In the Closet of the Vatican

Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy

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Frédéric Martel
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , February
     2019.
     576 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781472966148.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Reading Frederic Martel’s behemoth text In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy is like looking at the church through a kaleidoscope. “The parish,” “the closet,” and “Sodom” are some of the patterns continuously reflected and refracted over the last fifty years of the papacy, according to Martel.

The whole ecclesial system is depicted as deeply corrupted, the priesthood is a grand charade, the plot is built around a choreography in which we meet the “five archetypes” of priests (533) always present in a pope’s entourage since John XXIII (61). Bishops and cardinals belong to opposing factions and their openness to discuss the homosexual question is the determining factor to understand if they are homosexual or not (123).

The author is conditioned by pre-set categories which create a rigid scheme, as revealed in one of the rules of the Closet: “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.”(10) Even if Martel affirms that his intention is not to track down and judge gay priests (34), the tendency to create boxes where individuals should fit and establish rules they should follow, such as the aforementioned, constitutes a systematization which is overwhelming.  

Over twenty-three chapters, Martel alternates facts, dialogues, philosophical and sociological interpretations to support his thesis that, rather than talking of a gay lobby at the Vatican, we should understand it as a rhizome (479) where it is impossible to clearly distinguish the beginning and the end. He recounts an investigation which spares the gory details, but gradually becomes a sharp blade repeatedly plunged in the body of the Catholic Church.

Throughout the book, the closet becomes more and more full, and the not-so-secret secrets are gathered wherever there are people available to talk; as Martel himself writes, he carried out investigations in about thirty countries (552). If on one hand the detailed operation of a skilled storyteller is a remarkable stylistic undertaking, on the other hand it is not enough to unravel this complex tangle.

The interviews in the volume are woven together as a spider’s web, and the epic encounters cast doubts on the atavistic confidentiality which permeates the Vatican walls. However, a journalistic investigation should be based on reliable facts and not solely on opinions and rumors as often is the case in the book.

Martel asks clever questions, steers the conversations in the right direction to achieve his desired results, and seemingly nothing passes his notice—from books on the shelves which could disclose the tastes of the interviewees, to unspoken words and body language. The men interviewed  do not hold back from showing a certain degree of princely pomp, often are individuals with a dark past and a quite possibly darker present with a devotion to the main authors of totalitarian crimes (35).

To borrow from Cicero, “bad times are upon us, but the worst has yet to come” (mala tempora currunt sed peiora parantur). According to Martel, the negligence of the superiors in admitting candidates to seminaries is a terrible mistake and one would hardly hope for a better future. He writes: “For a long time, the priesthood was the ideal escape-route for young homosexuals. Homosexuality is one of the keys to their vocation” (8). This allegation might be partially true, but there might be many other reasons for which the priesthood is the ideal escape-route. A single volume – as voluminous as it may be – cannot do justice to what could be a much more complex story.

It is particularly the hubris shown by some prelates, demonstrated by imprudence while narrating their own stories, which leaves the reader dismayed. Sometimes it is not necessary for them to speak, since the furniture of their houses, their clothing, or the attitude toward their staff are the unmistakable emblem, the red flag that identify them. Martel has the merit of being able to bring grist to his mill, that is showing their tendency towards hypocrisy. However, he indiscriminately labels as hypocrite almost everyone.

Even Pope Francis—who apparently read and liked this volume—is not spared and is depicted as ambiguous, “being both gay-friendly and anti-gay” (61). If this could be interpreted as an element in favor of the honesty of the author, at the same time it reveals a propensity for facile judgements and a certain prejudice against the Jesuit order to which the Pope belongs: “So ambiguity remains preferable, which suits this Jesuit pope” (61).

An element which should be mentioned is the sort of confession in the epilogue, in which the author tells his own story, which can be easily foreseen halfway through the book: “The world that I have described in this book isn’t mine. I’m not Catholic, I’m not even a believer” (544).

However, Martel demonstrates an in-depth knowledge of the ecclesial reality, of the implications of a Catholic education which is sometimes overwhelming and careless of the human condition. Even if the author declares himself as non-Catholic and non-believer, his work could provide an opportunity for some serious thinking for men and women of the Church and could help to understand that highly corrosive dynamics are in place at a universal level.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Claudia Giampietro is a Canon Lawyer in Rome.

Date of Review: 
June 11, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Frédéric Martel is a French writer and researcher. He is also a journalist at National Public Radio and the author of ten books, which have been translated and published in more than 25 countries.

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