“They have a terrible need for tenderness. They’re like children.”

A review of In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, and Hypocrisy

A number of years ago, in a social setting, I fell into conversation with a top Italian TV journalist. After a while, I asked him point-blank: Can it possibly be true that those in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church really believe the dogmas they peddle? He shook his head. “No, at least half of them don’t. But it’s a business. They have a product to sell and need to see the business thrive.”

I get that. But just how good, after all, is the business model? There’s far too much that works against it. Fine: your product is eternal life/salvation through Jesus Christ, but nonessentials have been grafted onto that basic framework. Try this thought experiment: How smart would it be for General Motors to require celibacy of its employees? What if top GM executives came up with this idea?—convinced that job effectiveness would be enhanced if people could be persuaded to give up sex.

Of course, it’s a thoroughly bad idea. When the Catholic Church adopted this rule for its employees, there was seemingly a spiritual justification as well: people who gave up sex, i.e., ignored basic human urges, would thereby become holier (because flesh = sin). The grievous flaw, however, is that abstinence does not guarantee a closer relationship with God—although it may enhance the appearance of piety, and what’s the harm in appearing to be holier than others? This wasn’t just a faulty idea, however; it was a formula for disaster. And the Catholic Church is paying dearly for it.

This costly mistake has been documented in Frédéric Martel’s 550-page volume, In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, and Hypocrisy. This book is based on four years of research, and was published simultaneously in eight languages earlier this year: “In all, 1,500 interviews were conducted for the book; among them were 41 cardinals, 52 bishops and monsignori, 45 apostolic nuncios, secretaries of nunciatures or foreign ambassadors, 11 Swiss Guards and over 200 Catholic priests and seminarians.” (p. 551)

Celibacy is promoted as an ideal—a mark of dedication and holiness—but it turned out to be a fatal snare. For men who are not attracted to women in the first place, what better place to hide than a vocation that was okay with that? Family and friends give up asking, “Haven’t you found the right girl yet?” This may bring some relief, but it is not a route to self-acceptance. And choosing to live in an all-male community, what could possibly go wrong?

Frédéric Martel: “For a long time, the ecclesiastical career was the ideal solution for many homosexuals who found it difficult to accept their private orientation. Tens of thousands of Italian priests sincerely believed that the religious vocation was ‘the’ solution to their ‘problem.’” (p. 8)

Key words here: “difficult to accept their private orientation.” This manifests as internalized homophobia, self-loathing, and destructive behaviors—as the Martel book documents in detail.

In fact, the documentation is massive; the book is highly readable and holds our interest on every page. Martel has provided helpful distillations of his major findings. He sums these up, through the course of the book, in Fourteen Rules of the Closet, which reveal a lot about how the Vatican functions real-time. I can cite the first few of them here; part of the fascination of this book is awaiting the next one.

Rule One follows the quote above on page 8: “For a long time the priesthood was the ideal escape-route for young homosexuals. Homosexuality is one of the keys to their vocation.”

Rule Two follows close upon the First:

“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.” (p. 10)

But what to do with all of the sexual energy? There can be a humorous side to denial, as demonstrated by the song, “Turn It Off,” in the show, The Book of Mormon:

When you start to get confused
Because of thoughts in your head
Don't feel those feelings
Hold them in instead
Turn it off, like a light switch

Which rarely works (aside from those few humans who are truly asexual).

Martel’s interviews uncovered the real-world solution that many priests in Rome find: the male prostitutes at the Roma Termini, the city’s main railway station, who specialize in servicing priests. The cruelty of imposed celibacy—depriving people of human intimacy—is reflected in an observation made by one of the prostitutes with whom Martel spoke:

“They’re priests who are very uncomfortable in their skin. They’re very attached to affection, to caresses. They want to kiss you all the time. They have a terrible need for tenderness. They’re like children.” (p. 146)

Yet, terror at the thought of honesty—acknowledging that sexual orientation is just a fact a nature—prompts syndromes of lying and repression. Hence the Third Rule of the Closet:

“The more vehemently opposed a cleric is to gays, the stronger his homophobic obsession, the more likely is it that he is insincere, and that his vehemence conceals something.” (p. 34)

Straight clergy are less uptight about it, and are more in sympathy with the general trend to understand sexual orientation as a human rights issue, hence The Fourth Rule of the Closet: “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.” (p.41)

With the lid so tightly on, with so much pretense and denial, oh what a disaster when a gay scandal breaks: the ultimate ‘caught with their pants down’ moment. Martel mentions one of Pope Francis’ confidants, Monsignor Battista Ricca, whose romance with a Swiss Guard was reported in the Italian press—and the ensuing storm: “The Ricca case was in fact a settling of scores between the conservative wing of the Vatican, let’s call it the pro-Ratzinger faction, and the moderate wing that represents Francis, and, particularly, between two homosexual camps.” (p. 59)

There is so much nastiness beneath the veneer of exaggerated piety for which the Vatican is famous, because the gay guys in the Holy See have not kept up with the times on how to behave as gay men today. Martel offers this observation:

“Of course gossip has always played a large part in the history of the holy see. It is the ‘gay poison’ that the poet speaks of, and the ‘sickness of rumours, slander and gossip’ denounced by Pope Francis. This kind of gossip was typical of homosexual life before ‘gay liberation.’ It consists of the same allusions, the same jokes, the same slanders that cardinals use today to hurt and wound—in the hope of hiding their own double lives.” (p. 462)

Rule of the Closet Five: “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.” (p. 60)

All those holy cardinals? Oh, to be a fly on the wall at a conclave as the College of Phonies squabbles among themselves selecting a new pope. And the world outside awaits the puffs of white smoke that announce that one among them is the next Vicar of Christ on Earth.

Pardon my cynicism.

Am I being too unkind calling them ‘phonies’? Martel observes:

“Pope Francis, a shrewd observer of ‘his’ Curia, was not mistaken when he mentioned…among the ’15 curial diseases’: existential schizophrenia, courtiers who ‘murder in cold blood’ the reputation of their fellow cardinals; the ‘terrorism of gossip’ and those prelates who ‘create a parallel world for themselves, where they set aside all that they severely teach others and begin to live a hidden and often dissolute life.’ Could it be clearer? The connection between slander and double lives is now established by the most irrefutable witness there is: the pope.” (p. 463)

Rule of the Closet Six provides insight into why the church has not been able to kick out priests—no matter their orientation—who rape children. This villainy survives and thrives because of the very rules of the priesthood:

“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.” (p. 92)

Yes, it’s a very bad business model, based ultimately on a profound misunderstanding of how humans function in the real world. Except for those who are sexually attracted to children, let consenting adults love whom they want to—as they have been engineered by nature to love—and offer guidance on how to get on with sex in responsible ways. But it seems to be the super religious who are hung up on sex = sin, and are so worried about how people have sex. And the guys at the Vatican are far too sure they know God’s rules.

Pope Paul VI’s 1968, encyclical Humanae vitae (‘the encyclical on the pill’) banned use of the pill by Catholics, “making it a rule that any sexual act must make the transmission of life possible.” (p. 175). Another strident document followed in 1975, Persona humana, prohibiting sex before marriage, homosexual relations and even masturbation (‘an intrinsically and gravely disorderly act’).

Martel comments:

“Even at the time [these documents] were badly received by the scientific community, since they ignored all of its biological, medical and psychoanalytical discoveries, and even more so by public opinion. The Catholic Church suddenly appeared violently opposed to the trends in society, and from then on its distance from the real life of the faithful would constantly grow.” (p. 175)

The legacy is damaged lives, damaged faith. We’d like to say to pious crew at the Vatican:

Stop presuming—because of inbred theological certainties—to tell people that sex isn’t supposed to be for fun, for expression of affection, yes, for recreation. Most of the sex going on in the world, right now, isn’t for making babies. And that’s all right. Get over it. “…the rule that any sexual act must make the transmission of life possible” just isn’t the way the world works—and never has been.

But Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI fought hard to keep the destructive legacy alive:

“John Paul II was pope from 1978 until 2005. AIDS, which appeared in 1981, at the start of his pontificate, was responsible during the years that followed for over 35 million deaths. Around the world, 37 million people are still living, even today, with HIV. The condom, which John Paul II’s Vatican energetically rejected, using all his resources and the power of his diplomatic network to oppose it, remains the most effective way of combatting the epidemic…” (p. 301)

“More perhaps than any other man of his generation, Joseph Ratzinger has run counter to history—and to his own life. His reasoning, which is absolutely perverse, would soon lead him to justify discrimination against homosexuals, encouraging their dismissal from workplaces or the army, encouraging the refusal of employment or access to housing for them.” (p. 451)

As I was gearing up to write this article, I took pages of notes. There is so much to tell about Martel’s findings; I could have written two or three times what I have, especially about the evil, twisted personalities—whom Martel describes in detail—who have risen to prominence in the church. Essentially it’s a pretty sad story. Making a desperate grab for superior piety, sex has been demonized, as if the apostle Paul were the final arbiter: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” (1 Corinthians 7:1). Celibacy was embraced without reckoning the toll it takes.

Who wants to go through life without hugs and warm embraces? The no-sex rule closes people off from meaningful intimacy, which commonly means hugs and embraces without clothes! Hence one of the high impact statements in the Martel book is the one I used as the title: “They have a terrible need for tenderness. They’re like children.” They have been robbed.

Who does that to employees? To fellow human beings you’re supposed care about? Why should that be the price of serving God? Martel quotes another prostitute from the Roma Termini:

“You can recognize them from miles away, even if they’re disguised as ordinary citizens. You can tell from their posture, which is a lot stiffer than that of the other customers. They’re not used to living…They’re unhappy. They’re not alive: they don’t love.” (p. 135)

Unless they’ve been lucky enough to find boyfriends/lovers/partners at home in the Vatican, and yet are expected to live the lie:

“…being gay in the clergy means being part of a kind of norm. Being homosexual is possible in the Vatican, easy, ordinary, and even encouraged; but the word ‘visibility’ is forbidden. Being discreetly homosexual means being part ‘of the parish’; to be one who brings down scandal upon it is to exclude oneself from the family.” (p. 5)

The case can be made that the Catholic Church, more so than other Christian brands, is an aggressive champion of homophobia: it’s part of official policy, no matter that Pope Francis famously said, “Who am I to judge?” Which energized his enemies:

“By tradition, a cardinal never speaks ill of the pope outside the Vatican. The Jesuits and members of Opus Dei keep their disagreements even more quiet. Dominicans are prudent and generally progressive, like Franciscans. But ad hominem criticisms of Francis are quick to come once the mike is switched off. There is even a real outpouring of hatred.” (p. 106, emphasis added)

Can stubborn Vatican prejudices ever be dislodged? Especially in the wake of the grim, virulent homophobia of John-Paul II and Benedict XVI, they’re firmly entrenched. And we’re up against the Holy Man mystique that has been perfected: the white smoke, the roaring, adoring crowds in magnificent St. Peter’s Square. So much holiness!

The ultimate bamboozle, I might add: but now there’s too much information. Journalists like Frédéric Martel have lifted the veil: beneath all the pious posturing there is obsessive secrecy, villainy, vicious politics, and boundless hypocrisy.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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