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.
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).↩