ago. ‘They will try to assassssssinate you’ he recalls his Italian editor warning him when he first brought up the idea (11). Surely it was this foreknowledge that led Martel to produce what is, ultimately, a deeply researched and assiduous account drawing on 1,500 interviews, with the help of 80 researchers and collaborators in over 30 countries and featuring a web-accessible 300-page bibliography. This is largely argument-by-overkill and it’s hard to deny that Martel’s done his homework. And yet those who scour these pages looking for juicy bits of gossip are likely to leave disappointed; our intrepid narrator is often more coy than cavalier.

But then what is Martel trying to accomplish with this book? I wasn’t sure of the answer to this question until I reached the illuminating, even tender Epilogue, where Martel lays his cards on the table. He’s quick to declare that he’s ‘not Catholic [and] not even a believer’—Molière’s Dom Juan means more to him, he says, than the Gospel of John (544, 546). But then he tells the story of a brilliant young parish priest he knew as a boy growing up in traditionally Catholic Avignon. This dynamic curate, who so excited the bright young Martel’s imagination, who sparked his intellectual curiosity and broadened his cultural and artistic horizons—this same priest later died of AIDS ‘abandoned by almost everyone [and] in terrible pain.’ This priest’s homosexuality caused him to be ‘rejected by the Church – his only family – denied by his diocese and kept at arm’s length by his bishop’ (549). If intellectual doubts hadn’t chased Martel away from the Church, witnessing this betrayal would have. It’s a story that I daresay countless cradle Catholics will recognize: A good priest reduced to ash (in this case literally—AIDS victims at the time were required to be cremated) for the simple reason that he is gay.

It is not against gay priests, then, that this ‘Catholic atheist’ (547) writes his book, but, in a way, precisely on their behalf. Observing a painting of St Sebastian in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, Martel sees deep resonances: ‘This “ecstasy of pain,” the executioner and his victim mixed together, caught in a single breath, is a marvelous metaphor for homosexuality in the Vatican’ (110). It is as collaborators in a system that makes contradictions of themselves that many gay men in the Vatican are pushed either to one extreme (chasing handsome rentboys down the backstreets of Rome) or the other (repressed to the point of self-erasure). Martel’s five archetypes of gay priests (533ff.) are useful in this regard. And it is as a form of releasing the built-up pressure in this system that a number of Vatican priests are experimenting with ‘new forms of post-gay love’ (540), which Martel discusses in one of his more allusive (if in this instance too brief) digressions. Martel draws out the connection between homosexuality and homophobia at the Vatican not in order to embarrass anyone (again—this book is far less sensationalist than its press would have you believe!) but to show the various ways in which homophobia operates as a ‘discursive apparatus’ in the Church. 1

So beyond a diagnostic account, or a recent history of gay infighting at the Vatican, or an idle look at the sex lives of elderly men, this book stands as a simple public acknowledgement: there are homosexuals at the very heart of the Church. Though this fact has been (unofficially) obvious but (officially) ‘unsayable’ (x) for a long time, one wonders—will this publicity cast anything in a new light?

I’m reminded here of Agamben’s observation that power exerts itself not primarily by ‘limiting what humans can do—their potentiality—but rather their “impotentiality,” that is, what they cannot do’.2 The Church’s discourse on sexuality restricts precisely by this imposition of impotentiality—by defining homosexual behavior as an ‘objectively disordered inclination’ within an overriding heterosexual nature, the possibility of a gay Catholic becomes, strictly speaking, an ontological impossibility. And yet, as Martel’s book ably shows, gay Catholics abound, most of all at the Vatican! It’s been precisely this discrepancy that’s left so much unsaid for so many years, and by placing a stick of dynamite in this log-jam, this book, perhaps, will contribute to a more fruitful dialogue.

In this sense Martel’s timing is fortuitous. Recently, prominent pieces in both New York Magazine and the New York Times have also brought the issue of gay priests more fully to light: ‘It is not a closet, it is a cage,’ one priest tells the Times’ Elizabeth Dias. We are witnessing a parrhesiastic moment, then, when truths long kept silent are finally being spoken. The Church tends to shy away from such moments, but it shouldn’t. For if, as Simone Weil suggested, ‘attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity’, then the Church should receive all the attention of this moment gratefully, as a chance to speak more plainly and—one day—more boldly.3

  1. Cf. Gerard Loughlin, “Catholic Homophobia” in Theology 121:3 (2018): 188-96, here 194

  2. Giorgio Agamben, “On What We Can Not Do” in Nudities, trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011): 43-5, here 43

  3. Simone Weil, Correspondance (Lausanne: Editions l’Age d’Homme, 1982), 18

Maeve Louise Heaney


Perspectives on the Closet

This response to Frédéric Martel’s book In the Closet of The Vatican. Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy will briefly address three points: how I understand the issue at stake; some potential consequences are for the Church and the world it seeks to serve, if the book’s theses are correct, and thoughts on possible ways forward, if not yet out, of such a bleak situation.

Firstly, however,  historical consciousness born of twentieth century philosophy has taught us the importance of being critically aware of context when reading a text: who the author is, what interests, convictions, allegiances, or enemies they might have. Martel quite clearly identifies himself as non-practicing, a “catholic atheist” if you will. I am a practicing Catholic of a particular kind: theologian, religious, director of a Centre for theological formation and active in the theological formation of lay people and seminarians for ministry and priesthood. Therefore, I am invested in the Church whose leadership is under scrutiny, for various reasons: the relationship with God, in Christ, I find there, the cloud of witnesses to a life of service that have convinced me, and the beauty of its truth when thought is careful and courageous.

I. The Issue at Stake:

In the light of extensive interviewing over a period of four years, Martel crafts fourteen Rules of The Closet that explain “how things work”, behind the scenes in the Vatican world. He describes homosexuality in Vatican circles, not as a gay lobby, organised or otherwise, but as a “rhizome”, a plant without underground roots that multiplies into “a network of entirely decentralized, disordered relationships and liaisons, with no beginnings or limits” (479), hidden in plain sight. The point that perhaps best summarises his thesis and its most concerning consequence, can be found (ironically?) in the sixth rule: “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.” The issue, therefore, is not homosexuality per se, but rather the paradoxical and duplicitous stance between rigid morality and obsession with sex that emerges from repressed, unaware, or unintegrated human sexuality; and how destructive this is when pervasive in an organisation’s leadership whose sole raison d’être is to be sacramental, a “place of encounter” with God’s merciful love and truth.

This is not the space to attempt to prove or disprove the specifics of what is alleged in each case, except to say that “only the truth will set us free” (John 8:32), so we should never fear seeking clarity. It is our moral duty as human beings and believers, if such we are. The book is long, hard to read (for many reasons), at times repetitive and bit convoluted with storylines and the occasional sweeping statement that is usually later qualified. But it also quite courageous and reflects years of research. It is too important a book to dismiss, and demands our considered reflection. There are things I disagree with: the author does, not, and perhaps cannot understand the value of well lived celibacy or consecrated life. This is understandable. Sexuality is too essential an aspect of our humanity to simply ignore or pretend it is unimportant, whatever our sexual orientation. Examples of frustrated celibate lives are not hard to find, but so are the witnesses of lives dedicated to the gospel and the service of others, whose generous, courageous and prophetic work has improved the lives of millions throughout the world. And the perhaps mysterious, (rather than unnatural) call to live exclusively for God and for the need one sees through the eyes of that felt love is too essential to Christian faith to allow hypocrisy and abuse of power take it from us.

II. Implications if the Book’s Thesis is Proven Correct

Theologically, the Church’s credible witness is named as one of the “causes,” or reasons of faith. I can already see the women and men for whom this will be one final push to definitively leave the Church, or to never come close again. For those within, it may be a redemptive scandal, if the Spirit is allowed to take charge, but the fact is that vested interests and the abuse of power affect the leadership of the Church and its duty of pastoral care. That must be the focus of our scrutiny. I intuit the book will bring into question two areas of Catholic faith and teaching, for better or worse, depending on how they are received and dealt with. The first is the Magisterium’s capacity to fulfill its mission to faithfully interpret revelation and the signs of the times for those it governs. How can we trust its guidance if bias blinds or conditions perception and judgement? The second is a consequence of the first: what issues have been and still are sidelined as a result of this situation? Can or should we revisit past decisions on important issues to see if and how context and corruption compromised the promised presence of the Spirit to guide the Church “to the whole truth”?

III Ways Forward?

Ways forward is perhaps a premature title to conclude this review, because recognition of and contrition for what theology calls ‘sinful’ behaviour is an indispensable requirement to genuine change from within – “conversion”, in theological terms – and structural change is slow. But three areas come to mind as essential and urgent, in dealing with the challenges raised:

  • Rethinking and teaching the Catholic theology of priesthood in the light of the Second Vatican Council’s Ecclesiology, placing it at the service of, and not above, the People of God.1
  • More care in the discernment and human formation of those responding to a possible call to priesthood. In seminary programs, human formation is identified as primary and foundational to any other foundational dimension, including academic preparation and pastoral responsibilities. Accelerating the process or bypassing healthy human maturity in the need for vocations or in the hope grace will supplement what’s missing, needs to stop.[2]   2
  • The inclusion of women in every space of the Church’s discernment and decision-making processes, as well as in the training and formation of priests and future leaders of ecclesial governance. This can be done without challenging Tradition as a source of doctrine or the unity of the Church, although it will be threatening for many. The book unveils quite clearly, if only as a sub-theme, that misogyny and repressed homosexuality are often happy bedfellows. There is more than one gender ideology.

Finally, three words cut through the heaviness reading this 600-page book left in me: the implicit hope of an embattled cardinal seeking change, who ends a conversation with a smile and the words: “We will win”.  As a Christian whose faith helps her make sense of life and the world around, it gives me hope to remember that truth will always come out, even if too late, for some. And God will make all things new. In the end.

  1. There is exceptional work being done in this field by theologians well equipped to facilitate and lead the shift of culture necessary for future generations of Catholics. A recent document produced by scholars of Boston college is one example of the fruits of such thought, but it is only the tip of the iceberg of what is at our disposal, if we wish to reflect upon it. Cf. Boston College Seminar on Priesthood and Ministry for the Contemporary Church “To Serve the People of God: Renewing the Conversation on Priesthood and Ministry”. Origins, CNS Commentary Service, December 27, 2018 Volume 48 Number 31. Available at

  2. Again, work in this area is clear: Pastores dabo vobis, Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the formation of priests in the circumstances of the present day (John Paul II, 1992):; The Gift of the Priestly Vocation: Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis (Congregation for the Clergy, 2016):

Jeff Guhin


A “Homosexual Sociology of Catholicism” that Wasn’t

Frédéric Martel is a snob. He is unapologetically judgmental of his interviewees’ varying intellectual capacities, their tastes in art, and their knowledge of “literature” (which is almost inevitably French). It’s not a crime to be a snob, of course, and it’s not even proof you’re a bad writer. Martel makes a habit of referring to Rimbaud as only “the Poet”: it’s the only capitalization he deems permissible in a book replete with holy fathers and popes. “Luckily,” he tells us, “in France we believe more in poetry than in religion.” So, I will paraphrase my own muse, Jerry Seinfeld: some of my favorite books are by snobs!

But snobs earn the right to be snobs by doing their job well. I wish I could say this book earns its author’s snobbery. There is, after all, much that is impressive about it, not least its sourcing, its many research assistants, its globe-traveling reporting. And it’s got a sexy story, even if its characters might not be most’s go-to titillation: bishops having sex, and lots of it! And gay sex! From people who don’t like gays! And exclamation points! So many exclamation points! Yet the book often fails as a work of journalism (see Michael Sean Winters’s review), and to the extent it claims itself as a work of sociology—which it often does—it fails even more extensively. It is an important book about an important topic, and it provides us with vital information and analysis, much of it insightful, wise, and carefully gathered. But much else is a gossamer gossip, a stylistic intricacy that rips at the touch.

To be clear, there’s much here that is better sourced and altogether damning, with many set pieces that work brilliantly. A chapter on gay sex workers in Rome is devastating, especially in its focus on migrants’ uneasy relationship to priests, sometimes cruel and obstreperous, sometimes just looking for someone to love. “They want to kiss you all the time,” one tells Martel about some of the priests, and my heart breaks for the sadness of it all. And despite the book’s quidnunc bravado, there’s enough hard data here to make a case for something, and that case is mostly very sad.

One of the most powerful quotes from me in this devastating book was not anything a Vatican courtier whispered about some bishop’s boyfriend or something a dogged journalist uncovered about a homophobic cardinal’s not-even-that-secret penchant for boys. What broke my heart most was this one line, part of a series of devastating interviews with Swiss guards disgusted by their continual sexual harassment by Vatican “celibates”: “Why did they agree to talk to me so freely, to the extent they are surprised by their own daring? Not out of jealousy or vanity, like some cardinal and bishops; not to help the cause, like most of my gay contacts within the Vatican. But out of disappointment, like men who have lost their illusions.”

Martel does not cite the #metoo era, yet his study of these guards gets at much the same points: powerful men take advantage of institutional inequalities such that “consenting adults” are never really consenting. Even when the cardinals and bishops are not attacking minors, they are all too often attacking the vulnerable, or protecting those who do: Swiss guards for one, and also seminarians, as demonstrated in probably the most powerful and damning section, the take-down of the hypocritical and just plain evil former President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, Alfonso Lopez Trujillo.

There’s damning stuff all over this book, especially about the company John Paul II kept, the way Ratzinger steered his ship, and the double-speak of our current Jesuit Pope. Martel treats Francis a bit too kindly—suggesting his back-and-forth on any number of issues is simply a charming Jesuitical strategy rather than a problematic incoherence. American conservatives want to know “what Francis knew when,” and I don’t think they’re unreasonable to make that demand. Yet if it appears that Francis might have been too forgiving of ideological allies, then John Paul II is guilty of much the same and to a much more dramatic degree, supporting terror in Latin America while promoting the unworthy back in Rome, all for his unceasing faith in what he must have been sure was a greater good. Or rather two greater goods, the first folded into the second: communism must end, and Poland must be a key piece of its ending. If Martel had written about whether people were gay as carefully as he wrote about how the popes were political, this would have been a much better (and a much shorter) book.

Part of the reason for the book’s length is its many (sometimes charming, often infuriating) digressions about this or that “sociological” theory of homosexuality in the Catholic Church. And while it’s true that sociology often means different things in different countries, there were many moments in the book that I would not have allowed in an undergraduate term paper, let alone in a standalone book.

First, there is the problem of what social scientists might call “generalizability.”  We have data from the Vatican and various religious elites, yet we are often led to believe that these findings are generalizable to the Catholic church writ large. On what basis are we to believe that generalizability holds? To what extent are these specific cultural phenomena unique to what is, in fact, a very small space with a deep cultural importance but no necessary causal or cultural relationship to other places, cultures, and institutions within the global Catholic church?

Second, what are the other hypotheses? We are presented with a long list of “rules” about how homosexuality functions in the Vatican, and some of them seem quite plausible (they are listed above in the symposium introduction) . But a good sociologist knows to test these against competing claims, lest we simply cherry pick our data to prove ourselves right. Martel’s approach comes closest to this when he is testing a concrete claim: while his book is already gaining some notoriety for its suggestive whiffs and tentative hints, when he says something really happened (instead of saying someone else says something happened), he tries to back up the bold claim with other sources, often including court data and other government documents. And, as the acknowledgements indicate, he’s also got a big old team of lawyers. But a sociological argument is not quite the same thing as a straightforwardly falsifiable empirical claim. You need to look for other framings that could account for the data, and then show why yours is actually the most convincing.

Most of these “rules” are quite compelling as sociological hypotheses, and quite a few would make interesting books if they turned out to be right. As they exist now, however, they are supported by rumor, innuendo, and the facts that fit the crime. Martel proceeds by a sometimes-used but much-suspected method we sociologists call “snowball sampling” (that is, interviewing people who recommend similar people to interview), which is often necessary in hard-to-reach and vulnerable populations, but which raises significant questions about the representativeness of the sample to the rest of the Vatican, let alone the rest of the Catholic priesthood. We have no survey or representative interview data from, for example, the nuncios themselves to back up that most of them are homosexual (rule 11); nor do we have a rigorous list of rumors in the Vatican from which we could make claims about their origin and purpose (rule 12). For what it’s worth, much of this might well be true and the rumors and hunches and gut feelings Martel identifies are worth acknowledging and setting up as hypotheses. The best hypotheses begin as exactly these sorts of loosely-sourced hunches, precisely because they often turn out to be right! Yet they can also be wrong, and only the data can tell. And the plural of gaydar, like the plural of anecdote, is not data.

It’s also worth mentioning that there is a ridiculous and Islamophobic essentialism manifested in rule 8 that somehow imagines it is easier for a Muslim man to sell his body to Catholic priests than to find a willing woman with which he could unleash his sexual energy. This is a separate question, by the way, from whether men in communities with strong female virginity policing—Muslim or otherwise—experience first sex with other men. But these communities also tend to have straightforward access to female sex workers.

I should say, however, that I am most impressed (and basically convinced) by rule six, even if I would modify it slightly to suggest that any individual’s homosexuality is actually less relevant that an institutional culture that so resolutely hides sexual life that predatory sex gets the same kind of pass. Conservatives will most likely only find proof the gays really are the problem, yet it seems much clearer to me that the homophobia is the problem: the homophobia that drives men into the priesthood and then compels them to hide from themselves and from others what they feel for other men, and what they sometimes do with them. Proclaiming and strictly enforcing that gays are not allowed into the priesthood will only further a culture of secrets and lies, requiring even more hiding. Don’t forget that a celibate priesthood can be both full of gay men and still normatively straight, with priests allowed to share stories of dates and crushes before entering only if such stories are heterosexual. A straight priest can have a sexuality; a gay priest can have, at best, a hidden and insidious struggle.

So these priests will (and do) hide identities and desires, whether celibate or not, and by the way: Martel seems uninterested and at times insultingly incapable of understanding that one cay be gay and celibate. Yet these priests will also hide the sex, what sex they have, to be sure, but also the sex they know others are having. And it might well be the case such sex only breaks vows. But such sex might also break laws. And more importantly, it might break lives. Yet even this hypothesis, compelling as it is, is an empirical question, one covered much better in the work of Mark Jordan and other scholars of priestly sexuality, though there still remains much work to do.

And that’s my biggest frustration. For as much as this is a work of journalism, it is often not a work of empiricism. Instead, the reader meets with sweeping judgements and damning pronouncements, often based on little more than suspicion and the rigorous methodology known as gaydar. The overall tone is one of sardonic and bitchy remove: this play is narrated by an Oscar Wilde character, full of bon mots and damning wisdom, always smarter and cleverer, alone at the bar, away from the world but close enough to crack wise about it. Yet the errors and overgeneralizations in the book give us reason to doubt the old queen is really as wise as she claims to be.

That last line brings me to another important point for me to acknowledge. I’m a straight guy reading a gay man write about other gay men, and my critiques here could be read as a form of rhetorical domination, calling for a kind of code switching that might be neither necessary nor my call to make. Yet the politics of such rhetorical moves, like the politics of anything, becomes a pragmatic question, as code switchers have acknowledged to themselves for millennia. Who is Martel trying to convince and why? If this is a story, as suggested elsewhere in this symposium, of talking like a drag queen about liturgy queens, then so much the good, and it’s not my place to say anything. But if this is a story about the Vatican, mostly intended for the general population, then the rhetorical style is a distraction. Now it might well be the case that considering this rhetorical style a distraction is a mark of my (and others’) homophobia, and that a kind of gossipy camp is only derided because of our own internalized prejudices. That’s an interesting argument. However, it’s also simply a pragmatic problem: it’s hard to pull off such a big empirical and quasi-sociological project while also making a meta-claim about how we talk about social life.

Finally, I should say that I read enough French to be pretty disappointed by the translation. As just one example: Borges is described as a novelist, and I was a bit shocked that someone as snobby as Martel would have made so glaring an error: Borges is almost as famous for not having written a novel as he is for not having won the Nobel. To his credit, I checked the original French and Martel called Borges “le plus grand écrivain argentin”: it was the translator’s error alone. My worries, on this point at least, were calmed. Martel still has some things to be snobby about.



“Troppo Vero”

Troppo vero.” “Too true.” Those supposedly were the words of Pope Innocent X, confronting the Velázquez portrait currently hanging at the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Rome – the same portrait re-envisioned by Francis Bacon in the mid-twentieth century, blurred, distorted, and often screaming. In Frédéric Martel’s new book, In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy, the reader encounters a portrait of the Catholic Church, its leaders, and the phenomenon of gay clergy, but one is hard pressed to determine where Martel paints his picture with a hyperrealism indebted to Velázquez, and where his painting is blurred and distorted like that of Bacon. That tension, running through the book – between ugly fact and exaggerated ugliness – makes it a page-turner, and a fun, gossipy read. But as an ecclesiologist, I can observe both the beauty and the danger of Martel’s manuscript. I find deep value in this book, despite its flaws – this is the kind of book that only an astonished, skeptical, even accusatory outsider could write, and the harsh clarity of that vision may end up being a help to my church in negotiating the intersections of clerical sexuality, “the gay thing” in general (in the words of James Alison), clerical sexual abuse of minors, clericalism and clerical power, and, most significantly, a culture of lying in the Catholic Church. And yet, my deep fear is that in presenting what he has learned with inadequate precision and distorted by innuendo, hearsay, and nebulous insinuation à la Bacon, Martel has unwittingly played directly into the hands of those he most wants to challenge – those who want to identify the crisis of clerical sexual abuse as a crisis of homosexuality. Were these voices to win the argument about gay clergy, clerical formation, and same-sex sexuality, they would recreate the conditions that led to a culture of mendacity perfectly calibrated to shield and protect abuse of children and sexual harassment in the ecclesial “workplace.” My fear is that Martel’s portrait might amplify those voices in spite of his stated goals.

First, the ugly truth. Martel is neither a believer nor traditionally anti-clerical in the French style – he describes himself as an “atheist Catholic.” He is also a gay man who is the author of a major history of post-1968 gay liberation movements in France. These two biographical details provide the entry by which Martel was able to infiltrate – the word is not too strong – the tightly sealed world of the Vatican, and the yet more tightly sealed world of the closet within it. The book is part Bob Woodward getting the dirt from his inside sources, part Alexis de Tocqueville wandering in a strange new world, and part Page Six of the New York Post.

Many people spoke with Martel about their lives and those of others who probably regret that now. Some probably did so out of a desire to confess, as Martel suggests; others may have been naively charmed by a handsome French intellectual interested in their lives; but, I suspect, many if not most spoke with him in an attempt to weaponize their knowledge of others in the Vatican, and to use Martel as an instrument in the ongoing internecine warfare of Vatican politics. Regardless of their motives, the overall effect of the piece is astonishing, in at least three aspects. First, it provides a detailed, unflattering picture of the intrigues, plots and counter-plots, factions and shifting alliances of Vatican politics. While familiar to many Vatican journalists and scholars, the facts of how human, all too human, the day-to-day battlefield of curial politics is will be, rightly, shocking to many observers, and to many Catholics. A study of those intrigues alone might have been enough to make Martel’s research worth review.

But, second, Martel’s work suggests the inseparability of Vatican politics from the lives of gay clergy – “homosexual” or “homophile,” “practicing” or not, in Martel’s preferred terms. Martel’s contribution is to highlight the connection of the complicated dynamics of ecclesial politics with the complicated lives of gay priests, bishops, and cardinals. Viganò’s questionable “Testimony” and recent reporting by the New York Times have, along with Martel, made the wider public and the wider Catholic Church aware of a phenomenon that many of us have known for some time: that there are a large number of gay priests; some would identify as such, and some would not; some of them are celibate and some of them are not; some of those who are not celibate are, nevertheless, attempting to live lives of integrity and love; and some are very much not. None of this was surprising to me, but much of it was still shocking, particularly with regard to who, exactly, might have been doing what, with whom, and for what reasons. And third, Martel attempts to demonstrate the worldwide scope of the lives of gay clergy and of clerical sexual harassment and sexual abuse of minors (more on the dangers of conflating these three below). Within such a global scope, Martel asserts a systemic pattern; particularly for readers in the United States, Chile, or other countries marked by clerical scandal, who might only have knowledge of problems in their own backyard, Martel’s work suggests that this is not a problem of one bad egg or one bad actor, but a structural issue that the global Catholic Church will need to address. And, unlike many past studies of a particular country, a particular prelate, a particular scandal, Martel’s book has a wider scope than anything I have seen previously on the lives of gay clergy or the connections of that fact with ecclesial mistakes and corruption.

Note my language: Martel suggests, asserts, highlights – but does not prove. Martel has, in recent days, been critiqued for his reliance upon hearsay, insinuation, and anonymous sources. He does himself no favors when he repeatedly fails to resist the temptation to add one more insinuation, one more suggestive question or tenuous connection, one more piece of innuendo, to so many of his reports. In my opinion, had he, or an editor, exercised a bit more discipline and sobriety in his writing, the overall work would have been stronger. The unfortunate tenuousness of these speculations (as well as recurring small factual errors – one gets the sense that the final product was rushed to press to meet this week’s global summit on sexual abuse) makes it more likely that Martel’s work will be dismissed out of hand by some observers.

But the question remains – is it true? I am not in a position to evaluate any of the particulars of Martel’s claims, but neither, frankly, are most other readers. Like that of a journalist embedded in a wartime unit, Martel’s testimony is all we’ve got. And while the reliance upon anonymous sources, hearsay, and rumor is unfortunate, how else could he have gotten any of this information? In some ways, it stands or falls as a whole upon Martel’s truthworthiness, because the nature of the clerical closet is that the things Martel reports would almost never be admitted in public and fully on the record. Which leaves at least two major possibilities. One is that Martel is engaged in a systematic attempt to undermine the Catholic Church by constructing a conspiracy theory where no conspiracy exists. Or, alternately, he has uncovered a system of silence and sometimes corruption, previously addressed only obliquely and piecemeal, and yet pervasive in the Vatican and throughout the clerical world. Based upon the named sources who do go on the record with Martel like James Alison and Robert Mickens, upon the past work of authors like Richard Sipe and Mark Jordan, and upon my own personal, though limited experience, the latter seems far more likely. One can, and journalists and researchers should, further investigate particular details, particular charges and insinuations, and particular places where Martel’s interlocutors have misled him or where he himself has undermined his credibility through insinuation and speculation. But the overall portrait seems vero. E troppo vero.

In many ways, this is a book that could only be written by a relative outsider to the Catholic Church, precisely because it refuses some of the euphemisms and discretion that would come naturally to one inside the church. It is in many ways an uncharitable book that could only be written by someone who respects the church but has no love for the church, and no desire to protect it or its faithful from scandal. Like the child in the story, only someone like Martel could point out that the emperor has no clothes – or, more accurately, could not only full-throatedly shout that the emperor is naked, but describe in detail the not-very-appealing body thus revealed. And what drives Martel’s truth-telling? While Martel remarks repeatedly that he has no wish to judge, there is one sin that, to him, seems unforgivable or at least in need of exposure: hypocrisy. His strongest words and harshest criticism are reserved for those clergy who, while leading the charge against rights for LGBT people, same-sex marriage, and anti-discrimination laws, were sexually active with other men or turned a blind eye to the sexual activities of their associates. Martel’s book is an exposé written precisely for an age of authenticity.

In the longest of long terms, this could ironically be to the benefit of the Catholic Church. In cases of sexual abuse of minors, financial corruption, or alliances with political power, it has repeatedly been outsiders, particularly the modern press, that have been able to investigate and expose ecclesial failure and sinfulness with no holds barred. As I have written elsewhere, addressing the sinfulness of the Church clearly and forthrightly is a necessary first step for ecclesial conversion and repentance, particularly given an ecclesiology of ecclesial holiness that in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries mutated into an ecclesiology of ecclesial perfection. But speaking as a Catholic theologian who does love my church, despite all its failings, I wish that we had been able to address our failings in a less embarrassing, less scandalous, and less depressing way.

Which brings me to the question of where, in my opinion, Martel’s book is most in danger of becoming a Baconian distortion, and at the same time in danger of becoming an improvised weapon in the hands of some thinkers and leaders in the Catholic Church. Given the very public equation of the problem of sexual abuse of minors with the problem of clerical homosexuality, speaking and writing about both needs to be done carefully and cautiously. The release of this book on the eve of the Vatican’s global meeting on abuse of minors, and the carelessness with which Martel slides from discussions of the abuse of minors, sexual harassment or assault, and consensual, non-abusive clerical sexual activity, mistakenly allows the three to blur in the minds of those already primed to conflate all three.

And yet, Martel is right that there is a connection between clerical sexual abuse of minors and sexual harassment, and the unaddressed reality of homosexual or “homophile” gay clergy, and he is not the first person to notice this. The work of Richard Sipe, Mark Jordan, Donald Cozzens, and James Alison, among others, has repeatedly pointed to the overall culture of secrecy and, in Alison’s terms, mendacity that the denial of homosexuality in general and clerical homosexuality in particular has created in the church. If not one of his official “rules of Sodom,” the rule Martel gets to by Chapter 21 of his book is perhaps the key to the whole problem, and worth quoting at length:

Many of the excesses of the Church, many silences, many mysteries are explained by this simple rule of the Closet: “everybody looks out for each other” [Tout le monde se tient]. Why do the cardinals say nothing? Why do they all close their eyes? Why was Pope Benedict XVI, who knew about many sexual scandals, never brought to justice? Why did Cardinal Bertone, ruined by the attacks of Angelo Sodano, not bring out the files that he had about his enemy? Talking about others means that they may talk about you. That is the key to the omertà and the general lies of the Church. The Vatican and the Vatican closet are like Fight Club – and the first rule of Fight Club is, you don’t talk about Fight Club (466-467).

In such a culture, in which my revelation of your abuse of a child or financial mismanagement might lead you to reveal my homosexuality or sexual activity, everybody keeps their mouth shut. This is particularly true in relation to those like Theodore McCarrick or Bernard Law who wielded a great deal of power. It is an ideal environment for a sexual predator, whether he is preying upon children or upon his subordinates. And, if the alarm is raised that the problem is homosexuality in general or “gay clergy” tout court, then we as a church will recreate the very conditions that allowed the abuse of minors, the abuse of power, and all sorts of other forms of corruption to flourish. My fear is that in his blurring of these distinctions, and by the overall tone of the book, Martel may have unwittingly painted a Baconian portrait that, however rooted in reality, could be, at best, dismissed by many as the unsupported gossip of an enemy of the church or, at worst, used to justify increasingly irrational responses to a mistakenly understood situation.

I think it is too early to know whether Martel’s book will be received in the church like a pipe bomb thrown into a crowded room or whether, as in an intervention for addiction, such direct truth telling might finally lead to a more serious conversation about clerical power and sexuality, and where LGBT people fit within the Catholic Church more generally. A book of this sort would not have been my preferred vehicle for beginning or continuing this conversation. Much additional work needs to be done to separate fact from fiction, innuendo or presumption from reality, and, especially, to explain more clearly the complex relationship between the church’s teaching on same-sex sexuality, clerical homosexuality, clerical sexual activity, and clerical sexual abuse of minors. But if this work is entirely dismissed as gossip or trash, we will have missed the opportunity this text provides for greater transparency, greater authenticity, and an overdue ecclesial conversation about LGBT Catholics, including gay Catholic clergy. In a church “at the same time holy and always in need of purification” (Lumen Gentium §8) and a church just at the beginning of understanding the previously overlooked complexity of human sexuality, Martel has painted a compelling, disturbing portrait of what happens when we ignore that complexity. We dare not look away.

Sean Larsen


The Complexities of Truth Telling

I found it difficult to get through Frederic Martel’s In the Closet of the Vatican. It’s long and detailed. The translation is often cumbersome. The subject matter is difficult. I took notes as I read, knowing I would be writing something about the book to introduce this symposium. But I struggled to take in everything that I was reading. Most of the book relies on the testimony of interview subjects. I believed that Martel was accurately relaying what he saw and heard in his interviews. But I am still not sure how to receive it, to categorize it, to determine its significance.

Martel has written a book about duplicity—about double lives, double talk, and double standards. It is also about the tremendous effort required to sustain duplicity and the damage that results from it. But if duplicity requires so much effort, truth telling has complexities of its own. “Truth telling is not simple,” Mark Jordan writes.

It is not like the Norman Rockwell painting in which a ruggedly handsome white man, whose plaid collar is literally blue, speaks to the town meeting at his white clapboard church, while other white men, wearing ties, listen in admiration. Truth telling isn’t like that. Truth’s speakers don’t often radiate handsome honesty. They are disconcerting and diverse rather than comfortably familiar. They are rarely received with admiring attention. And what they have to say can seem beyond hearing—or bearing.1

Jordan’s short book, Telling Truths in Church, written in response to the clergy abuse crisis of the early 2000s, points to some potential complicating factors. One is institutional context. It is difficult to tell truths about and within a church that is “old and arrogant… weighed down by institutional sins… invested in sprawling systems for keeping secrets.” The Roman church, which Jordan emphasizes is no more sinful than other churches, presents special challenges for truth telling, especially given the particularities of its size and its history. Another complicating factor: sensitivities related to the subjects of sex, homoeroticism, and homophobia. “How,” he wonders, “can we begin to talk about the institutional paradox of a church that is at once so homoerotic and so homophobic, that solicits same-sex desire, depends on it, but also denounces and punishes it?”2

Jordan’s question is striking to me in part because it is the question that drives Martel’s writing. In the Closet of the Vatican can be read as an attempt to make sense of this paradox. It seeks to break official silences precisely by uncovering the sprawling systems invested in keeping secrets. The question is also striking to me because of how Jordan frames it theologically. Journalists, he notes, typically rely most heavily on documentary truths, found in files, archives, and legal proceedings. They are “objective,” but for that reason always incomplete. Sometimes, reporters convey the truest and most important truths, the truths of traumatic memories, as they are told by victims of abuse and mistreatment. But those truths must be received for what they are—not as propositional claims, but as “the truth of an unclosed wound.” What often gets lost are the complicated truths of institutions. They are easier to glide past because of the specialized knowledge they require concerning “the regulations, customs, and fictions that enable to Roman church to operate.”3 More broadly, Jordan names the requisite expertise “theology.” I find his description compelling: “taking mature responsibility for the indispensable forms of Christian speaking.”

Responsibility has to be taken in the presence of scriptures and traditions, face to face with the ablest speaking partners, before the challenge of holiness, with a special trust (badly translated as ‘faith’). It also has to be taken through the indispensable forms. At its best, theology is not divorced from the rest of Christian speech. It is not like a superlanguage that judges every other language. Theology is more like a new grip on language, a more supple and more deliberate handling of it. The theologian takes new responsibility for speaking in the confidence that Christian speech has already been used for proclaiming a revelation, for performing sacraments, and for efficacious prayer. Language has been sanctified. We ought to be able to use it to tell sanctifying truths—which is not the same as telling ‘the whole truth and nothing but the truth.’ Taking responsibility for speech requires being especially responsible for its inevitable failures.4

Martel is not a theologian invested in taking mature responsibility for the indispensable forms of Christian speaking. He is not even a practicing Catholic. But if Jordan is right to think of theological truths as institutional truths, it would have been impossible for Martel to pursue his topic without stepping into theology. And if that’s the case, it’s not only telling the truth that isn’t easy. It’s also receiving it. I think that the categories for telling such truths are also important for those who wish to hear them well. I’ve found the categories Jordan provides helpful for interpreting Martel.

Most theologians who have wished to ask about the paradox of homoeroticism and homophobia at the heart of Catholicism (and of Christianity more generally) have written in the mode of counterargument. They have reasoned from scripture, received traditions, and official texts. Here, I think, Martel’s outsider-status helps. Theologically informed about some points, his goal is not to engage in counterargument. His book is not a plea for acceptance within the terms set by the church. This is a good thing, on Jordan’s view, because many such texts are themselves meant to induce silent conformity rather than honest engagement. Reasoning from them is doomed to be a (mostly) losing battle. Better, Jordan thinks, to engage them from a distance—exactly as Martel does throughout—using methods of media and rhetorical analysis. I think Martel can be evaluated by how well he performs his analysis on its own terms.

A second mode of theological engagement is testimony. Martel relies heavily on the testimony of both named and anonymous sources, who “come out” to Martel and reveal their double lives. Jordan exhorts his reader: “Look especially at the testimony of or about the lives of men who live closest to the exercise of institutional power, who live at the center of the institutions.” Martel recounts the testimony with the goal of discerning “the institutional arrangements and practices as they are revealed by testimony.”5 Hearing testimony well, Jordan warns, requires a sophisticated self-awareness of the inherited categories and genres for telling stories about ourselves. I think this point helps to receive the testimony Martel conveys. It is filtered through his own and his subjects’ categories and genres; both Martel and his subjects reveal themselves in what they say. This point invites critical questions about how Martel shapes the testimony and how that testimony has already been filtered to Martel. I will share some of what I noticed. I wonder if Martel has left sufficient space for the genuine theological conviction of conservatives. I think his account would have been more interesting and complete if he had. Additionally, he often relies on a triumphalist narrative about gay rights and gay marriage, borne from a progressive narrative about sexual ethics in the modern world. I think there are good reasons to be more chastened about both, not least because of how it leads him to figure those who are not so modern or progressive. I’m thinking especially of the troubling way he frames Cardinal Robert Sarah’s African tribal origins. Sarah, a convert, remains religiously primitive. He continues to share with the Coniagui tribe “their prejudices, their rites and a liking for witchcraft and witch doctors” (323). One priest Martel interviews suggests that Sarah is “literally frightening” because he “prays constantly, as if he’s under some sort of spell” (324). Martel also frames him as intellectually primitive—revealing the prejudices of his interview subjects. Sarah, he notes, is said not to “have the requisite level of linguistic understanding” to celebrate the Latin mass. One academic criticizes Sarah’s critique of Enlightenment philosophers for revealing an “archaism which places superstition over reason.” Another describes Sarah as a “bottom-of-the range theologian” and calls his theology “very puerile” (325). Martel himself engages quite painfully in such discourse when he described a “hysterical speech” Sarah gave in which “he denounced, as if he were still in his animist village, the ‘beast of the Apocalypse’” (329-330). Surely Martel could have disputed Sarah’s homophobia without accepting the premise that it reflects a primitive African identity, religion, and intellect.

A third mode of truth telling, fragmentary history, involves those truths found in archives, in tracts, in polemics, in poetry, in art and iconography. Such truths are always fragmentary because “evidence has been systematically suppressed—or never registered.” The history based on them will therefore “always be scattered and ambiguous… disorderly and incomplete.”6 Martel’s argument relies heavily on such fragments. He pays meticulous attention not only to art, literature, architecture, dress, comportment, and manner, but also to archives and texts. For example, he discerns what he calls the “Maritain Code” in French philosopher-theologian Jacques Maritain’s letters and writings. This code, he argues, is key to understanding the Vatican. More generally, his reflections on literature (especially French literature), art, and dress are often insightful and sometimes funny. I think they ought to be evaluated for how convincingly they help make his argument—both separately and cumulatively.

Jordan’s final category, provocative analogy, relies on what is known to understand what is obscure. In this case, knowledge of contemporary gay subcultures sheds light on clerical cultures. “We are particularly familiar with how contemporary American men build gay networks or neighborhoods. So, when we come to the distorted and fragmentary evidence for American clerical gayness, we bring clearer pictures for comparison.”7 Jordan offers his own work using drag queens understand Liturgy Queens as an example, which also illustrates how satire can be an especially compelling way to tell certain kinds of truths. “It would be a good thing for theologians to relearn the art of satire… Take truth wherever you find it, but also speak the truth in ways it must be spoken. Satire may be the only way to speak secrets against overwhelming efforts to hide them. Again, the homoeroticism of official Catholic life is sometimes so blatant that only powerful devices could keep us from laughing out loud at its solemn denials.”8 Martel’s work makes most sense to me through this category. He uses provocative analogies throughout his book to make what he has witnessed intelligible. That these analogies tie the argument together that comes through most clearly in the Epilogue, which outlines a series of such analogies to tie up the argument. This category also helps to explain the style and tone in which the book is written, and for which Martel has already been much criticized.

I’m sure Martel’s style—at times melodramatic, campy, catty, and even, to use James Martin’s word, “bitchy”—doesn’t prime more earnest readers to respond to his work with sobriety. But I’m not sure that’s a reason not to write that way. Irony, melodrama, and camp are not incompatible with the truth—even serious, excruciating truths. What if Martel spent 4 years doing 1500 interviews, and the best he could do to communicate what he perceived was to describe a drag performance gone horribly, tragically, culpably, devastatingly wrong? How is one supposed to address it? What form of speech befits it? Martel suggests he is reflecting how his subjects talk. But he also writes as a gay man describing his interactions with other gay men, and he uses language gay men often use when speaking about each other. And it’s not quite an insult for one gay man to refer to a group of gay men as “queens.” It might even be a term of endearment. I wonder: can a gay man like Martel tell the truth to the church? David Halperin has tried to explain why some communities of gay men talk like this:

Gay male cultural practices… tend to place their subjects, whether those subjects be gay or straight, in the position of the excluded, the disqualified, the performative, the inauthentic, the unserious, the pathetic, the melodramatic, the excessive, the artificial, the hysterical, the feminized. In this, gay culture simply acknowledges its location—the larger social situation in which gay men find themselves in straight society—as well as its unique relation to the constellation of social values attached to that society’s dominant cultural forms. 9

According to Halperin, the use of satire and irony does social work. “The most immediate way for gay men to defy social humiliation, and to assert our own subjective agency, is not to deny our abjection, or strive to overcome it, but actively to claim it—by taking on the hated social identity that has been affixed to us.” Doing so, Halperin argues, is part of a “larger strategy of political defiance.”10 Consider, for example, how this strategy of immanent critique works: what does it do to your perception of the cappa magna once you see it as part of a Liturgy Queen’s costume? Even if Martel has mainly elicited the reader’s defenses, he has succeeded.


I do not think Martel’s use of satire detracts from the seriousness of the case he makes. In some ways, it has drawn many of the book’s critics to reveal their own homophobia. They can’t get past it. Martel for his part doesn’t seem particularly scandalized by the homosexuality of Vatican prelates, as many in the media seem to be. It’s a rather boring observation, almost a truism. The intolerable scandal, on which he focuses relentlessly and seriously, is a vast system of “organized lying” and enforced silences (53, quoting Hannah Arendt). It is a culture of duplicity, which makes the acknowledgment and frank discussion of something so obvious a scandal, the source of a problem. In this light, the various ways the media, right-wing Catholics, and even liberal Catholics scandalize the homosexuality of priests reflects the entrenched power of the system of organized lying. Martel’s primary interest seems to be to bring the matter into the open so it can be discussed honestly.

A series of secondary scandals flow from the foundational duplicity. One is the two-tiered morality, internally tolerant of the discreet homosexuality of brother priests but condemning of the loves and pleasures of those outside the brotherhood (272) and the raw and violent homophobia which often accompanies those condemnations. Another is the rank, perverse culture of abuse, harassment, and exploitation which flourishes wherever integrity languishes. Especially important in this regard is the use migrant sex workers, the abuse of seminarians, the general culture of sexual harassment, the demonization of the LGBT community, and the opposition to evidence-based responses to HIV and AIDS. It is also worth emphasizing Martel’s accounts of the Vatican’s political compromises with authoritarians and dictators, framed by the Vatican’s anti-communist lurch to the right and its corresponding persecution of liberation theologians. Martel’s description of the Vatican’s relationship with the Pinochet regime, based on interviews and on recently declassified CIA documents, is of special interest.

Drawing attention to duplicity and its effects is perhaps the most consistent and compelling theme in the entire work. Martel does a great deal to illuminate its various dimensions. In the process, he also offers the church a gift. All Christians, and not only Catholics, might receive it as such. For the scandal Martel describes is also spiritual. The alternative to duplicity is integrity, wholeness, self-presence, which is the condition for being present to others. I cannot be with you or with God unless I am with myself. So what does it mean if a prominent way of being at the highest levels of the church make such presence impossible?11 The sacramental ministry of duplicitous men isn’t invalidated even by their systemic moral failures. But their judgment is compromised, along with their leadership, their example, and their capacity to teach honestly. How can such people be trusted—as teachers, leaders, or even as Christians? They also compromise the witness and mission of the church. Duplicity makes them pastoral failures. I think, for example, of the severe spiritual damage these men are doing to the queer kids under their care. I’m not talking only about the permanent damage caused by the psychic terrors inflicted on children and young adults, who often grow up learning that there is something wrong with them, longing to become someone else, wishing that they would just not be, and sometimes acting to make it so. I’m also referring more concretely to its effect on the material conditions of the lives of some Christians. While only 7 or 8% of youth identify as LGBT, 43% of all homeless youth identify that way. If they don’t end up dead—as many do, since 2/3 of them attempt suicide—they have probably survived because they have found a new family. And, while the church doesn’t officially teach that parents should expel their queer kids, one reason for this overrepresentation is that their mothers and fathers have rejected them on the basis of Christian teaching. What does it do to people when trusted authorities teach them to lie about those they should love? What does it mean that those authorities are doing so in part because they’re lying about themselves?

The Epilogue is where the book is at its most theologically constructive. Martel ends with a fascinating and often tender analysis of the “post gay friendships” of priests Martel has detected. They “elude classification.” Martel wonders if they are anticipating “new LGBT ways of life” and inventing “affective fluidity and ‘liquid ‘love’” (538). They are living, he suggests, as Foucault foretold: “among men… outside of institutional relationships, outside of family, profession, forced camaraderie” (540). He praises the “generous and inventive relationship” of a priest who adopted a sex worker as his son, “whose love-turned-friendship is the product not of blood ties but of elective fatherhood” (539). Those who reject “dishonest loves” are especially held up as models to be imitated. It would have been helpful if Martel had reflected even more expansively and considered what it might mean for celibacy to be a distinctive sexuality rather than the simple repression of sexual desire. He might have helped readers to see how different “celibacies” are being lived within the church.12 Once again, it helps that Martel writes as an outsider. For, as Jordan has noted elsewhere, “a subject that catholic theologians cannot discuss during centuries except with thunder, derision, or disgust is not a subject on which Catholic theology is ready to speak.” Despite some of the limitations of Martel’s perspective noted above, I think his account offers another unlikely gift to those committed to taking mature responsibility for the indispensable forms of Christian speech. He suggests, from the perspective of a gay man in gay community, how queer lives might “become audible to the church, readable within it,” which is necessary “before their graces can be discerned and described.”13


Jordan describes three typical reactions to works such as Martel’s. The first is to scandalize efforts to tell uncomfortable or difficult truths. The teller is angry—hysterical, bitter, self-hating. This response shifts the attention back to the speaker’s motives or person. It deflects from what has been spoken. Implicitly, such responses effectively deny that one can be angry at the church—that anger and love might coexist, and that love often motivates and frames anger. They also invalidate the pain of those trying to remain faithful and yet tell difficult truths. A second response characterizes the motive as anti-Catholic prejudice. This appeals to a “tribal” mentality, Jordan argues, which causes many Catholics to reflexively occupy a defensive posture. In this regard, I’m glad Martel identified himself so ambiguously as a “Catholic Atheist” (547). In my view, he protests his own non-Catholicism too much. Of all Christians, certainly Catholics can find such an identity intelligible, since Martel’s baptism is what determines his identity from the church’s perspective. A third response demands proof. This demand, Jordan argues, is intended to reduce the teller to silence. I do not think that Jordan is implying that unfounded accusations should be uncritically accepted. He’s raising a serious question about what it means to provide evidence for certain kinds of truths. “We are dealing with the sin of a system for keeping secrets—about which we can no longer plausibly claim to be shocked. In that system, every sin of sexual power is multiplied by the sins of silence needed to conceal it. These sins include repeated demands for evidence that will never be acknowledged or examined.”14

Such defensive responses, already in ample evidence, are not always dishonest. But none of them seem to take the difficulties of truth telling very seriously. This ensures that they will successfully avoid certain hard confrontations along with the gifts that accompany them. I have attempted here to offer an alternative response, focused on perception rather than judgment, sensitive to different types of evidence, attentive to the modes of theological truth telling. In absence of settled judgments about its significance, and frankly unsure of my own place in this conversation, I have instead shared the categories I have found helpful for interpreting and analyzing what Martel has offered.

  1. Mark D. Jordan, Telling Truths in Church: Scandal, Flesh, and Christian Speech (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2003), 6.

  2. Jordan, 13.

  3. Jordan, 7.

  4. Jordan, 8.

  5. Jordan, 8.

  6. Jordan, 16–17.

  7. Jordan, 17.

  8. Jordan, 18.

  9. David M. Halperin, How To Be Gay (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2012), 377.

  10. David M. Halperin, How To Be Gay (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2012), 377.

  11. I analyze some of the theological problems with duplicity, especially in relation to sexuality, in Sean Larsen, “Natural Law and the ‘Sin Against Nature,’” Journal of Religious Ethics 43, no. 4 (December 1, 2015): 629–73.

  12. See Benjamin A. Kahan, Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2013).

  13. Mark D Jordan, The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 3.

  14. Jordan, Telling Truths in Church, 23–24.



Three Theological Insights Upon Reading In The Closet of the Vatican

I’m grateful to Sean Larsen for the invitation to contribute to this symposium. I believe that, notwithstanding the limitations outlined by some reviewers, Frederic Martel’s book offers an important opportunity in the life of the Roman Catholic Church. My comments do not constitute a review of the book; instead, following the example of other contributors here, I offer three insights that emerged from my reading of the book. My first comment is by way of a kind of theological reader-response criticism. My second comment proposes a different reading of the historical role of the work of Jacques Maritain in the politics of the Vatican closet. My third and final comment concerns the development of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, from an intuition presented by Martel at the end of his book.


We Must Not Be Afraid of the Light

On an evening of the spring of 2013, I was enjoying dinner in a restaurant with James Alison, when — I cannot recall why — our conversation turned to the subject of the double-lives of some homosexual clergy, preaching celibate chastity to the Catholic faithful while living in various sorts of relationships with boyfriends, lovers, escorts and more; we also discussed the consequences of this situation on the life of the Church. I remember becoming very unhappy at a certain point in the conversation: I was overwhelmed and I simply did not want to know anything more of the injustice and disorder that was being revealed in our conversation.

Fast forward to my experience of reading In the Closet of the Vatican: I fully expected to have some kind of experience like the one I have just described. Instead, as I made my way through the pages and pages of detailed description of the results of Martel’s research, I found myself basically at peace, and experiencing a kind of relief that the secrets were now out in the open. It became clear to me that in the five years since my conversation with James, my relationship with the ecclesial institution had changed.

This is the reader-response moment. There have been many reactions to the book already, from various parts of the ecclesial spectrum: anger, disgust, denial, sorrow, a sense of triumphant vindication, and so on. In the Closet of the Vatican reveals to us our ecclesial selves, who we are in relation particularly to the institutional dimensions of the body of Christ: as Aquinas often wrote, what is received is received according to the mode of the receiver. Reflecting on this dimension of our response can be instructive.

There are two reasons for this. The first is simple: the mechanisms of Church politics revealed by Martel can only function so long as they are hidden. Once they are known, they lose their power and their ability to function, and change becomes possible. To the extent that we find it difficult — after the initial shock has passed — to recognize “the coming of the light” (see John 1:9) that is possible now, to that extent will we have missed the opportunity to contribute to the transformation of institutional structures to align them more with Christ’s mission.

The second reason flows from the first: if we are to contribute to this ecclesial conversion, we must recognize our own need to be freed from those energies that get in the way of collaborating with Christ: a desire for revenge, for example, or misplaced zeal, and so on. Transforming ecclesial institutions according to Christ’s mission demands humility and loving discernment, and the ability to attend to the needs of those most affected by the injustice and scandal. Again, allowing Christ’s light to shine on us and reveal us to ourselves is paramount.


Maritain and Vatican Politics

In the March 4th edition of La Croix, the French Catholic newspaper, historians Florian Michel and Michel Fourcade published a refutation of Martel’s use of the “code Maritain” as an explanation of the Vatican closet. The two historians show that Martel relied heavily on older sources that have been refuted to suggest that Jacques Maritain’s supposed homosexuality, since disproved, is somehow an explanation of the culture of duplicity and cover-ups he uncovers.

Chapter 7 is indeed a rather thin part of the book’s argument, but I would like to suggest that there is nevertheless something to the fact that most of the people Martel discusses profess to be disciples of Jacques Maritain. I think Martel has correctly intuited the nexus, but he reached for the wrong explanation.

In his 1998 book Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics and the Body of Christ, William Cavanaugh suggests that the political theology of Jacques Maritain and some streams of Catholic Action are at the root of the Church’s inability, in the contemporary context, to act in the public political sphere. Maritain distinguishes “acting as a Christian” in society from acting “in the name of being a Christian.” In the first case, one accepts that in a secular society the best course of action is for the Christian to be “leaven in the dough,” that is, to pursue justice and the social good out of one’s Christian values, but not to insist publicly on their Christian character. In the second case, the Christian chooses to take up a visibly Christian and public stance against injustice or anti-Christian values. Maritain argues that the first position is truer to the tradition of Catholic integral humanism. Cavanaugh argues that it is precisely this social hiddenness that has robbed the Church of its political character as Christ’s body, because it accepts uncritically the marginalizing of the Church into the private sphere of morality and “values.” Church leaders who accept this stance are limited to behind-the-scenes moral and spiritual interventions with political leaders; they need to maintain influence if they are to be heard.

I would like to suggest that this approach to the political role of the Church is the “code Maritain” at play in the Vatican closet. Church leaders who become habituated to using influence to affect political outcomes cannot afford to lose that influence and all that makes it possible. They learn to play politics according to the rules of “the world,” as it were. Their closeted double-lives threaten their ability to be influential, and so they must protect this secret in any way they can.

If this alternative interpretation of the “code Maritain” is correct, then Cavanaugh’s argument for the Eucharist as the Church’s response to social violence is helpful here too, but for a different reason: the celebration of the Eucharist makes all of us responsible agents, with the Holy Spirit, in the constitution of Christ’s body. The purpose of leadership in the liturgy is to call forth the free commitment of the baptized to Christ’s mission so as to empower the body of Christ to act in the world. This Eucharistic framework provides the Church with a measure to overcome the clericalism that defends the Vatican closet.


The Future of the Church’s Teaching on Homosexuality

Martel argues, towards the end of the book, that only if the Church’s teaching on homosexuality changes can the Vatican closet be truly dismantled. There is some truth to this. Three reactions, however, ought to be avoided. The first is an a priori ruling out of possible developments in the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. The second is an uncritical acceptance of contemporary cultural stances on homosexuality. The third is an expansion, in the abstract, of the Church’s teaching on marriage to homosexual couples. All three reactions share the same difficulty. At its best, the Christian community’s moral teaching develops as a response to the pastoral experience of the Church ministers and a reflection on the spiritual experience of the people of God. All three reactions short-circuit this process of attentive and prudent discernment of Christian experience.

Martel himself suggests that some elements of what a healthy position on homosexuality might look like are being worked out in the Vatican closet itself, as he observes the lives, both coupled and celibate, of at least some of the clergy he interviewed. I do not believe this is the pastoral and spiritual experience we are looking for.

Again, to the extent that Martel has correctly identified distorted Vatican politics as partly responsible for the Church’s contemporary stance on homosexuality, to that extent he has shown this teaching is not of the Spirit and will need to change. But there are better examples in the Church of healthy LGBTQ persons — single, coupled, and celibate — choosing to respond in authentic ways to the call of the gospel. There are also a number of communities such as the Archdiocesan Gay and Lesbian Outreach of Chicago and All Inclusive Ministries in Toronto whose experience would be instructive. Listening to these experiences, and retrieving the wider tradition (one thinks here of the work of historian Alan Bray, the theological writings of Pavel Florensky, and the recent works of Eugene F. Rogers Jr., of Adriano Oliva, and of James Alison, among others), will prove far more helpful.

Finally, this experience, and the retrieval of the wider tradition, do need to be brought into conversation with the Church’s present teaching on marriage, chastity, and celibate sexuality. But the most helpful form of theological reasoning to employ in this conversation will not be logical or linear; rather, it will be analogical, honouring both similarity and difference.


Concluding Thoughts

The academic and public debates around In the Closet of the Vatican are likely to continue for some time. Media interest will eventually wane, if it has not already begun to do so. Despite the ebbs and flows of opinion, Christians must not lose sight of the opportunity we have been given to participate in a significant ecclesial transformation.

Craig A. Ford, Jr.


Martel’s Mirrors

The most fascinating part about reading In the Closet of the Vatican—at least for me—is becoming captivated by Martel’s ability to construct a world of unrelenting scandal for the reader, a world curated, for the most part, out of meetings in beautiful accommodations, restaurants, and cafés. One cannot doubt there is a certain cinematic quality to the story’s development, which details events all the way from the papacy of Paul VI through Francis—“narrative non-fiction,” he calls it (25)—and all of this draws a reader like me even more closely into the text. Yet I’d like to suggest that it is just this quality of the work that most closely merits pause and examination by the reader. Narrated truth merits sustained attention, because—and here let the content be as non-fictional as one would like—in order for such content to be communicated, various mechanisms of narration must also be employed in order for it to occur. For even if it is “the real world” that is being portrayed to us by Martel, it is nevertheless a world into which we are led by Martel, as if we are on a guided tour of a forbidden island (or, in this case, Rome or Naples). Here lies both the pleasure and the danger of the text.

Now, this is not to say that the world we are being shown is false. As other commentators in this forum have stated—take Brian Flanagan’s piece above, for example—it’s unclear exactly how one would determine that what Martel is saying is false, as the work of verification would be immense. But it is to say that we must ask questions not only about what is shown, but also how it is shown. That is why I stress the word ‘curation’ here. And it is with respect to two items in Martel’s exhibit that I’d like to draw attention. For our purposes here, I’d like to call these two items mirrors. I call them such because mirrors easily function as metaphors for disillusionment and truth-telling in a particularly solitary mode. When we submit ourselves to a mirror’s reflection, we see more sharply who we are. We learn more about ourselves. But what a mirror can reveal is ultimately limited by the gaze of the viewer. It depends on the viewer’s position and the light in the background. If we learn more about ourselves through a mirror, in other words, we only learn more about ourselves because of the prior presence of certain categories by which to interpret our experience. If mirrors reflect images, they also—as the condition for those images’ possibility—reflect worldviews that prepackage how to interpret truth to us. Martel is not only showing us a reflection. He is also holding the mirrors.

In Martel’s first mirror, we see an image of the Catholic Church reflected in a secular, skeptical, and rightfully angry light. As many thinkers have pointed out, a modern ethic of authenticity makes insincerity or hypocrisy intolerable. Martel’s appeal to this ethic allows him to gain our trust. “If we are right to denounce their hypocrisy,” he writes, referring to the hypocrisy of priests, bishops, and cardinals who bemoan homosexuality by day yet indulge in the pleasures of same-sex love at night, “it is not with a view to rebuking them for their homosexuality…Instead, the intention is to ‘inspect the invisible and hear the unheard’ as the poet has it” (34). Martel is our poet, and the result of his inspections is the now-familiar story of scandal. And it’s a story that all of us, primed as we are to the precipitous fall of all persons hubristic enough to moralize in the public sphere, are foaming to hear. The problem, we tell ourselves, is not that these men are homosexual. After all, the particular conceit of the West is that we are somehow beyond homophobia, even though (in the United States, for example) we are witnessing a full legal and cultural assault on the visibility of same-sex love in the public square while gay people still commit suicide because of their sexuality. The problem, we tell ourselves, is that their sexuality is a secret. If only they would come out—what our society considers authenticity to be for gay people—things would get better. It is this sensibility that energizes Martel’s epilogue, where the reader is moved to sympathy for the relationships had between prelates that are forced to be kept secret. “It’s a fact,” Martel writes. “The constraints of the Church have forced those priests to come up with extraordinary detours to experience wonderful love affairs, like classical dramatists who attained perfect literary perfection while being obliged to respect the very strict rule of the three unities: time, place and action” (536).

As with the individual, so with the institutional. If only the Catholic Church would give up its secrets and live into its authentic self—this logic goes— it would have the possibility of restoring its moral credibility. In one sense, Martel is absolutely right. The Catholic Church has kept secrets about the wrong things, and this is what makes the sex abuse crisis such a devastating event in the life of the Church. Here Martel reflects on the extent of the sex abuse crisis through one of his interviewees, Cardinal Marc Ouellet: “[The Cardinal] paints a picture of a Church that is literally falling apart. In his view, all the parishes in the world, all the bishops’ conferences, all the dioceses are sullied. The image is horrific: the Church seems like a Titanic that is sinking while the orchestra goes on playing” (92). It is hard to gainsay this description. Yet, in another sense, Martel’s analysis tells us something about how he is holding the mirror and what he wants us to see. Once again, there is no doubt that the abuse of minors is a crime, and there is no doubt that aggravating this crime are all the realities we’ve learned about post-Spotlight that show what bishops and cardinals have been willing to do to conceal it. But it is to this crime that the modern subject also affixes an additional offense: the distinctly modern crime of not being able to live “one’s authentic self.” In Martel’s text, there is no indication that there is any interesting category for authenticity given beyond either that of the ‘homosexual’, on the one hand, or the ‘cleric’, on the other. “Marco went to seminary because he was convinced that he had a calling from God,” Martel relates. “[Marco] told me he believed, in good faith, in his religious vocation, but he discovered his true vocation once he was over 50: it was homosexuality” (12).

As Jim Martin points out in his contribution to this symposium, this sort of dichotomous understanding of authenticity is questionable and simplistic. But he and I see this dichotomous understanding as questionable and simplistic for different reasons. Whereas Martin wishes that Martel would show an intellectual imagination that sees past the binary of cleric or homosexual in order to imagine the (celibate) homosexual cleric, I see Martel simply as expressing Western modernity’s incomprehension at an identity that is simultaneously gay and Catholic, whether celibate or not. This incomprehension needs no argument. Its justification is as clear as the image reflected in Martel’s mirror. In reality, however, the seeming clarity hides modernity’s blind spot, concealing both mysteries and double standards. One example: into what safe world are these homosexual men supposed to come out? Where could they live out this identity? ‘Outside the Church,’ is the convenient answer, especially because it is does not draw attention to the heteronormativity of that world which places gay people into the closet in the first place. But while being ‘out’ may allow these men to get married, it will do nothing to stop them from being stigmatized and attacked—two things that continue to happen, once again, in the imagined modern secular paradise of authentic living in the West; two things that, in the first place, bring them from ‘outside the Church’ to ‘inside the Church’, in order to effect some sort of psychological survival, however complicated that  journey might be, and however interrogated that journey should be by mental health professionals and sociologists. The point here is not that it is therefore a good thing to keep secrets—that would be the simplistic inverse of the image Martel gives in the mirror—the point is that when secrecy is offered in this particularly equivocal mode as the diagnosis for the ills both of sex abuse and of active homosexuality in the clerical state, it fails to see how secret-keeping functions differently in each case. The result is the monster that continues to emerge from the closet of homophobic logical fallacy: because the homosexual is concealing a secret, and because the sex abuser is concealing a secret, the two must be linked. The secret-keeping homosexual must be, or is more likely to be, the priest abuser.

A second mirror worth discussing is the one Martel holds up to the lay Catholic. He shows us an institution in shambles. I think we have to accept this reflection. For however debilitating the revelations from the sex abuse crisis have been, there is no doubt that the moralizing hypocrisy of our own same-sex desiring priests, bishops, and cardinals only fuels our resentment towards them. Martel’s style of writing— at times to the consternation of some of his critics in this symposium—demonstrates the fallout from this: a church led by hypocrites is one that is trying to cede its moral authority to the devastating attacks of comedians and detractors who owe us no favors in trying to solve our institutional problems. And that’s exactly what we frequently see in this text. It is, for example, ridiculous, infuriating, insulting, and hilarious all at once to learn that priests refer to their same-sex lovers as their nephews (18), just as it is entertaining in a way too reminiscent of an SNL episode to witness Martel have the infamous Cardinal Burke’s appearance “read” approvingly by a drag queen acting something like the equivalent of an expert analyst on television. “What strikes me when I look at Cardinal Burke’s cappa magna, robes or hats topped by floral ornaments,” says Julian Fricker, described as a “German drag artist who aims to achieve a high artistic standard,” “is his overstatement. The biggest, the longest, the tallest: it’s all very typical of drag queen codes…These clerics are playing with gender theory and gender identities that are not fixed, but fluid and queer” (30).

Now, to be fair, one can legitimately ask if Martel is overplaying his hand when it comes to using homosexuality as an analytical lens. Sometimes, homosexuality explains too much, as when Francis’s papacy is characterized primarily as a war taking place between two opposing gay camps (59, 95), or when Francis’s episcopal appointees in the United States are highlighted through their positions on homosexuality (100). But this doesn’t change the point: what are we going to do in the face of an institution that clearly needs reform, but yet exists in such a way that the laity are almost totally disempowered to effect any change? This is the question that Martel suspends for us Catholics in the text.

Leaving the Catholic Church is an option for some, and there is, unfortunately, no shortage of good reasons for doing so. But then there are those of us who—for some reason that becomes all the more incomprehensible in the face of a secularizing modernity—choose to remain. Our next moves here are of vital importance. We must first avoid the temptation of accepting uncritically the reflection of a modern, secular world that is safer or better for gay people because it is less religious. Homophobia comes from hatred, not from anything that can rightly be called a Christian value, and hatred has shown that it, too, doesn’t need religion to function. Knowing this, we must push for a better world, one not based on the false choice between religious sincerity and sexual authenticity that covers up the heteronormativity of the world outside the church. In doing so, we can hope to bring into being a new view of sexuality, where sacred and secular join forces to put an end to the homophobia that apparently makes religious life so attractive as a haven for homosexual men.

At the same time, we must also push with all the strength we can muster to make our church morally credible. Certainly, giving the answers to such a process goes beyond the scope of this essay, but if we don’t come up with answers soon, we Catholics will walk away from this institution—by joining other denominations or other religions or by embracing some form of antireligious secularism. When that happens, we will testify—however regretfully—that we could not abide the reflection Martel held up to us. But by choosing not to look away, my hope is that we’ll somehow envisage a world beyond the one that Martel shows us so clearly. In this prolonged gaze, we will see, not a powerless laity, but a fierce one. Our hypocritical leaders, targeted deftly by Francis’s many homilies to the College of Cardinals and beyond, will be convicted. And the truth—both about our sexual lives as well as about what sort of institutional penances and practices we will need to enact in order to restore credibility and bring healing to all stripes of victims in the 21st century— will set us free.



Psychological Reflections on the Closet

Frédéric Martel’s In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy is a 576 page survey of the sexual dysfunction of the Vatican and the wider Church. It exposes a prevalent culture of homophilia in the Vatican, discusses the sexual practices of many Vatican officials, and makes some disturbing claims about moral and financial corruption in the heart of the Church. It is a narrative of duplicity – the double lives of many senior prelates and the system enables them. Although the book’s focus is on clerical sexuality, Martel also regularly connects that focus to other topics, such as sexual abuse and its cover-ups, power abuse, and the corruptions associated with politics and money. He often looks at his subjects through the prisms of psychology, philosophy, and literature.

The structure of the book is masterly. It begins with the current Pope Francis, emphasizing his robust attack on hypocrisy, and then it moves back to review the papacies of Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI before Martel returns to Francis and explores the relationship between him, Benedict and Benedict’s entourage. The book ends with an Epilogue, which offers a typology of the sexualities of the priests he encountered. Throughout, Martel’s writing is vivid. His descriptive passages place you powerfully “in the moment.”

Martel’s portrayal of the papacies of Paul V1, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI were equally disturbing. The lengthy section on Pope John Paul II’s twenty-five year papacy is particularly striking. Four notable villains are portrayed: Mgr. (later Cardinal) Dziwisz, Cardinal Sodano, Cardinal Trujillo and Marcial Maciel. The account he offers would be a shocking indictment of any institution, and it is especially shocking for a religious institution. The book comes across as an encyclopedia of clerical dysfunction and corruption during four recent papacies. From the start the book overwhelms in its detail. The reality of corruption, both political and financial, is familiar, but I was shocked by its magnitude. Even if only fifty percent of the book is completely accurate, it is a disgraceful scandal that merits Martel’s revelations. Overall, I view this as a serious book.

I found Martel’s account believable for several reasons. First, the book is detailed and based on extensive research. Martel backs up his claims with clear evidence. The bulk of what he says is based on the fifteen hundred recorded, in-person interviews Martel conducted all over the world. Though some of the details Martel provides may have come from conversations that were social and informal, they give the overall impression that many people trusted Martel and spoke candidly with him. Additionally, Martel supports much of what he says with evidence from police, associates, and other forms of documentation. I found no reason to disbelieve him. Finally, it is worth emphasizing that his account is consistent in two respects. It is self-consistent. It is also consistent with my own experience in working within the Church in various roles. I am very well-versed in many of the double-life practices outlined by Martel.

Let me give an example. In one chapter, Martel investigates the active gay culture of the seminaries in Rome. His account, based on more than fifty interviews, reveals that many seminarians are coupled and that it is common for them to frequent gay bars. Martel suggests that the heterosexual minority cannot feel at ease because of the homoerotic culture. His account also shows how attempts by Benedict to ban homosexual tendencies in seminaries failed. This account of Roman seminaries is consistent with my time as a student in a UK seminary and my later experiences of working intensely for many years in religious formation. For me, it raises questions about seminary selection procedures, of psychological assessment, or of the process of formation. I have long held the view that seminary formation needs to encompass in-depth psycho-sexual developmental programmes. As a member of a National Safeguarding Commission I was given the remit by the Chair to develop national seminary Safeguarding programmes. My experience here is telling; my role was given instead to in-house, seminary clerics. They produced a document that did not include any of the necessary psychological elements of seminarian formation in respect of safeguarding. This should have been the document’s intention but it was simply a manual of mechanical safeguarding procedures. It is my view that to promote a healthy priesthood, seminaries should pay heed beyond standard risk assessments and spiritual direction to allow programmes for open discussion on psycho sexual issues regardless of candidates’ sexual orientation.

I would like to make some selective psychological observations based on particular aspects of Martel’s book.

First, I want to address how easy it might be, despite Martel’s intention, for some readers to conflate clerical sexual abuse and homosexuality. It is always worth repeating that sexual identity alone does not determine sexual dysfunction. Paedophilia is very specific. It is a sick, addictive, complex set of sexual malfunctions that can relate to any sexual identity. In fact, I believe that paedophilic activity cannot be reduced to a defined sexual identity at all. The perpetrator generally displays gross sexual immaturity along with a complex system of psychological pathologies. In my experience and view, this reduces the paedophile to a non-specific sexual orientation even if the attractions are towards male or female.

Second, I want to address the relationship between clericalism and homosexuality. Despite recent progress in understanding homosexuality and the political work done by LGBTQ communities in correcting false perceptions, prejudice and exclusion are ongoing realities for many. Decriminalisation of homosexuality in some countries – but still not globally – is a fairly recent occurrence. In this context, homosexuality under the guise of mandatory celibacy has provided a safe place for many priests to hide behind a collar of respectability. Because of this, it is not surprising that the last three papacies have adopted a homophobic attitude towards homosexuality and, in general, a negative attitude to all things sexual – save for the purposes of procreation. The idea of homosexual love and the sexual act itself was abhorrent particularly if your orientation, either personally known or suspected, was homosexual. This provides a platform for homophobia and indeed for self-hatred leading to an obsessed hatred of all things sexual, while also enjoying the comfort and safety of homophilic surroundings.

Third, I want to raise a question on the nature of clerical celibacy. The question to priests both gay and straight: how does one control one’s sexual impulses, urges, and fantasies? The sacred vows of mandatory celibacy create a cloak of silence, leaving this question unanswered, along with another, broader concern: how can a priest own his fully sexual personhood and live to his full potential without intimacy, touch, and human erotic love in his life?

It has long been held that celibacy allows the priest to live a life where full relationship with Christ is the sole prize. The life of the priest is focussed entirely on priestly service. Relationships must be conducted in a platonic, agapic and distant way. Celibacy, as a charism of the church has held a rich place for some priests especially within monastic or religious communities who through discipline, faith and continual prayer have achieved a truly celibate life. I find this model of mandatory celibacy whereby all sexual desire is denied and then sublimated into the sub-conscious to be an exceptionally unhealthy way of managing celibacy and reduces the person to the state of an asexual being. This loss of acclaimed identity has provided a lonely and isolated place for many priests. Some priests have pushed themselves into pietistical and spiritualised practices while others have focused on intellectual matters or become workaholics. On the darker side, the priest may have resorted to addictive practices for example alcoholism or gambling or to sexual and obsessive practices such as pornography, cottaging, and surrogate relationships. Positively, many priests have found solace in ‘particular’ friendships that are loving and loyal, explicit or not, but usually secret and covert. Whether these intrude on mandatory celibacy is questionable. Personally I view mandatory celibacy as in need of a complete rethink. A chosen option perhaps – not a ‘til I die’ requirement.

Finally, I was disgusted to read descriptions of psychotherapeutic abusive practices particularly relating to the psychologist Dr. Anatrella and to the various forms of homosexual aversion therapy, which Martel described graphically. The latter sadly is still practised today.

In conclusion, until such time that the Church makes proper provision at seminarian level for correct selection, attention to psychological development both emotional and sexual, supervision and continued accountability at all ranks, I am doubtful that the shocking and deeply disturbing account of Vatican clerical culture that Martel portrays can alter or change. This is a deeply damaged and damaging culture. Reform is vital for the Church’s safe survival. In my view, this quotation from Walter Hilton’s The Scale of Perfection aptly sums up the essence of Martel’s book:

Any person who neglects to maintain inward vigilance and only makes an outward show of holiness in dress, speech and behaviour is a wretched creature. For they watch the doings of other people and criticise their faults, imagining themselves to be something when in reality they are nothing. In this way they deceive themselves.’

James Alison


The Unexpected Shape of Forgiveness

In his book The Cassowary’s Revenge: The Life and Death of Masculinity in a New Guinea Society, the late Social Anthropologist Donald Tuzin describes what he found on his second visit to Ilahita, a New Guinea village, over a dozen years after his first in 1972. The males of the village had recently and suddenly renounced their secret cult, or “Tambaran”, and along with that, their “men’s house” from which the cult had emanated. By means of the cult and the house they had dominated the women of the village for generations. Indeed such houses have been prominent features of many Melanesian societies prior to western influence. It will come as no surprise to friends of mine that the mythology which the males handed on, centring around the Cassowary (a large and potentially dangerous flightless bird), seems to have been made to measure for a Girardian reading. But that is not my concern here. It is Tuzin’s description of the various factors which had impinged on Ilahita life between his 1972 visit and the collapse of the cult which are fascinating: the presence of different forms of western life including, but not limited to, evangelical missionaries. The voluntary self-destruction of the men’s house   was one of the most visible symptoms of the complete collapse in the meaning of masculinity among the inhabitants, and the concomitant need for all of them to renegotiate all the dimensions of the meaning of being women and men. I once met one of the tribal men who experienced all this as a youth. He had, since the time of the collapse of “Tambaran” became an openly gay Qantas air steward. In less than forty years, he had thus lived through the identity changes which the last six thousand years or so have wrought among the rest of us.

This image, of the contemporary collapse of a stone age tribal men’s house, was what came to my mind in the week of the launch of Frédéric Martel’s book. The Western world’s principal structurally visible remnant of the archaic sacrificial is in full collapse: the “men’s house” that is the clerical structure of the Catholic Church, is fast becoming transparent. And with its transparency, all mystique is lost, and its intellectual stanchions – its bastardized scholastic “Tambaran” – revealed to be of astonishing poverty, and not really believed in, let alone practised, by the majority of those who dwell in it. Just to remind you: in the week of the launch, the Nuncio to France was first reported as being “handsy” with young male employees of the Paris mayoralty, and it quickly became clear that this was well known habitual behaviour on his part. Then the Holy Father openly discussed the emerging reports from different countries of women religious being sexually abused by priests. Next the details of how Vatican Offices are to deal with the wives and children of priests became public.

Then came the Martel book, but within days it lost immediacy in the English language press as the Pell verdict was made public, and that vocal bulwark of the “men’s house” was led to prison. Days later, the book’s challenger in the French press was the surprise verdict against Barbarin, and its token award against him of 1€ per plaintiff. And so it has gone on, on an almost daily basis since then. Wojtyla’s catastrophically poor judgment was shown not only in his personal choice of henchmen and sycophants (note to Weigel: great men want nothing to do with those who call them great and are happy to be surrounded by those who disagree with them), but also in his prohibiting discussion of so many issues. This had the effect of impairing the median intelligence of those needed to navigate change. Those prohibitions stand revealed as the last fantasy-fuelled gasp of something that is now in visible and irremediable collapse. Thank God.

One can, and some do, read Martel’s book as an accusation against the world of systemic mendacity which it reveals. For my part, I read it as one of the events which signal that God’s forgiveness is at last reaching even the hardest-hearted parts of our Church. At the 2000 Jubilee Wojtyla apologised, and asked for forgiveness, for some of the sins committed by the Church over the previous half-millennium. Yet he expressed his bitterness at the gay pride march held in Rome that year. At the time many people asked: “Why doesn’t the Church apologise to gay and lesbian people?” My response at the time was: The Church can’t apologise yet, since it has not yet been forgiven. Now, with some of the antics of the then Secretary of State, Sodano, the then papal secretary, Dziwisz, the then Family Czar López Trujillo, and others coming into the light, we can see how true that was. The faces of flint, the elegance of cover-up, the sense of impunity, and the harshness of teaching: all these are cosmetic to the double lives of the unforgiven. For that is who you become while acting to kill your own soul, even as you gain the world. You become unable to apologise for the fake goodness to which your brokenness has addicted you.

At the time I gave that response – that the Church couldn’t yet apologise, since it hadn’t yet been forgiven – I did begin to wonder what on earth it would look like for it, indeed, to be forgiven. Inspired by a Sunday where the Gospel was “if any of you have faith and say to this mountain: be thrown into the sea…”, I started to pray that the clerical closet be thrown into the sea, and all of us released from its fear. I also prayed for forgiveness for this clerical world of which I am a member; and I did myself forgive those of its members who had treated me as a threat and an enemy, as I hope that those who have been pained by my own arrogance, and the univocal nature of my attempts to face up to all this, will forgive me. But I can’t say I had any clear idea of what shape that forgiveness for us all would take. Not, I rather think, one of those kitsch penitential services in which senior clergy in their glad rags prostrate themselves upon the floor having previously concocted a perfectly harmless list of things they are apologizing for. The same clerics then pronounce themselves forgiven by God, without ever running the risk of giving protagonism to the fellow humans who might minister forgiveness to them – those against whom we have sinned.

No, what it looks like to be forgiven is: broken-heartedness. You do not apologise so as to be forgiven. Forgiveness reaches you as broken-ness of heart (contrition from cor triturare), and it is as broken-ness of heart reaches you that you can apologise – put into words what has been going on; recognise your sameness with your sisters and brothers; become equal-hearted with them. God’s mercy is what creates equal-heartedness amongst us, because that is what God’s mercy means: that God loves us as Godself.

This is what has been my experience on reading Martel’s book. And on noting such responses as I have been able to observe. Cardinal Salazar in Bogotá made the frankly absurd claim that Martel’s revelations about López Trujillo were an “absolute calumny”, claiming, without any sense of irony, that LT was “if anything too radical in his positions against homosexuality”. However, at the same time, a young priest in Colombia wrote to tell me that, shocked by what he had read about Lopez Trujillo, which was absolutely new to him, he had confronted the Bishop of his diocese and another official, both of whom had spent time in Medellín as priests while Lopez Trujillo was Archbishop. Both of them confirmed to him, timidly, that it was all true, and that they had known about it at the time. Hints of penitence begin to appear.

There have been some strangely allergic reactions to what has been revealed by journalists whose modus vivendi with the reality described (and about which many of them had considerable knowledge) has clearly been shaken. And yet, I’m very glad to say there has been no official pushback, or attempt to deny, by Vatican high ups, as far as I can tell. Hans Zollner, a leading figure in the fight against clerical cover up of child abuse gave what I surmise to be the most appropriate answer when asked in Madrid about the wave of revelations concerning homosexuality. He denied both that homosexuality leads to abuse, and also “that the media is seeking to destroy the Church with this theme”. Because journalists are just doing their duty. “They don’t invent the scandals, it’s we who create them”. It is this, as far as I can tell, that seems to be Francis’ policy amidst the upsurge of new awarenesses which are forming us: let it all come out. Let us spend time in shame, with all the different sorts of false sacred exposed as what they are. Let us not rush to hide our shame by being seen to be “doing something”, which will merely be decorative. Something in which we will still be operating out of the old clerical software. Let us instead allow ourselves to know as we are known.

I think this is the right response. And I can see why it is so infuriating to those for whom cosmetic change accompanied by the maintenance of doctrine as it is, is so important. For Francis’ response tacitly recognises that in a whole series of areas, the doctrine, the discipline, and the practice of the Church all together and in practical terms inseparably are part of a false sacred which is in collapse. Forgiveness looks like the coming to life of a living heart amidst the fragile remains of an idolatry that had, at one time, seemed so strong as to be invulnerable. It is not only the “men’s house” that collapses but the whole “Tambaran”, the sacred ideology that had served as its specious justification. And this collapse of idolatry happens relationally.  It is to do with people within “Tambaran” quite suddenly finding themselves looking at themselves through the eyes of those who are like them, and finding themselves uncovered, unable any longer to believe in their own self-justifications. Only those who are able to trust in something bigger than the “Tambaran” are able to navigate these waters. And for what are we given a successor to Peter if not for this?

Consider the knock-on effect of just one element of this relational visibility. In the world outside the clerical structure it is not merely the case that there are gay and lesbian people who have active sex lives and are open about their marital or partnership status. It is also the case that a not inconsiderable number of such people, in many countries, have come to be considered quite highly among their straight peers and compatriots because of their honesty and trustworthiness. It is not accidental that among the most trusted voices across politically divergent US news broadcasters are Anderson Cooper, Shep Smith, Rachel Maddow and Don Lemon. Even those opposed to them on ideological grounds no longer attack them on the basis of their sexual orientation, because they know that those who have gone through the hard work and risks of becoming comfortable with public knowledge of their minority orientation are perceived as highly trustworthy. The same phenomenon is visible in the basic trustworthiness that is perceived in the Buttigieg Presidential candidacy, and the Varadkar and the Bettel premierships of their respective countries. Those who are trustworthy in small matters, such as sexual orientation, come to be trusted in greater matters. Meanwhile, an institution for whose survival trustworthiness and witness is all, and which has a never-ending supply of potential gay truthtellers, has literally no publicly authorised gay figure who is able to speak truthfully in the first person. Why should anyone trust on great matters those who are manifestly unable to be trusted on small ones? How not to live in shame as we face this!

It is through this mutual visibility that comes the recognition that we’ve been silly. That we’ve been playing games. That we are ashamed of who we are and what we’ve been doing. It is as if we’ve been caught by an adult glance that we thought we were evading, but which has suddenly shown up. And now that is there, we no longer know who we are or how we should be. Nowhere is this clearer than in portentous defences, trying even to implicate God, of the boy’s club rules governing our clerical sexism. For the adult view is revealed to be as female as it is male. All of those portentous defences are finally better described as “silly” than by any more grandiose or opprobrious word.

This for me, then was the surprise of Martel’s book. It led me through the recent homosexual history of the senior authorities of my Church. But in doing so, it led me through the history of my adult life. Both as regards the places I’ve lived in, and the people I’ve met, or heard about. But much more mercifully than I could have expected. In Martel’s pages, I was shown, as in a mirror, every form of emotional and erotic contortion I’ve lived over those years. There was scarce a one that has not been some part of my life – some part of a failure to grow up. Only the highly-monied and drug-fuelled aspects of clerical homosexuality having been quite beyond me. But in Martel’s pages, I saw myself in my cohort, my classmates, those of us who have been part of this story over the last fifty years. And I know that in no longer having to pretend that all that Martel shows is not the case, in standing revealed as silly, in having been shown up as playing harmful games that demeaned others and myself, forgiveness is coming upon me, slowly but surely, and it is coming upon all my confrères.



Catholics Don’t Like the Truth

A Response to My Critics

In response to the philosopher Jacques Maritain, who had come to beg him not to publish his book on homosexuality, the prominent French author André Gide—a Protestant—replied: “Catholics don’t like the truth.” And the Nobel Prize winner for literature nevertheless courageously published his little treatise, Corydon. That was in 1923.

A century later, in 2019, it appears that Catholics still don’t like the truth! Certain Vaticanist theologians, priests, and newspapers believe that I should not have written In the Closet of the Vatican either (the book is published in French, Spanish, and other languages under the title Sodoma). And like Gide, I persist and affirm. Not only did the book deserve to be published, it had to be, in my opinion, in the form of a major report—a work of “narrative non-fiction,” precisely in the writing approach I chose, the only one that could enable the description of a reality that has been hidden for so long.

As I discovered while investigating for this book, and as certain dishonest critiques have involuntarily confirmed, the Vatican is an organization that always obsessively refers to the “Truth”—and almost never practices it. In some respects, as is attested by the immense scandal of sexual abuse cover-ups, the institution of the Church is often an organization of lies (in Latin America, some no longer hesitate to use the expression “crime organization” due to the collective protection of sexual crimes).

I have cited the philosopher Hannah Arendt in my book. For her, when “a community has embarked upon organized lying,” when “everybody lies about everything of importance” ceaselessly, when there is a “tendency to transform fact into opinion” and to refuse “factual truths,” the result is that we destroy “common and factual reality itself.”1 Such is the reality of the Catholic Church today. Its denial of the widespread homosexuality of its members, its “omertà” on the celibacy and chastity of priests, the underestimation of their serious sexual immaturity, and the organized “covering up” of sexual abuses lead inexorably to a dead end. Like the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, the Church is burning and threatening to collapse—a sad and very real metaphor for the moral and symbolic collapse of Catholicism as a whole. But to rebuild, it is necessary to start from the foundations. To survive and to recover its legitimacy, the Church must now undertake a “comprehensive aggiornamento,” as I have called for.

This publication of In the Closet of the Vatican was timely. This is confirmed by its considerable, unexpected, and unprecedented success in over fifty countries—eight translations, with another ten in progress—“over 300,000 copies already sold” (says the French weekly magazine L’Obs). Since its publication, I have given several hundreds of interviews and the book—number one in sales in France—is or has been on the best-seller list in some twenty countries, including on the eminent New York Times best-seller list, prompting one journalist to say that “In the Closet of the Vatican is probably the most talked about book on religion ever written by a Frenchman.” In fact, I could never have dreamed that this book would be such a success or have so great an impact.

In the Closet of the Vatican has also been the subject of debate and discussion around the globe since its publication in late February 2019. Hundreds of articles have been published. In Latin America, the book is currently sparking debates in most major newspapers, especially in Chili, Colombia, and Mexico. In Poland, Sodoma is at the top of the sales list and has likewise contributed to a very lively debate broached by Gazeta Wyborcza, which has devoted several long and positive articles to it. In Portugal, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Australia, the book has been discussed at length, almost always positively. And even in Italy, newspapers like Il Fatto Quotidiano, MicroMega, La Repubblica, Manifesto, 24 hora, Vanity Fair Italy, and the site Fan Page have contributed to the book’s success despite organized censure by Vaticanists.

Some reviews have been excessively severe (in the far-right American press, for example) and others adulatory (Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine, James Alison on ABC, and Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch in The Times, for example). The article by the former Master of the Order of Preachers, Dominican friar Timothy Radcliffe’s, “The Carnaval Is Over,” was measured and kindly, as were those by other Jesuits and Franciscan friars.

Dozens of readers also send me messages of support every day, often to tell me of their rough lives as gay priests or their existence as Catholics made to feel guilty by the Church. These often powerfully moving messages have touched me deeply. It is for all of those people that I am proud to have written In the Closet of the Vatican. I dedicate this article to them.

Syndicate Symposium

It is rare for an author to see his book commented on, interpreted, and analyzed by high-level academics and theologians even before its publication. That is what happened to me thanks to the work of Sean Larsen and Luigi Gioia, as part of a Syndicate symposium they organized. I am immeasurably grateful to them, as well as to all of those who took care to read me and to publish a text in this international symposium.

I have been asked to participate in the debate initiated by Syndicate around this “complex multifaceted work” (Sean Larsen), and I take this opportunity to respond to critics and the texts I consider especially well-argued, while extending my point of view to the book’s more general reception. I will focus primarily on the Anglophone world, because the number of articles in other languages is so great that it isn’t possible to treat them as a single group.

I will limit my response to the following six points, since I cannot cover everything: the project’s origins; the sources for the book; its style; the subject of sexual abuse; the necessary comprehensive aggiornamento of the Church; and finally, the somewhat special role of Vaticanists in the reception of In the Closet of the Vatican.

The Origins of the Project

To begin with, the question that seems to me the most important is: why hasn’t such a book been written and published before? Some historians have dealt with the question of homosexuality in the Church—most notably the eminent historian John Boswell, who wrote Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality.2 A great number of other books have been published on the theme of the relationships between faith and homosexuality and on the particular life of gay priests (I am thinking here of those by Richard Sipe and Marco Politi, among many others). As regards the question of sexual abuse in the Church—although it is a different subject entirely—it too has been widely addressed.

But these authors, however deserving they may be, limited themselves to describing singular or “irregular” situations; they criticized lost sheep and denounced abuse, but they did not question the model itself. A more qualitative than quantitative study, my book is different from theirs in that it strikes at the heart of the system. Based on a four-year investigation conducted in immersion in the Vatican and some thirty other countries—in my view, it is a book that embodies a new form of “immersive journalism”—it became clear to me that homosexuality in the Church was a structural, systematic, and widespread phenomenon.

The Church’s rigidity in respect to sexual morality and its obsessive homophobia can basically be explained, in my view, by the “intrinsically disordered” sexuality of the majority of its prelates—that is my main conclusion. What started as just a hypothesis was confirmed by my investigation, and more recently, by hundreds of testimonies and letters I have received. Those who preach abstinence before marriage, refuse divorce, denounce homosexuality, and make believers feel guilty for their behavior are in fact the biggest hypocrites of them all. They practice in secret what they denounce in public.

My most severe critics are often gay priests and gay Vaticanists who, due to denial and double lives, have long since persuaded themselves that it is better to keep the overall secret of the system for fear that their own private lives be revealed. I sincerely understand their situation. In their misfortune, they have found a certain stability that they fear losing. This explains a certain number of reactions to my book, as well as it does the virulent attacks on Pope Francis, roughly for the same reason, as he too has understood “the” secret and wants to change the rules of the game.

The problem is that, from now on, the Church’s massive scandals of sexual abuse cannot be understood—and thus cannot be corrected—without revealing the complex connection that this culture of secrecy and this widespread cover-up maintain with homosexuality. I will come back to this point further on. To my eyes, one cannot understand anything about the Vatican without the taking into consideration the homosexual element (which Pope Francis has often suggested to us). Discussing the Catholic Church without attending to its intrinsically homosexual aspect dooms one to continue misunderstanding how the church functions. Those who proceed this way will continue to fail to understand the scandals for a long time, proceeding from disillusionment to disillusionment.

Since we cannot otherwise understand the roots nor the causes of the scandals, nor the generalized silence, it comes down to participating in the Church’s cover-up. By contrast, in 2018, after his return from Chili, Pope Francis invited us to “delve into the roots … the dynamics that made it possible for such attitudes and evils to occur.” In my own way, I am answering his call. My book is a response to his statement. My sole motivation in writing it was “the truth of the facts.” This necessity of truth has never ceased to guide me throughout the writing of the book; I have no doubt that it meets the exigency for truth that Pope Francis calls for in his wishes.

Moreover, if a Vaticanist had ventured to undertake such a book, he would have lost his job; if an Italian had, he would have encountered problems with his publisher or the head of the press company that employs him, due to the great taboo in Italy regarding the structural homosexuality of the clergy; if a heterosexual had attempted it, he would not have had the codes or the network to conduct the investigation as was necessary. Without a doubt, it was necessary for the author to be an outsider to the Church (as Brian Flanagan reminds us) but not an outsider to the matter of homosexuality. Indeed, the book is by a Frenchman who is neither a Vaticanist nor a Catholic. Flanagan’s article adds, “This is a book that could only be written by a relative outsider of the Catholic Church, precisely because it refuses some of the euphemisms and discretion that would come naturally to one inside the church. It is in many ways an uncharitable book that could only be written by someone who respects the church but has no love for the church, and no desire to protect it or its faithful from scandal.” Flanagan is right here. I have no love for the Church. I write neither for believers nor for theologians. I am a secular journalist and a researcher with love only for factual truths.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt recalled this in her famous reply to Gershom Scholem, who had criticized her for not having “love for the Jewish people” after her report for The New Yorker, “Eichmann in Jerusalem”:

You are quite right—I am not moved by any ‘love’ of this sort, and for two reasons: I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective—neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed love ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons. Secondly, this ‘love of the Jews’ would appear to me, since I am myself Jewish, as something rather suspect. I cannot love myself or anything which I know is part and parcel of my own person. […] Well, in this sense I do not ‘love’ the Jews, nor do I ‘believe’ in them; I merely belong to them as a matter of course, beyond dispute or argument.3

This reply has always guided me in my relationship to my communities, be they Catholic through baptism (although “I am not the slave of my baptism”) or the homosexual community.

An author is not a judge—he is not meant to sanction, but to describe the reality. This reality must not be hidden any longer, because—and most of my critics seem strangely unaware of this crucial point—homosexuality is no longer a crime nor an offense! It is a fact of society, and bringing to light this central sociological explanation of the Church’s functioning is no longer shameful not scandalous. It is a factual truth. We should not forget—I have repeated this several times in the book and in many interviews—that, personally, I have no problem with the fact of a cardinal, bishop, or priest being gay. I even think that this reality, widespread as it is, should be recognized by the Church and living as such should be an option for priests, among others, since it is already so frequently the case.

Countless Reliable Sources

Responding to the question of why this book had not already been written, I believe, addresses the main criticisms made against my book. In his analysis, the Italian Benedictine priest Luigi Gioia underscored that all previous attempts to uncover the homosexualization of the clergy had failed due to lack of evidence. It has always been limited to singling out a few individuals, “outing” them, for lack of the ability to analyze the system as a whole.

Why then did I embark on this project, not being a Vaticanist nor even a believer? Firstly, because at the very beginning of my investigation, I obtained reliable, recurrent, and consistent sources at the top level of the Vatican, all pointing in the same direction. My book begins with a sum of “low signals” that allow me to formulate innovative hypotheses and to completely change the way of approaching and understanding the Church’s recent history.

Many were blown away by the density, number, and recurrence of my sources. You really need a lot of bad faith to deny—or, just as likely—to not have read the book. It is dishonest to suggest that In the Closet of the Vatican is based on insinuations. And how else can we understand the impact it has had? If the analysis was wrong, why did the book make such an explosion in the Church? Why has it changed the terms of debate so considerably? Why, if not that it confirms what all the witnesses, all the Vaticanists, and all those informed already knew?

In reality, the book is not based on a single rumor, not a single insinuation, “innuendo” or piece of gossip, as some have suggested. I published over 300 pages of sources online (here), including over 2,000 archival documents, police reports, judicial reports, duly cited press articles, and books consulted. Every fact presented in In the Closet of the Vatican is corroborated by notes—a fact sometimes has up to 50 sources as a reference. It is a modern way to publish sources online in order to have enough space to lay them out in detail. As such, I was able to use countless unpublished documents of great reliability in the book: for example, on the Vatican’s war against the decriminalization of homosexuality at the United Nations and the rejection of civil unions, I use over a hundred confidential diplomatic telegrams of which I hold copies (I do not have the right to publish these documents, because it would be illegal, but I make constant use of them in the book and would be able to produce them in court in the event of a legal challenge).

Likewise, I often base my writing on facts from countless court documents, hearings, and lengthy police investigations from the minutes of thousands of sexual abuse trials. These include documents from the trial of Cardinal Barbarin in France, those of Chilean, Bostonian, and Irish trials, and that of Cardinal Pell in Australia, among others. Certain court documents shared with me by the lawyers of victims display numerous indications of the homosexuality of the prelates and cardinals who have covered up these abuses. In some cases, I do not cite documents directly in the text, so as to avoid “outing” living cardinals, though I have reliable information that enabled me to write my book with great precision.

In Italy, I also make use of the minutes from several crucial trials, such as those of Msgr. Cesare Burgazzi, the layman of the Italian Bishops’ Conference Dino Boffo, and the adventurer priest Francesco Camaldo. It is from these police and judicial sources that I can also tell the story of the prostitution cases of John Paul II’s cardinals La Mongolfiera and Platinette from telephone recordings made by the Italian police.

I also use primary sources in the chapters on Chili, Colombia, and Argentina by drawing on the declassified archives of the U.S. State Department. Indeed, as a result of United States’ support for certain Latin American dictatorships—first and foremost, General Pinochet—tens of thousands of official documents have recently been declassified. Sensitive information of In the Closet of the Vatican comes from these sources, which we have read carefully. This is why the book is the subject of serious discussion in Chili by many journalists and researchers concerning the links between the dictator Pinochet, the future Cardinal Angelo Sodano, and the pedophile priest Karadima; this is why it provokes intense debate in Colombia in respect to the homosexuality of the Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, his pathological hostility toward Liberation Theology, and his links to paramilitaries; this is why the matter of the pedophile Marcial Maciel’s protection by the Mexican episcopate and the Vatican has been taken seriously in Mexico; not to forget the countless debates that the book has sparked on Cuba, Brazil, and the post-Franco Spanish Episcopal Conference. In her assessment, Susie Hayward recognizes the seriousness of the book and of my revelations that intertwine political extremism, economic corruption, clericalism, and homosexuality, saying she was shocked by their “magnitude.” If many of my critics had read the book as she did, they would never have been able to write that I had no proof or sources, other than to make fools of themselves! But intellectual life is such that those who judge books generally rely on impressions and second-hand opinions, be it due to dilettantism, ideological interest, or lack of professionalism, almost never basing their stance on the book itself.

Let us now take the case of the philosopher Jacques Maritain, who has been greatly discussed. We are aware of this French thinker’s influence on Catholicism in general and on Vatican II in particular. A sublimated or repressed homophile, Maritain was married but made a secret pact with his wife that has since been revealed: they were to remain chaste. They never had children. I have not argued that their relationship was a false marriage, nor have I suggested that it was not founded on a sincere and deep love. Still, the question of homosexuality arises, as does that of the effective consummation of their marriage. And I believe that Maritain’s affective attraction for men is no longer in doubt.

Concerning this controversy, an assistant professor, Florian Michel (referenced, regrettably, by Gilles Mongeau), accused me of having suspected Maritain of being a homophile—as if homosexuality were still an offense! He wrote that I did not include the most recent sources (although they appear in my bibliography!). In a series of comments that pile factual errors upon untruths, and contest my method by citing a press article by a doctoral student who has yet to defend his thesis, Florian Michel vehemently denies Maritain’s homosexuality—without any proof, of course (he also denies Julien Green’s sexual adventurism, a debate that will be brought to a conclusion this fall with the publication of Green’s full, uncensored Journal in the Bouquins collection, which will reveal Green’s active and intensely practiced obsessive homosexuality).

In the case of Maritain, these self-appointed specialists forget that I have access to Maritain’s unpublished correspondence of over 175 love letters with his young lover of the time, Ernest Psichari (whose active homosexuality is firmly established). Here are a few excerpts that give a dizzying feeling: “I feel that our two strangers are penetrating one another gently, timidly, slowly,” writes Maritain; “Ernest, you are my friend. You alone.”; “Your eyes are splendescent [sic] lighthouses. Your hair is a virgin forest, full of whispers and kisses.”; I love you, I live, I think of you.”; “It is in you alone that I live.”; “You are Apollo […]. Would you like to leave with me to the East, there, in India? We will be alone in a desert.”; “I love you, I kiss you.”; “Your letters, my jewel, give me infinite pleasure, and I read them again and again. I am in love with each of your letters, with your As, with your Ds, with your Ns, and with your Rs.”

The definitive biography of Maritain, by Jean-Luc Barré, leaves little doubt, either, as to the philosopher’s homosexuality.4 Moreover, Barré has confirmed in several interviews that Jacques Maritain was, according to him, attracted by men even if he remained chaste or never acted on his inclinations. As homosexuality is no longer an offense or a crime, what about this revelation concerning his private life would constitute a scandal, disgrace, or insult to his memory? On the contrary, by joining the long list of homosexual authors, such as André Gide, Jean Cocteau, Raymond Radiguet, Maurice Sachs, Julien Green—with whom he corresponded and spoke ceaselessly of homosexuality—Maritain gains in humanity. His private life shines in the light of a new day. In short, denying the reality of Maritain’s homosexuality is, in my opinion, tantamount to a homophobic point of view. (In my book, I did not make use of testimonies given to me by people who had been actively hit on by Maritain—one of which was unwillingly “fondled by him”—but I would be able to produce these testimonies, if necessary.)

Another decisive source for my book comes, of course, from the testimonies of cardinals and prelates. In total, I interviewed over 1,500 people in some thirty countries, including 41 cardinals, 52 bishops and monsignori, 45 apostolic nuncios and foreign ambassadors, and over two hundred priests and seminarians. All of these interviews took place in the field (face-to-face, none by telephone or e-mail) and most were recorded or took place in the presence of one of my collaborators (I worked with almost 80 researchers, translators, and fixers, whose names appear in the book and online).

Since when is a recorded testimony given before a witness not considered a reliable source? If this were to be the case, there would be no more journalism, no more sociology, no more investigations, police, or systems of justice! So, I have countless, cross-checked sources, and all those who deny it are in denial. (Let me specify here that I have received no right of reply from any cardinal or bishop: the sole indirect denial comes from Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who, in a short interview with the ultra-conservative American website Life Site News, implies that I went to see him just once and only for a few minutes under the false pretext of asking him for guidance to find faith! The German Cardinal Müller is shamelessly lying, and it is easy to prove: I had two long, recorded interviews with him, confirmed in writing by his secretary, and in which my status as a journalist and author were explicitly mentioned; moreover, he confirmed his quotes himself in an email after having reread them! If a cardinal can lie so flagrantly, shouldn’t we be concerned that he is lying about other aspects of his private life, whatever they might be, or about cases of sexual abuse he has known about? I am stunned by the vulgarity of such a grotesque denial and by the fact that a cardinal of the Roman Curia would place such little value in such banal truths of fact. And no—I am an atheist, and I never had any intention of finding faith, especially not with a huge homophobic, ultra-conservative, serial-liar like Cardinal Müller!)

I have also been accused of having been informed by “gay priests” of the Vatican. That is true—I have never denied it. My 28 “primary” sources are indeed homosexuals belonging to the Roman Curia, who live and work at the Vatican every day. Three “hosts” even allowed me to live inside the Vatican. But I also benefited from other networks to conduct my investigation: that of the French cardinals and bishops, that of the American and South American prelates, and that of the priests of the Italian Episcopal Conference.

Finally, I would like to close this question about my sources with a defense of my “gaydar.” The use of this investigative method may have provoked a certain irony on the part of heterosexuals who don’t know anything about homosexuality or the Church. I readily admit the lack of scientificity behind “gaydar”, but I defend it for its true reliability, something a heterosexual will never understand (as Jeff Guhin recognizes in his consideration of the book). In addition, I have never claimed to have written an academic book. In the Closet of the Vatican is a serious journalistic investigation, and my “gaydar” is one tool among many that enables me to understand homosexuality in the Vatican. As many readers of Marcel Proust and André Gide know, when one is in the presence of a gay cardinal, it is possible for me to know from the way we talk, how he looks at me, his movements and gestures—without mistaking myself often— whether he is homosexual or not! And, after all, my “gaydar” worked rather well, as it enabled me to identify homosexual prelates, such as the Pope’s ambassador to Paris, Msgr. Luigi Ventura, before their homosexuality had been revealed by recent scandals. And if I suggest that two French cardinals Jean-Louis Tauran and Roger Etchegaray were actively homosexual, to take just a couple examples, it is because I am certain of myself given my relationship with them (as regards Tauran, who was one of my regular informers and confidants, and who sadly died recently, I know the names of several of his lovers—which made him that much more sympathetic to me—and I also have first-hand testimony from a young Catholic activist who was actively and explicitly hit on, multiple times, by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray.)

The sources of my book are thus multiple, reliable, serious, and cross-checked. We can add to these: the testimonies of doctors (cited with names) for the section on the prevalence of AIDS in the Vatican; those of Italian policemen, for my account of several “affairs”; and over sixty interviews with prostitutes in Rome (generally conducted in the presence of social workers or translators), for the chapter on the sexuality of Catholic priests and their Muslim migrant escorts. Of course, we can discuss a given source or fact or interpretation, but I am entirely certain of my overall analysis of the massively homosexualized nature of the Church.

A final word in response to the suggestion that my work is based merely on insinuations and rumors. To demand concrete proof of the homosexuality of the majority of cardinals is to consign oneself to failure from the outset, because even when you have such proof (which I do for the majority of them), the law prohibits the disclosure of their private lives. As I specify at the end of the book, by indicating their names, I had fourteen lawyers working with me on In the Closet of the Vatican. It is not difficult to infer that some tangible evidence could not be published. In France, Italy, the US and the United Kingdom, among other countries, the law is such that revealing the homosexuality of a person, even if you have proof, may be considered an invasion of privacy. But it is not simply a legal problem—it is also a moral one. Journalistic integrity—at least mine—forbids “outing” people. I made the choice not to “out” living cardinals and priests; I stand by this choice and I have stuck to it (Timothy Radcliffe defended the book in his review for this very reason). In the end, I would rather be accused of “insinuations” than to commit “outings.”

There is more to the criticism of those who question my journalistic integrity in this way. Requiring “proof” either naively ignores this situation or it functions to silence the researcher and the journalist. It deprives us of a key to general understanding of the system. One may very well have reliable information, written documents and firsthand testimony—as I do—but it is impossible to produce them legally. The demand for the publication of evidence encourages the continuation of the lie and possibly also the cover-up of sexual abuses (which I will come back to later). In the end, as the theologian James Alison suggested, “Labeling something ‘mere gossip’ can also contribute to cover-up. All those who dismissed those tales as ‘mere gossip’ were, as a matter of fact, contributing to their cover-up.” Rejecting my book on the ground of “innuendo”, “insinuations” and “gossip” thus comes down to maintaining a “state lie” and, in a way, to allowing the crisis of sexual abuse to continue.

All those who criticize the project of my book are thus at a fundamental impasse, out of naivety or calculation: they denounce a book made of “rumors” and “insinuations” to discredit it, but they know very well that a book with “proof” could never exist. As a result, it is the very existence of the book that disturbs them so deeply—which explains why, most of the time, these critics haven’t even taken the time to read the book before criticizing it, contrary to the most elementary code of ethics (in his review, the Catholic Michael Sean Winters explicitly stated that he didn’t feel the need to read the book to criticize it!; Rod Dreher, Matteo Matzuzzi, James Martin, Frank Bruni, and Chico Harlan don’t seem to have read much of it, either, judging from their description of a book that has absolutely nothing to do with the one I’ve written!). These critics reject the book as a matter of principle. The more honest among them simply don’t believe the facts. Others know all too well and, out of personal interest, want to avoid the revelation of one of the Vatican’s biggest secrets of the past 50 years.

Today’s Writer is a “Digital Writer”

For authors and journalists, the digital represents a significant change in the way they investigate and work. Over the course of my investigation, I made regular use of these new digital tools. Many irrefutable pieces of information have been provided to me by new digital technology. In the beginning, I rented apartments in Rome on AirBnB; I contacted priests on LinkedIn and Facebook; I stored important documents and recordings on Pocket, Wunderlist, and Voice Record; and I had confidential exchanges with my sources on Skype, Signal, WhatsApp, and Telegram.

When I mention prostitution in the residences of the Vatican, I have several videos in which one can see escorts enter into said residences with their clients (but, of course, I do not reveal the names of the monsignori in question). When I mention the homosexuality of such and such an archbishop or master of ceremonies, I have dozens of explicitly flirtatious WhatsApp messages from them… One German-speaking cardinal hit on me, going to the point of placing his hand on my thigh: it was bold but harmless, and I was not abused by him—but for me, at the very least, it constitutes evidence… One French archbishop touched my genitals on several occasions; I coolly rejected his advances, but again, I consider this rather explicit evidence. On several occasions, one of the best-known figures among the assistants close to one of the last two popes also proposed, by text message, for me to join him in the shower! I have kept many pieces of evidence such as this in my possession without citing them. Would it have been preferable to “out” their authors? What would have been the reaction if I had described these scenes and mentioned the names of those involved? I prefer to be criticized for relying on “insinuations” to producing my evidence.

Grindr enabled a measurement of the degree of homosexual flirting within the Vatican: it only took us two smartphones positioned at opposing sides of the small Catholic state to identify, with an extremely small margin of error, the location and number of gay men using the application. Through the Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn accounts of certain bishops and priests, who are often unfamiliar with the privacy rules of these social networks and leave their list of friends visible, I was able to deduce their lifestyle. It is enough to examine a priest’s public account by using the account of a well-connected homosexual in Rome’s gay community to determine with relative certainty whether a priest is gay or not from his “friends in common”. Without a “timeline” containing even the slightest gay message, Facebook’s mode of operation gives them away almost automatically.

It is possible to conduct this same kind of research on Twitter, Instagram, Google+, and LinkedIn, completely legally. Thanks to professional tools such as Brandwatch, KB Crawl, and Maltego, it is possible to analyze all the “social” content of a priest, his friends, the information he liked, shared, or posted, and even find his various linked accounts (often under different identities). I used this type of high-performance software that enables its user to create general trees and graphs of all the interactions a given person has on social networks by drawing on public information they have left on the web. The result is impressive: a complete profile of the person emerges from thousands of pieces of data he has communicated on social networks, without even remembering it. In the majority of cases, if the person is homosexual, the information appears with a small margin of error. Only by carefully compartmentalizing one’s life by using different social networks and never sharing the least bit of personal information with one’s friends can one elude this kind of tool—a nearly impossible feat.

This is why the sexual life of the large majority of priests will not be able to remain secret in the future. The digital has changed the situation for good, and, forever! In the future, the investigative journalist will him or herself become a veritable “digital writer.”

On Subversion through Style

By its very existence, In the Closet of the Vatican shows that it was likely necessary to take the path of immersive investigation and “narrative non-fiction,” using a personal style and original investigative techniques, to undertake a book that no one had yet written, for reasons of method, style, or simply courage. (Craig Ford mentions himself appropriately the word “curation” to define my work). I do not believe, however, that fiction would have been a good way to write the book, though it would have made the writing easier. “”

Some critics have reproached me for being too “flowery,” too “queeny,” or for my “campy humor;” some of them have decried my descriptions as “catty” or even “bitchy;” others have attempted to stigmatize my book as an example of “queer studies;” still others have criticized the subversive nature of this style. It is their absolute right to do so, but it is also mine to choose my style.

“Irony, melodrama, and camp are not incompatible with the truth,” explains Sean Larsen in his essay defending my style. Likewise, Luigi Gioia affirms: “the secret of the Vatican’s homosexuality is so deep that a specific style and rhetorical strategy was necessary to penetrate it.” They are both right. And since when is style contradictory to meaning? Must a book on religion be written with the antiquated euphemisms, dull tone, and unbearable boredom that generally define the genre (see Rod Dreher’s atrocious reactionary books, which have not been successful abroad!). If I had to rewrite my book, I wouldn’t change the style—I would keep all of the descriptions, the references to arts and culture, the literary quotations, and of course the evocation of the cardinals’ long robes, the cappa magna competitions, and the soap opera-worthy dialogue whispered by cardinals obsessed with concealing their homosexuality. The book needed to establish itself through its style.

In the Closet of the Vatican is a big, counterintuitive puzzle: I meticulously gathered pieces, adjusting them next to one another, patiently describing everything I saw, before the “Sodoma code” saw the light of day at the end of the book and the puzzle was completed! One chapter, one story, one situation would not be enough to understand the system; it is the accumulation, the cumulative effect, that makes the book and delivers its secret. Indeed, if I had to rewrite the book, I would keep its gayissimo style for one very simple reason: the Vatican is, in my view, a predominantly gay organization; it is therefore natural to use the very terms of “gay subculture” to describe it. On this point, Sean Larsen comments, “Martel writes as a gay man describing his interactions with other gay men, and he uses language gay men often use when speaking about each other.” He is right. Because what fascinates me is, on the one hand, the verticality of the Church—its top-down nature, this total hierarchical obedience—, and on the other hand, the prevalence of homosexuality—which is horizontal—in this system: this verticality and horizontality clash brutally, and many of the Vatican’s secrets and the Church’s dysfunctions result from it.

I have also been criticized for caricaturing the American cardinal Raymond Burke—but he is the caricature! I have simply conformed to the subject! I do not “traffic in gay stereotypes” (James Martin): I describe what I see, and Martin knows this just as well as I. Raymond Burke is one of these figures who distorts Catholicism: an effeminate, ultra-conservative creature who criticizes the feminization of the Church, and who is, in my view, profoundly ridiculous. Those who defend him do not serve the Church: they value pastiche and fakery. There is nothing fictional in my book, only facts, ridiculous as they may be!

Those who, for the same reason, find my homoerotic description of Georg Gänswein’s consecration by Benedict XVI (they insist that I must not have seen many such ceremonies, which is true) should ask themselves the question: if such a festivity is both so banal and so homoerotic, isn’t this one more proof that the Church is largely homosexualized? In the eyes of my opponents, the Church must not be mocked in such a way! It can’t be laughed about! But I am French, and where I come from, the license to criticize the Church is a principle of secularism—and, thankfully, a national sport. We are the children of Rabelais, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Rimbaud. In France, criticizing the Church is a constitutional right, and nobody can make a claim to take it away. I find this line of critique grumpy, narcissistic, humorless! How boring! As Billy Joel used to sing: “I would rather laugh with the sinners / Than cry with the saints / Sinners are much more fun”!

Sean Larsen defends me, advocating for “the art of satire.” He is right, but on one condition: humor, irony, and satire must be accompanied by the search for truth. The style is free in “narrative non-fiction,” and I affirm my “camp” spirit, but only because it rests on irreproachable facts.

Many have also pointed out In the Closet of the Vatican’s “genre ambiguity”—part Bob Woodward-style journalism, part sociology à la Alexis de Tocqueville, part “page six of the New York Post” (terms Brian Flanagan used in his analysis). I defend this ambivalence that makes for a mixed style, but it is not serious to claim that it is similar to that of a tabloid!

Some journalists who are more sincere in their judgments dislike the style of the book because it is said to have contributed to some attacks. I do not agree with this analysis. When one sets out to write a book like In the Closet of the Vatican, three things are clear from the beginning: the first is that not everything can be written, even if one has proof; the second is that not everything can be understood—even for a specialist, the Vatican’s intrigues are extremely complex, entangled, and counterintuitive; the third is that no matter how serious the book, its references, or its style, the book will be attacked down to its principle.

In fact, what truly motivates criticism of the book is not its style or its sources: from the beginning, it was denounced for its very subject. No matter the style, it would have been attacked in just the same way and just as violently. I know this from the outset, and I must say that I was surprised by the mediocrity of the criticisms and their relative moderation.

At the same time, I believe that the book’s original and complex style has contributed to its success. Books on religion can be esoteric, very poorly written, or abominably boring (see Robert Sarah’s books, for example). On the contrary, readers have often noted the literary passages of my book: the rainbow umbrella scene; the long descriptions of Cardinal Burke’s apartment; the extravagant story of Georg Gänswein’s episcopal consecration; the description of the Casa del Clero “entrance gate,” etc. Readers have also highlighted my use of preterition (apophasis) and pseudonyms inspired by characters from the works of André Gide. They have sought to find out which was the famous “white book” to which I refer many times. There have also been enthusiastic responses to the offbeat use of lines by Arthur Rimbaud (“the Poet” in the book, all references may be found on the site). In his assessment, Brian Flanagan recognizes the effectiveness of this literary style and, referring to a passage on Cardinal Ratzinger, subtly discerns the realistic portrait à la Velasquez and the “blurred and disturbed” Francis Bacon-like depiction. And yet, I have not written a piece of fiction or literature. I do “narrative non-fiction,” not abstract painting! Each page of my book is based on precise, documented facts.

The choice of words is essential. I used terms and expressions such as “homophile,” “unstraight,” “questioning,” “practicing,” “homosociality,” “friendly,” “fluid,” “worldly [mondain],” “ithyphallic,” “closeted,” “traveling companion,” “to be ‘of the parish,’” “rigid,” “versatile,” “antiphysical,” “camp,” “liturgy queen,” “bromance,” “inclination,” “garçonnade,” “replicants”, “avatar,” “mauvaiseté”—each of which has its own complex meanings, often reserved for the vigilant and initiated among my readers. Nevertheless, I recognize that some of these words, like come of my “campy” turns of phrase or quotations from Rimbaud, were difficult to translate. Sometimes certain subtle expressions in French do not work well in other languages. Some of the misunderstandings of my book may have to do with problems of translation. Thus, the English version, which was carried out too quickly by a single translator (as a point of comparison, the Polish and German translations were assigned to four translators each), contains several factual errors, misspelled names, and date errors (Jeff Guhin, who referred to the original French version to verify certain errors in the English confirms that they do not appear in the original). These errors are anomalous, but none of them appear in the original French text. They will, of course, be corrected in the English paperback edition.

Was there another alternative in terms of style? Perhaps. But the fact that nobody had ever before successfully dealt with such a subject would seem to indicate that it was necessary to find an original style in order to bring the Vatican’s secret to light.

The Matter of Sexual Abuses

Some critics have reproached me for the timing of my book’s publication, during the Vatican sexual abuse summit. This criticism is unjust for three reasons. When I began my investigation nearly five years ago, I—like everybody else—was far from imagining such a summit might one day take place. The book was supposed to come out in the fall of 2018, and it was delayed by several translations (due to the preference for simultaneous global publication). The book’s publication in February 2019 had not been anticipated. Moreover, the Church’s sexual abuse scandals are so frequent (the Chilean case, the McCarrick case, the Pell case, the Barbarin case, the Vigano letter) that such a coincidence was inevitable regardless of the book’s publication date.

But there is a more serious reason that justifies the publication of this book during the summit on sexual abuse: I regret having to write this, but it is clear that my book provides the newest and most substantial key to explaining the majority of sexual abuse cases. How is that?

There is clearly no link between homosexuality and sexual abuse in general. Around the world, studies confirm that most cases of sexual abuse take place in heterosexual families, schools, and the “heterosexual” professional world; most of the victims are girls or women. This may easily be explained by the fact that there are—in incomparable proportions—more heterosexuals than homosexuals in the world.

However, the statistics on sexual abuse reveal an essential particularity in the Catholic Church: according to the U.S. Bishops’ Conference or the Spotlight investigation’s findings, between 80 and 85% of victims of sexual abuse by priests are underage boys or adult men, such as seminarians. In the Church, the majority of sexual abuse cases are thus of a homosexual nature. (I am not the first to establish these facts, as Brian Flanagan points out in his article—Richard Sipe, Mark Jordan, Donald Cozzens, and James Alison have already done so before me, and quite rightly).

Once again, this does not mean that these acts are the consequence of homosexuality. Most of the time, the priests in question have a particularly immature, pathological, unhealthy, and schizophrenic sexuality—a repressed, denied sexuality—and they lie to others and sometimes to themselves about it. In his study, unfortunately based on an overly small sample population, the sociologist and former priest Richard Sipe showed that 50% of those priests he interviewed—be they heterosexual or homosexual—had an active sexuality, 10% were faithful to their vow of chastity, and 40% were sexually immature and having difficulty with their sexuality.5

I agree with those who believe, like Susie Hayward, that pedophilia—when the victims are under 15-years-old—is deeply pathological and has no relationship to homosexuality as such, even when the children are male. Most often, it is not related to any specific sexual orientation but to criminal pathological behavior. However, it is important to note that a significant number of sexual abuses perpetrated in the Church concern adolescents between 15 and 18 years of age—young adults or adult seminarians. In these instances, it may be a case of poorly assumed homosexuality that has been repressed for too long, or occasionally an obsessively active homosexuality (it seems this was the case of Cardinal McCarrick, of Cardinal Lopez Trujillo or the nuncio and Archbishop Luigi Ventura).

But there is more. Beyond the individual causes of these abuses, which are necessarily complex and multiple, there is a collective phenomenon—and this is why the Church must take responsibility here. Over ten thousand priests (5,948 in the United States, 1,880 in Australia, 1,670 in Germany, 800 in the Netherlands, 500 in Belgium, 250 in Chili, etc.) are currently under suspicion, accused of, or denounced for committing such acts. Since Durkheim’s foundational study on suicide, sociologists have known that individual behaviors repeated on a massive scale can hide a collective sociological phenomenon. Certainly, these abusive priests are the primary responsible parties, the primary guilty parties. But they are also the product of a system.

The lie about the sexuality of priests, the concealment of the majority of the clergy’s repressed or active homosexuality, and the organized cover-up of these lies all contribute to the continuation of abuse. The scandals of criminal pedophiles Marcial Maciel in Mexico and Fernando Karadima in Chili would not have taken on such proportions had the Church—which had been informed early on—condemned the perpetrators in time. Instead, they were protected for several decades with full knowledge of the facts. I believe my revelations of the role played by Jean Paul II’s personal assistant, Msgr. Stanislaw Dziwisz, and the former Secretary of State, Msgr. Angelo Sodano, are decisive, as dozens of articles in Latin America have highlighted.

Homosexuality thus has no direct link to sexual abuse, but it does a great deal to explain the system of “cover-ups.” The vast majority of cardinals and bishops who protected pedophile priests are themselves homosexuals; terrorized by the idea that their intimate secret might be revealed, they were frightened of scandal, media coverage, and court trials. As a number of responses to my book (Sean Larsen, Timothy Radcliffe, James Alison, Luigi Gioia) have pointed out, this demonstration is one of the most substantial contributions my book has made.

While living in Rome and even in several apartments within the Vatican, I discovered that the priests and cardinals who kept their vow of chastity were actually quite rare. In the Vatican, priests actively and constantly flirt, they frequently live with a boyfriend, and abuse, aggression, and sexual blackmail are commonplace (this internal scandal within the clergy will eventually come to light, too). The idea of the “loyal celibate priest” advanced by James Martin is generally fictional; and it is no surprise that a number of Vaticanists and priests who have reviewed my book contest this reality as Martin does, and just as much for ideological reasons. It is total hypocrisy—when I met these same people off the record, they were the first to talk about a massively active homosexuality in the Vatican and to “out” cardinals!

Gay priests are chaste—what a fairy tale! I was able to observe that there are a few Jesuits, Franciscans, and Dominicans in the Vatican who keep their vow of chastity; and I don’t blame them for it—quite the contrary. Don’t activists like Michael Sean Winters and James Martin (joined by the silent Antonio Spadaro), who criticized my analyses of the sexuality of priests in their dishonest reviews, know this? This fiction feeds their political project, which aims to better integrate these priests into the Church based on their supposed chastity. I understand the logic, but once more it is basing a political strategy on erroneous and mendacious analysis! Unable to question the system, they too are in a deadlock. And the priests they pretend to protect are twice-over victims of this lie: first because they are made to feel guilty for not being chaste, and then because they must lie to others and hide their frequent double life.

Of course, there are chaste gay priests. I know some of them! But it would be honest to say that they are a minority, and when they do exist—it is rare for them to keep their vow of chastity their entire lifetime—they live sometimes in frustration and gravely disordered repression. Dozens of gay priests confessed as much to me (generally speaking, gay priests spoke with me about their homosexuality quite easily, but gay cardinals mainly told me about the homosexuality of others…).

Isn’t it time to recognize the failure of priests’ chastity and celibacy, heterosexual and homosexual alike? Isn’t it urgent to recall, as everyone now knows, that chastity is profoundly unnatural and often the source of serious pathological problems? What’s more, it is a late apocryphal invention: the New Testament leaves the choice open, and celibacy is not a requirement.

Finally, it is time to allow for women to be ordained and for priests to marry, especially since these archaic and misogynistic rules have no basis in the Old or New Testaments.

In my view, James Martin’s engagement of my work traffics in double-speak. Martin claims to be neither a journalist nor an academic. Moreover, he is officially listed on the Vatican’s organizational chart as a “consultant” for the dicastery in charge of communication at the Holy See. Likewise, Michael Sean Winters is a talented Vaticanist, but he contributes to the distortion of the truth when it does not correspond to his progressive political agenda: he reads facts according to what is good or bad for Pope Francis. It should therefore come as no surprise that Martin and Winters (and even Antonio Spadaro in his constant “messes basses” with multiple journalists) have taken up the Vatican’s official talking points against my book. As consultants and activists, their professional concern is not for facts, as with journalists, nor with rigorous and dispassionate analysis, as with academics. Something other than truth of the matter is their professional priority.

Let us therefore stop making homosexual priests feel guilty by dishonestly pretending to constrain them to chastity! Even those in the Vatican who want these absurd rules to continue live with their lovers—so why continue lying?

For her part, Maeve Heaney suggests in her analysis that misogyny and repression of homosexuality go hand in hand in the Vatican. I confirm this point and think, like her, that one solution to the Church’s problems is to include women in all of the Church’s institutions. As far as I am concerned, I think that the Church should go even further, to authorize the ordination of women and allow priests to marry. But it is for the Church to make these decisions; I am not Catholic and am very careful not to give instructions to an institution that is perfectly aware of the exceptional gravity of the situation.

I am convinced, like everyone, that these common sense reforms will come sooner or later. Anglican priests integrated into Catholicism have gotten married, as have 55% of Maronite priests, who are recognized by Rome. The interpretation of doctrine has always been flexible, and what the Church does, it can undo: it is a millenary rule.

As concerns homosexuality, it is no longer a crime nor an offense: it is legal in most democratic countries (which some of my reviewers still seems ignore). The Church must recognize this state of the law and stop perpetuating the confusion of homosexuality and sexual abuse as Jean Paul II and Benedict XVI did in their minds and in so many of their encyclicals, bulls, and other catechisms.

The question remains as to whether my book could have created a boomerang effect and turned against my own thesis, provoking “friendly fire.” Some critics (James Martin, Frank Bruni, Jeff Guhin) have expressed concern that the far right might use In the Closet of the Vatican for homophobic purposes. While it is true that this possibility should be taken seriously (a few articles published before the book’s publication made it seem that this could happen), it turns out that, in the end, this was not the case. Why? Martin, Bruni, and Guhin needed simply to read the second chapter of my book to get the answer! Its main conclusion is that the most conservative, right-wing extremist cardinals, who are also the most homophobic, are in fact most frequently homophiles or homosexuals! “Prejudice without pride,” to paraphrase Jane Austen! That is why this book had no chance of being used by the far right—and hasn’t been. On the contrary, the most virulent criticism has come from the ultra-conservative American right, as I expected.

In his review, Travis LaCouter shows surprise at these criticisms. Having read the book, at least, he observes that it is “much less sensationalist than the press would like us to believe.” This is also the opinion expressed by the eminent Oxford historian of religion, Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his review in The Times: “Any friend of the Roman Catholic Church needs to take this book’s message seriously; events since its publication simply continuing the saga.”

Many commentators have suspected me of obeying a secret LGBT agenda, or even having received the active support of Pope Francis himself (the Holy Father, it has been suggested, aided my investigation to the point of allowing me to live inside the Vatican)! None of this is true, and for one simple reason: I am not seeking to reform the Church, nor to change it. The job of an author, researcher, or journalist is to describe a reality and to try to write a good, reliable, serious book based solely on confirmed facts. Such was my singular ambition. Even if I do think that there are still many things to reform in the workings of the Church if one desires to avoid its built-in obsolescence.

Vaticanists are not Journalists

Finally, I cannot avoid turning my focus to a somewhat special category of journalists, who sometimes tend to betray the rules of their profession: Vaticanists. Italy is this strange country where professional press card holders can write indirectly under the orders of the Vatican. “Vaticanists” are considered the elite of journalists in Italy, but in my view they are scandalous!

Of course, every country has its prejudices. The Americans believe it’s their mission to save the world; the French think their republican model is more egalitarian and that their National School of Administration is a good example of this; the Italians believe that their Vaticanists tell the truth! To each their own impasses and delusions!

A Vaticanist specializes in regularly reporting on life in the Vatican. As in any profession, there are some remarkable ones (I think, for example, of the Italians Marco Politi, Emiliano Fittipaldi, Carlo Tecce, and Gianluigi Nuzzi, the Mexican Bernardo Barranco, and the French Cécile Chambraud, all of whom have managed to keep their independence) and others who, obsessed by a conservative agenda, transmit, sometimes blindly, the information given by their sources in the Holy See (Matteo Matuzzi of Il Foglio, Sandro Magister of L’Espresso, Edward Pentin of The National Catholic Register, Damian Thompson of The Catholic Herald, Mathias Rub of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Antoine-Marie Izoard of Famille Chrétienne or “la grande mondaine” Caroline Pegozzi of Paris Match, to cite just a few). In and of itself, there is nothing to criticize about the fact of journalists being designated “Vaticanist” by their editorial staff to regularly cover the Vatican, just as there are embedded journalists at the White House or, in France, at the Élysée Palace. What is problematic is to favor Vatican sources regarding the investigation of facts and to serve the Holy See more faithfully than one’s readers. This is why there are no Vaticanists in France—nobody would consider them credible journalists if they were so dependent on the Vatican!

In the case of my book, according to the indiscretion of several “insiders,” it seems that some Vatican communications officials (who hadn’t yet been able to read a single line of that book) orally circulated talking points to denounce it even before its publication. Their strategy was to insist that the book was based on “insinuations,” “innuendo,” that I didn’t have “proof,” and that the book contributed “to the confusion of homosexuality with sexual abuse.” It was called a “heap of gossip” and a “salacious work.” (These talking points were initially distilled in the pen of the Vaticanist Matteo Matuzzi, in an article that appeared in Il Foglio—a strange review that didn’t correspond to anything in my book, and which he couldn’t have read anyway because it was still under embargo).

The Vatican has long known how to promote misleading communications. As soon as investigations appear, its communications services react violently with denials that are as absurd as they are funny. There are countless Holy See “state lies,” and denials of facts that have later been confirmed—Jean Paul II’s spokesman, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, himself a homophile, is still famous for his art of lying, installed as a system.

Today, the Pope’s communicators are more subtle. A former journalist for La Stampa, Andrea Tornielli, with whom I met at length on two occasions—and who, in private, seemed to share most of my hypotheses—is now in charge of Vatican Radio media. The Pope’s official Vaticanist has become the official spokesperson of the Vatican! Thanks to him, as well as to the Machiavellian Paolo Ruffini, the blundering Dario Viganò, the puppeteer Andrea Monda, and the versatile Antonio Spadaro, the Holy See’s communications are now defter. In their reaction to my book, they were all the more effective, because they are perfectly familiar with the Vatican’s gay networks—indeed, two of them for obvious reasons. They “feeds” the Vaticanists on a daily basis, passing along a thousand and one secrets of the Roman Curia, to the point of making them dependent on the flow of information (I can attest to this because I myself have benefitted from regular relays of information off the record by some of them). If a Vaticanist takes too many liberties with the talking points he distills, it could well result in sources drying up or, the supreme punishment, no more invitation to join the Pope on an official visit! The short-term result is that the position of “Vaticanist” is deprived of its objective, becoming an empty shell; then, cut off from all information, the journalist, quite always a man, inevitably loses his post. This is how Vaticanists are often “kept on a leash”—an expression used by one such journalist.

It is also not uncommon for Vaticanists to be recruited by satellite organizations of the Italian Episcopal Conference or the Italian Catholic Communion and Liberation movement. Thus, three of the most important Italian Vaticanists are kept close to Communion and Liberation: the journalists owe their post to them, and must also, to a degree, report to them. It doesn’t much matter if their newspapers are right-wing or left-wing, pro-Catholic or more secular—Vaticanists are almost always dependent on the Vatican.

This explains why, while my book has been the subject of over a thousand reviews in over fifty countries, it was deliberately marginalized in Italy, under the active pressure of the Vatican communicators. Thus in Il Foglio, the book was, as I mentioned earlier, panned even before its publication by a laughable article written by Matteo Matzuzzi. Thus in La Stampa, Andrea Tornielli might have managed to convince the editorial staff he had just quit to play down my investigation. Thus in L’Espresso, the newspaper that had committed to publish exclusive “good coverage” of the book, cancelled it at the last minute, possibly due to the influence of Sandro Magister, under the pretext that its content had been already leaked (which was completely false since they were the only one to have “les bonnes feuilles”). Thus in the Corriere della Sera, the long article that had been negotiated as an exclusive was delayed several days—contrary to all practices for handling exclusives—before being cut by two-thirds and ending up in the back half of the newspaper without any visibility! Thus in La Repubblica, the main review of the book—which was also an exclusive—was withdrawn from the paper version of the newspaper and truncated on their website. I have five sources within these different news organizations that allow me to affirm these turns of events. On each occasion, Vaticanists were at work and the editorial managers yielded to their obvious pressure.

In the end, there are two kinds of journalists that didn’t understand my book: those who are completely unfamiliar with the gay world, and thus appear helpless or incredulous when faced with the reality I describe, and those who, like the Vaticanists, know it all too well and are perfectly aware of the truth of In the Closet of the Vatican, but who, for various reasons, prefer to keep it secret. For many of them, the book is full of information that shared in conversation but never written! It will take time for all of them to understand—but the time will come.

One outstanding case is that of the gay New York Times journalist Frank Bruni, in his own way a kind of Vaticanist, who due to having lived in Rome for a long time has maintained contacts there. Claiming to defend my book, Mr. Bruni phoned me urgently to obtain a digital copy before its publication, promising to respect the embargo on the book. Shortly after we spoke, he not only published an article breaking his promise, but also commented on my book without possibly having the time to read it first. As a result, his review is based on nothing but his prejudices and does not reflect what appears in the book. In fact, Bruni was “handled” by Vatican communicators (in this case, I am told, by Father James Martin, which whom he had discussed the subject at length). Another Roman correspondent, Chico Harlan, a young journalist with new experience, showed the same self-serving dilettantism. He too was “handled” by the Vatican, according to two internal sources. In both cases, they used the same word “innuendo,” as seven other Vaticanists—a term that was chosen by the spins doctors of the Vatican! In both cases I am stunned by the lack of professionalism and flexible ethics! These American newspapers, which have established strict rules on journalistic ethics, admonishing journalists around the world, don’t even make their own columnists respect them! I have learnt a basic rule: to read a book before reviewing it.

Before being journalists, many Vaticanists are often simple re-editors of the Vatican’s communiqués and obedient reciters of the Roman Curia’s small talk. Of course, there are still independent Italian journalists, like Marco Politi, Emiliano Fittipaldi, and Gianluigi Nuzzi, who do significant work in the interest of truth, but all three of them have been marginalized by the main Italian newspapers.

In some cases, official Vaticanists do nevertheless publish surveys that put certain cardinals, or even Pope Francis, in a difficult spot. The Ricca, Boffo, McCarrick, and Maradiaga cases, as well as the Viganò letter, all attest to this. But on each of these scandals, the Vaticanists have actually remained dependent on their sources: they have obeyed one side of the Roman Curia over another, always with a political agenda. For example, Sandro Magister is regularly given information by the “Ratzingerian” wing, while Andrea Tornielli was once informed by the “pro-Francis” wing. They are two sides of the same coin. This explains how Vaticanists, perhaps instructed by Cardinal Bertone, denounced the homosexuality of journalist Dino Boffo in order to harm the camp represented by Cardinal Angelo Sodano and Cardinal Camillo Ruini (after several trials, the journalists in question had to admit their wrongdoing). This also explains how Sandro Magister revealed the double life of Msgr. Ricca in order to harm Francis, while he was not so insightful regarding the active homosexuality of many of Benedict XVI’s cardinals; it was unfitting, moreover, for a prominent journalist to “out” Msgr. Ricca, and is homophobic at the very least. On every occasion, Vaticanists take liberties only while remaining “in the service” of one camp or another within the Vatican.

The Catholic Church, an institution that relies regularly on lies, needs many Vaticanists to spread its propaganda. The funny thing, of course, is that the Catholic journalists who attack me are sometimes gay themselves! The lies revealed in In the Closet of the Vatican reach so far as to implicate the boldest Vaticanists.

In the case of my book, there has been a huge attempt at orchestrated manipulation by Vatican communicators through talking points—which worked to a certain degree in the Italian media but almost nowhere else in the world. According to my information, it seems that these talking points were not formulated at the request of Pope Francis or his immediate entourage. If I am to believe Crux Magazine and Life Site, it would seem that the Pope even read Sodoma (In the Closet of the Vatican) in Spanish and spoke about it with a reliable witness. This witness wrote to me: “The Pope told me that he read your book. He said it is a good book. That he knows most of them [the homosexual cardinals]. He told me that being gay isn’t a problem. He spoke about good gays and those who are evil due to [their appetite] for power” (here, I cite this direct source, who met with Pope Francis at length on February 19th, 2019; the quotation has not been denied).

In France, one can hardly imagine such an unprofessional journalistic system, aside from the ultra-conservative tracts and fanzines. But in Italy, Vaticanists care little about the truth: they work in the service of either a pope or a cause.

This little system of special friendships, bad company, and favor trading is now completely discredited, for two reasons: first, this little game enabled the cover-up of tens of thousands of pedophilic crimes, and everyone knows that the Vaticanists have a major responsibility for these scandals. It is not hard to understand the reasons for the Italian press’ enduring silence on the Church’s sexual abuse—they rarely make the front page of newspapers in Italy, contrary to the rest of the world. The silence of Vaticanists on these subjects is already well documented. They are sure to receive severe judgment from historians, and eventually, inevitably, they will be durably discredited in Italy.

Second of all, the Vaticanist system itself has seized up, having become completely dysfunctional since there have been two popes; indeed, the small world of Vaticanists is divided between “pro-Francis” and “pro-Ratzinger” wings. For six years now, there has been a civil war going on between these holy chroniclers. On top the structural problem facing this small brotherhood of co-religionists, there is now the violence of their internal battle. (A famous Italian intellectual, who is close to the ideas of pope Francis, says to me: “Your book marks the end of many Vaticanists’ careers, like the one of Sandro Magister, who has just seen the collapse of their own system of denial”).

The Vaticanists’ absurd behavior and lack of critical thinking provides us with a good illustration of a system of collective lies and cover-ups. This system of influence and control shares some similarities with the techniques of persuasion used on the press in communist times and the lobbying practices of large tobacco, soft drink, and pharmaceutical multinationals when they “influence” journalists, in contempt of the truth.

These specialized journalists with their fluid ethics are an obstacle to the search for truth about the Church and explain the sustained, deafening silence in Italy regarding the cases of sexual abuse. They are one of the main problems with journalism in Italy, where the freedom of the press is generally robust—except when it comes to the Vatican!

For all the reasons mentioned in this article, In the Closet of the Vatican could only be the work of an author and journalist who was neither Italian nor a Vaticanist, and who was above all concerned with the “truth of the facts.” This is why I am happy to have contributed to changing the conversation about Catholicism, and to have provoked an awareness that I believe is salutary for the Church. “In the Closet of the Vatican has changed the rules of the game forever” writes the priest and theologian James Alison. There is now no longer a question why so many cardinals are homophobic; instead, there is the question of why so many of them are homosexual. It is no longer a question to denounce the presence of homosexuality in the Church; it is a question of understanding why the Church mainly attracts, recruits, and promotes homosexuals (Brian Flanagan speaks aptly of “clerical homosexuality”). We must no longer speculate on the relationship between homosexuality and sexual abuse, but understand why the culture of secrecy around the sexuality of priests is the true source of cover-ups. And if there were only one rule to take away from my book, it is the following (Timothy Radcliffe hails the fact that I have established this definitively): the more homophobic a cardinal or a priest is in public, the more likely he is homosexual in private.

This is why I sincerely believe that I have done the Church a service by publishing In the Closet of the Vatican, which I believe will be recognized in the medium to long term—a book whose exigency for truth meets the exigency for truth of Pope Francis.

(This text has been translated from the French by Jacob Bromberg)

  1. Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” in Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1977), 237, 251.

  2. John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

  3. Hannah Arendt, “The Eichmann Controversy: A Letter to Gershom Scholem,” in The Jewish Writings (New York, NY: Schocken, 2008), 446–47.

  4. Jean-Luc Barré, Jacques et Raïssa Maritain (Paris: Tempus Perrin, 2012).

  5. A. W. Richard Sipe, A Secret World: Sexuality And The Search For Celibacy (New York: Routledge, 1990).