©ourtesy of Michael Joseph Gross
In Rome these days the topic of gay clerics in the upper reaches of the Holy See is hard to avoid.
Despite headlines about a powerful “gay lobby” within the Vatican, and a new Pope promising reform, the Catholic Church’s gay cardinals, monks, and other clergy inhabit a hidden netherworld. In Rome, the author learns how they navigate the dangerous paradox of their lives.
Naked but for the towel around his waist, a man of a certain age sat by himself, bent slightly forward as if praying, in a corner of the sauna at a gym in central Rome. I had not met this man before, but as I entered the sauna, I thought I recognized him from photographs. He looked like a priest with whom I’d corresponded after mutual friends put us in touch, a man I had wanted to consult about gay clerics in the Vatican Curia. My friends told me that this priest was gay, politically savvy, and well connected to the gay Church hierarchy in Rome. But this couldn’t be that priest. He had told me that he’d be away and couldn’t meet. Yet as I looked at the man more closely, I saw that it was definitely him. When we were alone, I spoke his name, telling him mine. “I thought you were out of the country,” I said. “How lucky for me: you’re here!” Startled, the priest talked fast. Yes, his plans had changed, he said, but he was leaving again the next day and would return only after I was gone.
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During the previous few days, I had heard a lot about this man. I had heard that he is a gossip, a social operator whose calendar is a blur of drinks and dinners with cardinals and archbishops, principessas and personal trainers. Supposedly, he loves to dish male colleagues with campy female nicknames. But I would never have the experience firsthand. The priest was embarrassed: to have been chanced upon at this place; to have had his small evasions revealed. The encounter was awkward. No, he did not wish to discuss the subject I was interested in. No, he did not think the subject worthwhile. These things he made clear. We left the sauna and, after further conversation, civil but stilted, went our separate ways.
I could understand his discomfort. But in Rome these days the topic of gay priests in the upper reaches of the Holy See is hard to avoid. In February of this year, not long before the College of Cardinals gathered in the Sistine Chapel for the conclave to choose the 266th Pope, the largest Italian daily newspaper, La Repubblica, reported that a “gay lobby”—a more or less unified cabal of homosexual power brokers—might be operating inside the Vatican. According to the newspaper, the possible existence of this gay lobby was among the many secrets described in a two-volume, 300-page report bound in red and presented to Pope Benedict XVI by three cardinals he had appointed to investigate the affair known as “VatiLeaks.” That scandal, which raised fresh suspicions of endemic corruption within the Curia, had broken the previous year after Paolo Gabriele, the papal butler, made off with some of Benedict’s private papers and leaked them to the press.
The internal VatiLeaks report, according to La Repubblica, indicated that gay clerics in the Vatican were being blackmailed. The report was also said to document the alleged gay lobby’s social structure and customs. Yet details concerning gay priests’ gatherings added up to old news: the tales had been told in articles previously published by La Repubblica itself. Sensationally, the newspaper suggested that Benedict’s concern about the alleged gay lobby was one reason he had suddenly resigned the papacy.
Months later, another leak of confidential information brought the subject of a gay lobby back into the news. Someone took notes during what was meant to be a private meeting between Latin-American Church leaders and the new Pope, the former cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, now known as Francis. In June, those notes were published on a progressive Catholic Web site. Francis was quoted as saying, “The ‘gay lobby’ is mentioned, and it is true, it is there … We need to see what we can do.”
A Closet with No Door
Gay lobby? It depends on what you mean. The term could refer to a shadowy group like the Illuminati, whose members quietly exercise supreme power. This is the sort of idea that lights up the tinfoil hats of conspiracy theorists, and it doesn’t capture the slow, feudal, inefficient workings of the Vatican. “Gay lobby” is really shorthand for something else. At the Vatican, a significant number of gay prelates and other gay clerics are in positions of great authority. They may not act as a collective but are aware of one another’s existence. And they inhabit a secretive netherworld, because homosexuality is officially condemned. Though the number of gay priests in general, and specifically among the Curia in Rome, is unknown, the proportion is much higher than in the general population. Between 20 and 60 percent of all Catholic priests are gay, according to one estimate cited by Donald B. Cozzens in his well-regarded The Changing Face of the Priesthood. For gay clerics at the Vatican, one fundamental condition of their power, and of their priesthood, is silence, at least in public, about who they really are.
Clerics inhabit this silence in a variety of ways. A few keep their sexuality entirely private and adhere to the vow of celibacy. Many others quietly let themselves be known as gay to a limited degree, to some colleagues, or to some laypeople, or both; sometimes they remain celibate and sometimes they do not. A third way, perhaps the least common but certainly the most visible, involves living a double life. Occasionally such clerics are unmasked, usually by stories in the Italian press. In 2010, for the better part of a month, one straight journalist pretended to be the boyfriend of a gay man who acted as a “honeypot” and entrapped actual gay priests in various sexual situations. (The cardinal vicar of Rome was given the task of investigating. The priests’ fates are unknown.)
There are at least a few gay cardinals, including one whose long-term partner is a well-known minister in a Protestant denomination. There is the notorious monsignor nicknamed “Jessica,” who likes to visit a pontifical university and pass out his business card to 25-year-old novices. (Among the monsignor’s pickup lines: “Do you want to see the bed of John XXIII?”) There’s the supposedly straight man who has a secret life as a gay prostitute in Rome and posts photographs online of the innermost corridors of the Vatican. Whether he received this privileged access from some friend or family member, or from a client, is impossible to say; to see a known rent boy in black leather on a private Vatican balcony does raise an eyebrow.
The Vatican holds secrets so tightly that it can make Fort Meade look like a sloppy drunk. Yet dozens of interviews with current and former gay priests, gay monks, veteran Vatican journalists, Italian aristocrats, and gay men at Roman gyms, bars, nightclubs, sex clubs, and restaurants suggest that, riveting as the more graphic stories are, they convey a limited part of the reality of gay clerical life in Rome. To be gay in the Vatican is no guarantee of success, mark of belonging, or shortcut to erotic intrigue. Most basically it is a sentence of isolation. Gays in the Vatican are creatures of a cutthroat bureaucracy whose dogmatic worldview denies or denigrates their own existence. They live in a closet that has no door. Among recent Popes, Benedict made the most concerted effort to sharpen Church doctrine on homosexuality, which he once called “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.” He tried to cull gays from clerical ranks, most notably in 2005, when men with known “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” were prohibited from being ordained, even if they were celibate.
Denunciation and exposure have made gay priests figures of fascination—though less as people than as symbols—especially to the secular far left and the religious far right. Both sides find these clerics to be politically useful. The left uses them to level charges of hypocrisy. The right sees them as a stain in need of removal. They all got a shock late last July when Francis made his first direct public statement about gay clerics since becoming Pope.