[ This article was first issued on McCleary’s Alternatives but given the theme it seemed appropriate it should appear here too ]
The inevitable response from Catholic critics to Frederic Martel’s In the Closet of the Vatican is that it lacks substance, he’s got it wrong about his probably 80% gay Vatican and that it’s all worth little more than gossip. While of course it’s possible Martel has got a few facts wrong, one can wonder how often in his over 500 pages. Hadn’t controversial reports since 2015 from such journalists as Emiliano Fittipaldi and Gianluigi Nuzzi made no impression or given no warning that more was present to be revealed? I wouldn’t expect the critics to consider any astrological dimension, but the guilty charge is so strong that even “the heavens declare” in this case. Uranus (anything to do with gays) is in the Vatican’s sex sector making easy trine to Mars (any men and sex) in the sector of the hidden!
Though I’m not suggesting Argentina’s Pope Francis is gay – and Martel insists he isn’t – did conservatives never hear the common saying in the Pope’s nation of origin, “todas las curas son maricones” (all priests are faggots)? People get the idea, even if most priests don’t care to be as hypocritical, or on occasion blatant, as some Vatican gays about their preference. Hidden, undeclared (closeted) homosexual clerics is a massive problem for Catholicism . But Martel makes no claim that his 80% are all active. The most many can be accused of, but it’s bad enough, is assisting covers-up through complicit silence, sometimes reluctant, of serious scandals. That situation is surely even a reason why, when given the opportunity by an outsider (in this case a gay French writer) to just talk, so many are ready to blab to someone used almost as a therapist or Father Confessor.
Before offering a few original perspectives and imagining improvements, I must emphasize what should be obvious, namely that for professed Christians hypocrisy is unacceptable and corruption more so and there’s no cure for them but repentance. Scandals known before Martel’s expose like the 2017 revelations about a top Vatican official Msgr Luigi Capozzi’s cocaine-fuelled gay orgies, are disgusting; and it’s unpleasant to hear of sexually harassed Swiss guards and arrogant, high placed clerics using migrant male prostitutes whom they insult and underpay (others who do pay properly feel so guilty they get embarrassingly tender with them!).
This said, I am neither so shocked as conservative Catholics at the given picture, nor smugly assured like some American evangelicals that we are only witnessing further proof of the “end times” evil of the Roman “Whore of Babylon” soon to fall (which the Vatican might well since it’s impossible for any institution to carry too many scandals too long). What I believe is finally coming to light is a more perennial, ingrained problem that is too often a tragedy for those involved and the result of chronic misunderstandings of theology and psychology that must be addressed, though I am not confident they will be.
Years ago in Latin America I was invited to give a talk to a group of self-confessed gay priests. It was the rather neat, pretty but queeny priest among them who took sudden exception as utterly ridiculous something I said about the book of Revelation as regards the erotic (see the sub section “An erotic and esoteric moment” in ‘Apocalypse as a Gay Issue”. https://wp.me/p2v96G-1eT . The fact he didn’t grasp or refused to consider the rather obvious point involved, has its connection with the ongoing problem of gay priests in the Vatican and beyond it. Because there really shouldn’t be quite such a problem with homosexuality. And what the gay Martel perceives as an irony – the strangely “homoerotic” Vatican with its images from Michelangelo including the ignudi (nude youths) painted around the Sistine Chapel alongside a clothed prophet Jeremiah, a figure with whom the artist identified himself, carries its own hint towards the solution.
THE TRAGEDY OF IGNORANCE
But first things first. The “tragedy” I refer to is the one well represented by Martel’s lead-in story with ex-priest, Francesco Lepore. For him as for so many youths in Italy until quite recently, there were few places beyond entering orders for the more introverted, sensitive type of youth to go to hide or cure an attraction to the same sex. He might hope to self-cure through denial, or, if he couldn’t quite achieve that, as one who was often mother’s boy, he could feel the Great Mother, Mary, would always forgive him anyway. But there was often something more.
Lepore admits to how the church positively drew him towards itself through the senses, the scents, sounds, colours, the mysterious rituals and costumes in which you could lose yourself – plainly a bit like being in mother’s skirts and in parallel to the way gays almost dominate the woman’s fashion industry. And that’s a point I take to be rather important because of things that emerged pre Martel among the earlier revelations from Fittipaldi and Nuzzi.
In harmony with the tendency of especially people of Latin background to assume a role or pose (recall singer Madonna’s hit, Vogue, with its “strike a pose”) some Vatican clerics felt easy with being distributors of mass when dressed for the ritual, but equally easy with going to gay bars for fun nights and pick-ups once they were in civvies. Dress made and unmade the man, the personalities, their roles and responsibilities.
Something is going wrong here and it’s more than a case, as evangelicals might plausibly maintain, that these priests were never remotely “born again”, because similar problems can be found among the community of the born agains too. It’s more like a whole historic blind spot is involved, one that can’t imagine being gay to be anything but (as Pope Benedict had it), a condition “objectively disordered” if not plain evil rather than in the majority of cases something perfectly natural to those involved, inborn, and even in its way vital to religion.
It is customary to start citing Leviticus 18 or Romans 1 (Protestants) or Natural Law (Catholics) against any idea of anyone being born different and meaningfully so. However, if I am not to get immediately and lengthily bogged down in answering the objections (which can be done), I must say directly that, psychologically and spiritually dominated as it clearly is by the Puer archetype, Christianity is “ascensional”. It is earth-denying and/or nature-denying more than any other faith. To that extent it is arguably the most “gay spiritual” of the world faiths with Buddhism perhaps some rival (its monks and attitudes are often quite gay).
This means Christianity is indirectly, and in some fashion that needn’t automatically affect woman’s rights (though ignorantly and crudely it may do so), against the feminine, the Dionysian swamp or raw nature. The point is well stated in Camille Paglia’s “Sexual Personae” which underlines the vital importance and inevitability of gay vision to human culture which is ultimately always a war against nature.
So much about Christianity is anti-gravitational, “contra naturam” – St Paul even says divine election and salvation itself are “against nature” – that just this standpoint is likely a cause, psychologically and historically, the faith sets its face against anyone or anything that, as though in rivalry, claims to be “naturally” against nature. Witness the tirade of St Paul in Romans 1 which I am quite prepared to state (as I do say in the poem and notes to A Saint’s Mistake https://wp.me/p2v96G-yS ) includes some real error and exaggeration and constitutes something Jesus never intended or would approve, something one can tell given certain hidden, unexplained facts concerning even Jesus’ original address to Paul which speak to him at more than one level.
In quest of remedies for the gay clerics problem, it must of course be acknowledged there can be none at all without first some transparency, especially for those within the Vatican which is supposed to function as beacon and example for all of Catholic persuasion . It’s unholy to remain silent in the face of, say, child abuse, from fear you yourself might be outed as gay (which is not the same things as paedophile). Better to be openly gay and better far to be able to affirm the positive value of being so.
So, for a start, obviously and ideally one would simply hope that the gay priest could sooner or later be out as gay (not automatically banned from orders as is increasingly proposed) and free to find the soul mate …..which might also be the best term for whatever partnership could be established and hopefully not changed by the week.
Gay marriage (described by Pope Benedict as “the legislation of evil”) and the drive to so-called “gay marriage equality” represents an essentially secular ideal involved with wider social movements to equality. It was originally necessitated by legal problems over inheritance and adoption. Marriage is nonetheless very much about the making of families and this is not what gay relationships are usually or chiefly about. They are friendships, partnerships, unions and should probably be called such, and in the case of priests, perhaps not even too precisely defined. Who knows precisely how the unmarried prophet Jeremiah and his secretary Baruch with whom he lived might have described their connection, or again the centurion with his boy/servant that Jesus healed in what is the nearest thing to a blessing accorded a same sex union? I don’t consider there should even be any need to formalize the connection except by personal declaration. (David and Jonathan simply declared they had a berith, which can mean variously covenant or marriage, but the matter was purely between themselves, not subject to public ceremony). To whatever extent the priestly relation would be sexual (and I would define chastity in this case as principally involving sincerity and fidelity) would be a private decision perhaps influenced by – despite everything! – such principles as St Paul’s “better to marry than to burn”.
I say all this because I believe, ideally and usually, relationship should be aimed for, and as far as possible acknowledged too because it is vitally important not to be attached – as plainly many Vatican and non Vatican clerics are attached – to the closet. This reduces life to a kind of perverse game filled with rumours, secrets, gossip and an often demeaning humour. At times it is a sort of Catholic version of Genet’s The Maids with the priest as a species of bitter drag queen rather than any representative of God. In this uncertain space whose very repressions are almost loved, objections like the Latin American priest’s can be raised as soon as eros and change are frankly broached, and Mother Mary’s pardon can be lazily preferred to any engagement in the life of the Creator. Indeed, as Martel emphasizes, some of the most ardently homophobic, traditionalist priests are the most self-indulgently gay. This truly is unacceptable, but one might have to go into the subject of the poles of pleasure and self-denial to understand how the contradictions involved might ever come about.
THE PRINCIPLE OF PHALLOS
It can be made to seem, and in the early Christianity of the Fathers, influenced not least by ascetical values of Greek philosophical thought, it was made to seem that Christianity is all about self-denial, especially where any eros is concerned. We are, after all, told to take up the cross and deny ourselves (Matt 1:24)…so shouldn’t we be denying sexual pleasure? As with so much of the bible there is paradox and apparent contradictions to resolve. Jesus also tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves, an almost impossible task if one is to hate one’s deepest, most self-defining urges. It is even easy for some to claim just this is meant if one takes the statement that if possible we should be eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven (Matt 19:12), eunuchs however being by Jesus’ time a broad term that didn’t automatically signify castrate or even chaste but instead different and out of the family way. Origen who decided to take Jesus literally and castrated himself, later believed this was sin.
It was certainly rather crazy too, but was related to the idea that God somehow disapproves pleasure and punishes those who desire it. However, as has been observed, and most recently so by would-be church sex reformer Nadia Bolz-Weber, God created the clitoris which has no function at all outside of female pleasure. So we may well ask, is it likely God would wish to deny men all pleasure? (For reflections on Bolz-Weber and her recent book, Shameless see https://wp.me/p4kNWg-nD )
In the post-Freudian, post neo-Buddhist world that shapes our vocabulary and expression, I think we would be well justified to understand the demand to deny our selves as meaning something more akin to denying the ego with its wilfulness and cravings, while to love our selves means not ego but our deeper, greater selves that are related to God and others. We are not meant to be pleasure addicts, but we should still love our natural being and be able to take some pleasure in its affirmation. And men, certainly, should not, like the neo-platonically minded St Augustine, regard every sexual feeling as arrogant uprising by the flesh in defiance of a holy God!
For gay men, and even to a degree straight men (for whom the penis is a form of power, or competition and at worst inclining to just control and even rape), there has to be a new acceptance and appreciation of phallos, the physical but also, beyond it, the spiritual dimension of the phallic. Something to the effect could hardly be more stressed in the inevitably little commented, little known story of Jeremiah’s loin cloth which again I have poeticized https://wp.me/p2v96G-Hm
From the beginning of life when the Jewish male is circumcised, the phallus is made to seem of interest to God, something that belongs to and, as it were, partakes in God. What this may do and mean for women is a subject in itself that need not be dealt with here; sufficient to affirm there is a subtle danger that amid contemporary emphasis on the rights of (and wrongs done) women, a new kind of de-spiritualizing, emasculating of men sets in that is not healthy but which unexpectedly gay men and vision might even help to overcome.
Emasculation did not take place in the case of the gay Michelangelo who stands in the Vatican pointing a way out of the confusion Vatican society has got itself into. Like Jeremiah who opposed the cult of the Queen of Heaven, but unlike the Vatican gays who look to mercy from Mother Mary, for the Sistine Chapel’s Last Judgement fresco, Michelangelo’s Mary, hardly any queen, is almost cowering away from the decrees of her Son. But at the same time, beyond the wall fresco and between the depictions of the prophets on the ceiling frescoes are the twenty Ignudi, the naked youths. The late art critic, Sister Wendy Beckett, found them highly enigmatic. She couldn’t understand their function (and nor really has any art critic unless to say they represent a perfection) but I think this should not be so difficult to grasp. It is simply a complement to other tendencies of Michelangelo’s essentially gay thought and vision.
SOME NAKED TRUTH?
Only recently a new star tennis player, the Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas, shocked and puzzled fans by posting to social media: “I like me better naked….when you put clothes on you immediately put a character on. Clothes are adjectives, they are indicators….When you don’t have any clothes on it’s just you, raw and you can’t hide”.
A real point is made here. While the side of nudity one tends to hear about from religion is some version of a “naked and ashamed” theme, this isn’t the only side the scriptures present, and neither is the “just sex” meaning that a secular world gives to nudity by contrast. The prophet Micah, for example, declares “I will go stripped and naked” (Mic 1:8). There are a variety of functions and meanings to nudity (I interrogate this subject in Naked in Thessaloniki Riddle and Sign” https://wp.me/p4kNWg-fD), but what is certain is that the prophetic tradition that the Vatican tends to downplay in favour of its rituals, is a rather nudity-as-truth one.
It is psychologically and symbolically correct that Jeremiah and Isaiah (another “naked” seer) should be set among the ignudi. It’s all part of the same thing: the clothed and the unclothed psychologically complement one another and interact; and in many respects nudity as for the ancient Greeks is a male, not a female theme. As a point of symbolism, it is male nudity that symbolizes “truth” because the male genitalia are exposed, exterior to the body, “solar”, not hidden as for females and “lunar”. Woman can symbolize truth as beauty, but truth is not always only beautiful. A mixture of Christian and secular values have rendered art and Hollywood and Playboy’s display of women natural in a way it traditionally wasn’t and spontaneously, symbolically it isn’t. Put on an event like the World Naked Bike Ride that is legally able to dodge the “indecent exposure” charge and there will be more males, often gay, in attendance. Throughout nature it is the male of the species is colourful and/or exhibitionist.
At the risk of more self reference, I would point to the message of a chance realization in my poem Baroque https://wp.me/p2v96G-IS It is based on an experience had while in Sicily where I visited a church, not without charm and power of a kind, but ultimately oppressive in its highly ornamented style (like a weighed down, over-decorated wedding cake – the pic below is not the place in question but a typification). Because I didn’t care to sensationalize, I didn’t outright state the chief thought prompting the piece. This was the feeling upon stepping outside into a sunlit square, of an imperious need for a kind of renewal by just light, sun, and endless blue of sky being naked to which would be like a baptism in its own right. Enough to say that the poem which ends
The point of reception is here, now, even
This temple, the body; with this I greet change.
carries more the thought of the second image than the first.
The statement is a purely personal one. It doesn’t belong with any programmes queer or other encouraging people to disrobe inside or outside of churches to protest something. However I would say that, just as Martel found some of the most rabidly homophobic Vatican clergy were the most actively gay, I am suspicious of those gay clergy and some non clerical gays who too readily deny any real value to eros for their own or anyone’s condition and so treat nudity as little more than something else to ban and little more than an aspect of modern pornography.
What dismissal of the erotic as part of the gay equation (which is taken up instead with rituals of the closet) can mean in real terms, is a flight from reality and change. It can accompany a disappearance into Mamma’s, or Mother Church’s or Mother Mary’s skirts, with a whole idolatry of clothes and ceremony at the expense of a more “naked” and abrasive “male” truth. And this must sometimes be pursued if there is ever to be reform. The ignudi as symbol of truth, change and perfection got painted in the right place.