Beset by a continuous drip of disclosures about clerical sex abuse, and angered by a pope intent on mischaracterizing the nature of the scandal, Catholics are a ready market for an exposé of a masked but powerful gay culture in Vatican circles. Released simultaneously in twenty countries and scheduled to coincide with the Vatican’s February abuse summit, Frédéric Martel’s In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy is a publishing gambit expecting to be an international sensation.
Prurience sells. Accordingly, Closet is a lurid through-the-looking-glass potboiler steaming with gleeful digs, salacious innuendo, unsupported inferences, and self-admiring ballyhoo. Like Alice, readers are expected “to believe at least six impossible things before breakfast” (e.g., intimates of Pope Benedict at posh parties with butlers in livery and cakes decorated with marzipan penises; male street prostitution in Rome bankrolled by Vatican clerics). Dozens more follow on into the night with randy seminarians, Muslim rent boys, “sacristy queens,” and sexually arid celibates.
An openly gay propagandist, Martel is hostile to the moral framework of Catholicism’s sexual ethics, and disdains “a continence that is against nature.” He crusades for an unreservedly gay priesthood: “A priest or a cardinal should not be ashamed of being homosexual; I even think it should be one possible social status among others. . . . These cardinals, bishops and priests have the right to have lovers, and to explore their inclinations, whether acquired or innate.”
The book’s logic flows from its premise: most “homophobic” supporters of an objective moral order are themselves gay. It follows that the clerical culture of secrecy can only be eliminated by acknowledging gay priests as gays and, it follows, endorsing homosexuality.
To Martel, it is celibacy that is deviant. By trumpeting the obligatory collapse of priestly discipline, he works to undermine remaining institutional restrictions on sexual freedom. Homosexual priests must be free “to satisfy their inclinations.” To that end, Martel plays the intrepid truth-teller, a latter-day Diogenes carrying a lamp into dark corners in search of an honest cleric. Unsurprising in light of his aim, he finds few.
Those happy few are “gay-friendly,” left-leaning lieutenants of “mischievous” Pope Francis, Martel’s hero. They support gay entitlements, gay marriage, sexual freedom, and assorted social justice distractions from outmoded preoccupations with sin, grace, and natural law. All others are either leading double lives, are “thwarted homophiles,” or just asexual. Francis and his band “know that sexual desire, and homosexual desire first and foremost, is one of the main engines and wellsprings of Vatican life.”
Martel is evasive about his sources, derivative and profligate in his methods. Woven into 555 pages of unsubstantiated hearsay is material heavily indebted to a broad mélange of previously published sources. Despite breathless claims that he is disclosing a bombshell “beyond comprehension,” there is little new to be told. His claim—“It would have been difficult to publish a book like this twenty or even only ten years ago”—is false.
To illustrate, Martel’s chapter on the double life of Marcial Maciel, founder of the cult-like Legion of Christ, reprises what Gordon Urquhart chronicled in The Pope’s Armada (1999). Michael Rose’s Goodbye, Good Men (2002) documented the root of the abuse scandal reaching down to the seminaries after the cultural explosion of the 1960s and ’70s. Closet is a sequel set in Rome. What Rose described in dismay has been repackaged by Martel with tabloid relish and self-promotional chutzpah.
Sociologist Andrew Greely, S.J., is only one of a legion of serious writers who have covered the same ground (celibacy, sexual abuse, clerical homosexuality) with a clear eye and greater discernment for the last two decades and then some. Richard Sipe’s Sex, Priests, and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis appeared in 1995. The Catholic press has not skimped on coverage of the seismic shifts within the church that began with sympathy and tolerance for homosexual persons before drifting into acceptance of gay cliques and a separatist culture in seminaries and clerical ranks.
Closet’s trademark novelty consists of catty wink-wink revelations that read like a warm-up routine for a night of Bitchy Bingo. The tenor of his self-styled analysis of Josef Ratzinger is a pitch-perfect synecdoche of his reasoning about every conservative name mentioned in the tell-all:
Some monsignori I have interviewed [typically unnamed] called Ratzinger a ‘liturgy queen’ or an ‘opera queen.’. . . . Benedict XVI is a veritable gender theory all by himself. Sua quique persona (to each his mask) . . . . [He is] a fashionable figure, seen wearing all the fashion houses of Milan, as once Grace Kelly, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis or Elizabeth II had done.
Martel thrills to tell that Oscar Wilde prefigured Benedict in the “homosexualized dandy” Dorian Gray. Benedict “had a marked liking for accessories,” and chose Serengeti-Bushnell sunglasses after being criticized for Ray-Bans. Did you know that instead of downscale Geoxes, he chose “a sublime pair of sparkling Prada moccasins in brilliant lipstick red?” That his tailors and boot-makers were “well known for their ‘intrinsically disordered’ morals”? That as Cardinal Ratzinger, “our queenie” had “dizzying relationships” with young assistants who “were remarkable for their angelic beauty.” “It has to be said that Benedict liked to flirt.”
Extend this level of bent scrutiny to every subject and every conscientious conservative in the Vatican and you grasp Martel’s rancor toward Catholicism. Closet lingers with unveiled malice over non-progressivist clerics, devoting 11npages to diminishing the reputation of Guinea’s Cardinal Robert Sarah. An outspoken, prominent standard-bearer for Catholic orthodoxy in the one place—Africa—the church is growing, he must be discredited.
A second-generation Christian, Sarah is slyly depicted as a residual animist with “ a liking for witchcraft and witch doctors.” Esteemed among Catholics as an heir to Benedict, he is dismissed as a rigid “homophobe” with “an extravagant ego” and an eye on money. An unnamed priest confides that Sarah “prays constantly, as if he’s under some sort of spell. He’s frightening. He’s literally frightening.” Yet another anonymous source badmouths him as “a bottom-of-the-range theologian” whose theology is “puerile.”
On it goes. Defamation is the wrecking ball swung in animus. Depiction of a Vatican degraded to the point of illegitimacy resembles both a sedevacantist J’accuse and dog-eared anti-Catholic tropes. Martel conjures up the counter-Church of the Last Days. The great harlot of the Apocalypse reigns in Vatican City, where prelates travel with escorts and “go regularly to Cuba as sex tourists.” A “ring of lust” encircles the Vatican, a sexual casino for high rollers in cope and chasuble. How many Vatican scandals can be explained by break-ups between an eminence and his secretary-lover?
The title’s intended hypocrites are those conscientious clergy who publicly espouse traditional church teaching on sexual morality: “Heterosexual prelates were rare among those close to John Paul II; chastity was rarer still. . . . Most cardinals around John Paul II led a double life.”
Pope Benedict’s “internalized homophilia”—Martel’s own diagnosis—was among likely causes of his abdication. The Vatican “has one of the biggest gay communities in the world, and I doubt whether, even in San Francisco’s Castro, the emblematic gay quarter, though more mixed today, there are quite as many gays!”
Unverifiable Rumor and Conjecture
This snake-pit of unverifiable rumor and conjecture is catnip to disaffected Catholics and anti-Catholics alike. Alert readers, however, are apt to see the author himself as the leading imposter—a diva who exaggerates and falsifies in the costume of a journalist. Closet belongs to the genre of camp scholarship: gossip-as-knowledge-production in drag as sociology. It observes the giddy postmodern strategy to subvert what queer theorists call heterosexual hegemony. If “the hallmark of camp is its spirit of extravagance,” as Susan Sontag famously wrote, Closet is an exercise in high camp.
The act opens in the prologue with Martel crowing about his sex appeal to priests who “influential or otherwise, came on to me decorously, and some, with very little reluctance, more intensely. It’s an occupational hazard!” (And, oh, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi is “cute as a button.”)
An odor of hucksterism hangs over the project. Offered as investigative journalism, it comes with no index, no citations, no footnotes, no bibliography. In place of these is a link to a catalog of general sources (www.sodoma.fr), a preposterous compilation of general references available to anyone on Google but with no specified connection to anyline in the book.
Perhaps that explains Martel’s caveat: “This book is accompanied and defended by a consortium of about fifteen lawyers.” A preemptive move, it calls to mind the lawsuits (plagiarism and copyright infringement) brought against Dan Brown for The Da Vinci Code.
Reminders of Brown’s creative methods are apparent to anyone familiar with the 2003 novel. It was his insistence on facticity that turned Brown’s thriller into an international blockbuster. Following suit, Martel prefaces his text with testimony that he is, indeed, presenting facts. (Because certain interviewees are given names of characters invented by Andre Gide, do not—not!—think any interviews contain elements of fiction.)
Echoing Brown’s title, Martel provides a chapter on “The Maritain Code,” offered as “a real key to understanding The Closet.” Jacques Maritain stands as one of the 20th century’s most influential public philosophers, a convert who integrated Catholicism into the literary and intellectual life of his era. That mission was lived, necessarily, within close relation to leading literary figures—André Gide, François Mauriac, Jean Cocteau, others—who were homosexual. Nudge, nudge. Say no more. Just decode.
Without intending to, this ugly book lends credence to stereotypes of homosexuals as sex-obsessed captives of their impulses. It is a slur on conscientious men with homosexual leanings who struggle to keep their vows, honor their commitments, and embrace the pledged obligations of their undertakings.