The publication of In the Closet of the Vatican by the French gay polemicist Frédéric Martel has been meticulously timed to coincide with Pope Francis’s ‘global summit’ of bishops to discuss the sexual abuse of minors. The book appeared in eight languages on Thursday morning, just as the gathering began. It is being hyped as a ‘bombshell’ that will ‘blow apart’ the summit.
We shall see. Certainly many Catholic priests are more interested in Martel’s exposé than in Francis’s initiative. The author spent four years researching the subject of high-ranking gays in the Catholic church. Forty-one cardinals spoke to him. That seems brave, given that Martel is an LGBT campaigner and some of those cardinals are thunderous opponents of the gay lobby. They must have been worried that they’d be stitched up if they refused. Also, some of them presumably wanted to find out what dirt he had on them.
Meanwhile, In the Closet of the Vatican bears the fingerprints of Francis’s closest advisors, presumably acting without his knowledge. I don’t know why they allowed Martel to publish his book now, when it can only embarrass the Pope. I do know that they are playing a nasty game.
More of that in a minute. You must be wondering, like all those priests who’ve pre-ordered the book on Amazon, precisely what Martel reveals. That’s difficult to answer, because he’s not into providing proof. He prefers insinuation — not just a soupçon but great dollops of it, with a side dish of cod psychology.
So Benedict XVI is a repressed homosexual, he theorises, because his ‘emotional tendencies’ point in that direction and he likes operas featuring ‘androgynous figures’. Martel also has suspicions about Cardinal Raymond Burke, Cardinal Gerhard Müller and just about any prelate who has challenged Francis.
We’re given a taste of his methodological rigour when he visits Müller, the German theologian whom Francis sacked as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for voicing concerns at the pontiff’s DIY theology. The conversation is interrupted by a phone call. Müller takes it ‘without apologising’, and starts speaking,
assuming an affected pose: now he has manners. He starts talking in German, in a perfumed voice… If I didn’t have a man in front of me — a man who had taken a vow of chastity — and if I didn’t hear echoing down the line a baritone voice, I would have understood it to be an intimate call.
There are many passages like this. They suggest that Martel is, to put it charitably, an odd fish. He is besotted with Rimbaud, sleeping beside a volume of his poetry, and the generation of tortured French gay artists and intellectuals who followed him. He presses a ‘white volume’ (he won’t say what it is) into the hands of his inter-viewees. On almost every page he outs himself as a raging bore.
He’s more than an odd fish, though. He’s a menace, because he hasn’t bothered to equip himself with basic theological knowledge. He assures us that Cardinal Burke regards homosexuality as ‘a grave sin’. No, he doesn’t, because the church teaches that it is homosexual acts that are sinful, not the disposition. Martel then spends pages ridiculing Burke’s (admittedly lavish) clerical attire. He won’t let go of the idea that traditionalist clergy dress like women. He even consults a drag queen, who diagnoses a ‘fluid and queer’ gender identity.
I know why the Pope’s hardline allies, known as Team Francis, indulged Martel.They wanted a hit job on their conservative enemies; he was writing this book and they saw their chance. But, since the would-be assassin knew so little about the church — he seems to think that only bishops are addressed as ‘monsignor’ — they had to guide his hand, not just towards Burke et al but away from the Pope. Thus Martel goes to Argentina to write about Francis’s background, but not all of it: the allegation that he covered up child abuse there ‘lies outside the scope of this book’. Likewise, conveniently, the alleged wrongdoings of the Pope’s close ally Cardinal Maradiaga.
Unfortunately for Team Francis, they have landed themselves in The Pink Panther rather than The Day of the Jackal. Edward Fox’s assassin may have narrowly failed in his mission, but at least he didn’t hit the wrong target. Martel’s Inspector Clouseau accidentally wounds the Supreme Pontiff — by revealing that, according to the Pope’s own entourage, Francis knew about the sins of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick years ago and chose to do nothing.
That is really the only story in this book. It’s true that Martel confirms that the Vatican is full of gossipy queens, most of whom stare at waiters’ bottoms and some of whom have sex with young men. But I think we knew that already.