A new book on homosexuality and the Vatican is being released this week, and among the author’s several controversial assertions is one that claims 80 percent of priests at the Vatican are gay.
The book, In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy, will be released this coming Thursday in eight languages across twenty countries. Authored by the French journalist and sociologist Frédéric Martel. Christopher Lamb of The Tablet reported of the book:
“After four years of gathering material which took him across the world Martel, a non-believer who is openly gay, spent around a week a month in Rome, sometimes staying in residences inside the Vatican or on Holy See property. He claims to have completed 1,500 interviews with 41 cardinals, 52 bishops and monsignors, 45 papal ambassadors or diplomatic officials, 11 Swiss guards and more than 200 priests and seminarians. . .
“Sources say that Martel’s research reveals that while some gay priests accept their sexual orientation and a number maintain discreet long term relationships, others live more extreme double lives through casual encounters and the use of male prostitutes, while others are in denial about their sexuality. He is said to argue that the intra-church battles of recent decades should be read through a closeted gay paradigm.”
Among the most controversial claims in the book, which will be released in Western European under the title Sodoma (Sodom), is one interviewee’s assertion that 80 percent of priests in the Vatican are gay. Martel also “names names” about Church officials who are allegedly gay, those who have led double lives, and those involved in crimes. For more on the book’s content, see the news report from Crux.
Martel’s approach has prompted criticism from LGBT advocates who are concerned over what impact the book will have on gay priests and how the right wing might weaponize Martel’s work.
Frank Bruni, a columnist for The New York Times, questioned Martel’s book. As an openly gay man and sometime critic of the Church, Bruni wrote that it may have been presumed he would cheer for exposing hypocrisy and outing some anti-gay prelates. Instead, he explained his opposite concerns:
“But I’m bothered and even a little scared. Whatever Martel’s intent, “In the Closet of the Vatican” may be less a constructive reckoning than a stockpile of ammunition for militant right-wing Catholics who already itch to conduct a witch hunt for gay priests, many of whom are exemplary — and chaste — servants of the church. Those same Catholics oppose sensible and necessary reforms, and will point to the book’s revelations as proof that the church is already too permissive and has lost its dignity and its way.
“Although Martel himself is openly gay, he sensationalizes gayness by devoting his inquiry to Catholic officials who have had sex with men, not ones who have had sex with women. The promise of celibacy that priests make forbids all sexual partners, and what violates Catholic teaching isn’t just gay sex but sex outside marriage. In that context, Martel’s focus on homosexuality buys into the notion that it’s especially troubling and titillating.”
Bruni called Martel’s language “at once profoundly silly and deeply offensive” with vague sourcing and a questionable tone. He worried, too, that the book would unhelpfully further a narrative which links homosexuality and sexual abuse. Despite Martel being clear he does not believe the two are linked, Bruni commented, that it is “a crucial subtlety that’s too easily lost in the thicket of exclamation points,” especially given the fact that most people will only read headlines, not the book.
Fr. James Martin, S.J., author of Building a Bridge, shared some of Bruni’s concerns even while admitting that based on early reports he had seen, Martel makes a “convincing case that in the Vatican many priests bishops and even cardinals are gay, and that some of them are sexually active.” Associated Press reported:
“Martin added that the book’s sarcastic tone belies its fatal flaw. ‘His extensive research is buried under so much gossip and innuendo that it makes it difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction.’
“‘There are many gay priests, bishops and cardinals in ministry today in the church,’ Martin said. ‘But most of them are, like their straight counterparts, remaining faithful to a life of chastity and celibacy.’
“Martin said Martel ‘traffics in some of the worst gay stereotypes’ by using sarcastic and derogatory terms, such as when he writes of Francis’ plight: ‘Francis is said to be “among the wolves.” It’s not quite true: he’s among the queens.'”
But not all advocates for LGBT equality were as negative about In the Closet of the Vatican. America reported the reaction of Fr. James Alison, an openly gay priest and theologian who has described the question of gay men in the priesthood as the “elephant in the sacristy“:
“‘That there is a large number of gay priests [working at the Vatican] should be neither here nor there,’ he said. ‘The fact is that they’re in the closet in one way or another and therefore they are liable to blackmail. That’s the problem.’ . . .
“‘That’s where the book is really helpful. It points out just how mendacious the “don’t ask, don’t tell,” world is and how it sets all those involved up to be unable to deal with the truth,’ he said. Referring to any priests whose behavior goes against what is expected of them, Father Alison said, ‘They merely need to feel blackmailable.'”
Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., a theologian and former Master of the Dominican Friars, was interviewed by Martel as part of the author’s research. He likewise offered qualified approval for the book in a piece for The Tablet:
“I would love to be able to dismiss Martel’s book as mere gossip. It will anger and sadden vast numbers of Catholics. For many this may be the last straw and they will be off. But it would be a mistake to rubbish this book. . .He seems to me to be a highly intelligent and honest journalist and the Church will need courage to respond to his revelations fruitfully. . .The issue of this book is hypocrisy, not abuse, but despite my reservations about his book, we should be grateful to Martel.”
But Radcliffe has reservations, too. He said Martel uses too many “unattributed assertions,” potentially treating gossip as fact, and has a perception of people that “is so dominated by the question of their sexual orientation that he sees evidence of it everywhere.” Radcliffe also objected to Martel’s belief that a priest who accepts celibacy happily is quiet rare, then concluded:
“So Martel and I have rather different assessments of the extent of the crisis. Am I too naïve? Does he let himself be carried away by gossip sometimes? Probably both. But if only half of what he claims is true, we are still faced with revelations that are stunning. How should the Church react?”
Whether one finds In the Closet of the Vatican to be helpful, to be harmful, or to be occupying some middle ground in between, what its Thursday release nearly assures is that the issue of gay priests will certainly be a topic of discussion this week as the Vatican’s summit on clergy sexual abuse gets underway.
Check back to Bondings 2.0 tomorrow for updates on how the wider conversation about gay men in the priesthood has developed in recent weeks. Check in later this week when Bondings 2.0 Editor Francis DeBernardo will be reporting from Rome during the Vatican’s summit meeting on clergy sexual abuse.
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—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 18, 2019