The reception of Frederic Martel’s widely anticipated book In the Closet of the Vatican has been surprising. The tantalizing hints dropped before the “bombshell,” “salacious” book’s release exclaimed, “80% of Vatican priests gay.” After an initial international media flurry, the book has dropped out of sight. Two questions arise in my mind. First, what, if anything, can we infer from this deeply flawed book? Second, what did Martel believe he was accomplishing?
The author, Frederic Martel, is a self-described “French gay atheist.” His overarching theme is that the Church’s stance on homosexuality is hypocritical and harmful. Many priests are living “double lives,” professing Church teaching by day and seeking homosexual sex by night.
The solution, in Martel’s mind, is to change Church teaching so that these clergy can live openly homosexually active lives. In this, he, no doubt, has many supporters, both inside and outside the Church.
But all sides of the Catholic debate over moral issues have panned Martel’s book. They make essentially the same critique: Martel trades in stereotypes, gossip and innuendo. He is grossly unfair to prelates he (evidently) does not like.
To answer the first question, I infer beyond any shadow of a doubt that Cardinals Raymond Burke and Müller and Pope Benedict are not homosexual. Not that I ever thought they were. But Martel makes a great deal of suggestive noise on this topic, without a shred of proof. Jesuit Father James Martin objects, saying flatly, “Pope Benedict, Cardinals Burke and Mueller are treated unfairly.”
If Martel had the slightest shred of actual evidence, he would have provided it. Instead, he goes on about their choice of clerical vestments.
Therefore, we can reasonably conclude: These men are not “gay” in any morally relevant sense. Tripping Martel’s “gaydar” doesn’t prove a darn thing.
Second, we can infer from In the Closet of the Vatican that Archbishop Carlo Viganò’s charge that Pope Francis knew about then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s misdeeds is substantially correct. Martel states that “the pope’s entourage indicated to me that Francis ‘was initially informed by Viganò that McCarrick had had homosexual relations with adult seminarians, which was not enough in his eyes to condemn him.’ In 2018, when he learned for certain that he had also, apart from his homosexual relations, sexually abused minors, ‘he immediately punished the cardinal.’”
In other words, Martel’s implied defense of Pope Francis and his unnamed “entourage” is that homosexual activity with seminarians is not problematic in any way worthy of serious correction.
Thirdly, we can conclude that two synods on the family were deliberately steered toward changing the ancient teachings of the Church on marriage, divorce and the Eucharist, with the added goal of changing the teaching on homosexual practice.
In the chapter entitled “The Synod,” Martel’s highly-placed sources, including Cardinals Lorenzo Baldisseri and Walter Kasper, confirm this. Whether they intended to reveal as much as they did, I cannot say. I feel certain, though, that Martel does not realize that his chapter confirms the worst suspicions of defenders of traditional teaching. Pope Francis deputized a “war machine,” a “gang” of “fast workers.”
I followed the synods closely and even participated in a conference designed to encourage and equip the minds of prelates who would be participating in its deliberations. I remember when Ignatius Press published Remaining in the Truth of Christ, a collection of essays by prominent cardinals defending the traditional teaching. Ignatius mailed it to the synod participants. None of them received it. The book “disappeared.” We were all suspicious, but nothing could be proven at the time.
But Martel reports that Cardinal Baldisseri “had the pamphlet seized!” Martel does not seem to realize the significance of what he has said.
This brings me to my second question: What exactly did Martel believe he was accomplishing?
I think he thought that demonstrating hypocrisy and double lives would be a “slam-dunk” argument in favor of changing Church teaching. By painting “conservatives” as closeted and not-very-nice homosexuals, he seems to have thought he would discredit them personally, and by extension, discredit their views.
But proving someone does not live up to his professed beliefs doesn’t actually prove much. The hypocrite is unattractive; that is for sure. But we cannot automatically conclude that he should change his beliefs. Perhaps his professed beliefs are correct and his behavior is wrong. Piling up examples of hypocrisy, even if they were all true, (which, in this book, they certainly are not) does not tell us whether the hypocrite should change his beliefs or his behavior.
To answer that question, we have to look elsewhere.
What is Martel’s underlying belief system about human sexuality and its place in our lives? He does not explicitly say. But his “Rules of the Closet” give us clues. In a chapter on Roman clergy who use male prostitutes, Martel tells us:
“In prostitution in Rome between priests and Arab escorts, two sexual poverties come together: the profound sexual frustration of Catholic priests is echoed in the constraints of Islam, which make heterosexual acts outside of marriage difficult for a young Muslim.”
Confining sex to marriage is “poverty” for young Muslim men, and, we would suppose, non-Muslim men, as well. Keeping sex inside marriage is an unreasonable, even unbearable, burden to place on young men: Martel evidently thinks that people cannot live without sex.
His belief has this one virtue: It is easy to live up to a standard that says there are no standards. There will be no conflict between that belief and any possible set of behavior. When sex is an entitlement, there are no hypocrites.
This is exactly the belief that has caused so much trouble in the past 50-plus years. We now know (or should know) that “consent” is not an adequate standard for judging the worthiness of sexual behavior. We now know (or should know) that people who think they are entitled to sex cause a lot of problems for other people.
The more powerful they are, the more problems their power allows them to cause. We now know that sex within marriage protects the legitimate interests of children to a relationship with both of their parents. And we know beyond any shadow of a doubt that children need their parents.
In other words, the evidence of the past 50-plus years tells us that the Church’s teaching is correct. We can eliminate hypocrisy, but not in the way Martel supposes. We, the members of the Body of Christ, need to change our behavior to conform to the Church’s teaching.
Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D. is the founder and president of the Ruth Institute and the author of The Sexual State: How Elite Ideologies Are Destroying Lives and How the Church Has Been Right All Along.