Home/Rod Dreher/Frederic Martel’s Bad Book (Part I)

Frederic Martel’s Bad Book (Part I)

Frederic Martel, author, 'In The Closet Of The Vatican' (CNews screenshot)

According to Kindle, I have read 39 percent of Frederic Martel’s In The Closet Of The Vatican. I have completed the sections on Pope Francis, and on Paul VI. I’ll stop here and give you all a progress report.

A line in his Paul VI part sums up about 75 percent of this crappy book:

Did Paul VI know about this? It’s possible but not certain.

Reading Closet is like that: lots and lots of speculation, much of it groundless and catty. It’s as if Martel wrote the thing in purple felt-tip marker while tipsy on pink squirrels at a French Quarter piano bar.

Mind you, I expected this book to be dishy and scandalous. How could it not be, with homosexuality in the Vatican as its subject matter? And heaven knows I do appreciate clerical gossip. After so many years of hearing about gay networks among the Catholic hierarchy, and the role these networks (the “lavender mafia”) played in creating and sustaining the culture that aided and abetted the abuse scandal, I am more than ready for the sun to shine in on that sordid world. Écrasez l’infame! said Voltaire, or was it Ignatius Reilly?

(You see what spending the day reading this book has done to me? I feel like I’ve been reading Dorian Greene‘s chapbook.)

Anyway, I expected Closet to be frank about the sex lives of the Roman curia, but I also expected it to be more substantive. It is supposed to be a serious book by a sociologist attempting to comprehend and explain a complex culture hidden from public view. There are valuable things to be learned in this book (more on which in a moment), but Martel is an extremely unreliable narrator.

Here’s Martel describing the traditionalist Cardinal Raymond Burke, known for his elaborate traditional vestments:

There’s nothing effeminate about Burke: it is a matter of respecting tradition, he says. Still: his accoutrements and his unusual drag-queen appearance tell another story.

Martel actually quotes a drag queen analyzing Cardinal Burke’s clothing. Seriously, he does. Martel may be shallow, but he’s deeply shallow.

Here is Martel, sniffing around Burke’s bathroom:

A strange wet room worthy of a deluxe spa resort, and headed like a sauna. The luxury soaps, with their subtle perfumes, are arranged in the Japanese style, and the little towels folded on medium-sized ones, which are in turn arranged on large ones, and the large ones on very large. The toilet paper is new, and set in a protective cover that guarantees its immaculate purity.

New toilet paper! Soaps arranged à la mode japonaise! Well, gosh, the old cardinal must be a flamer.

Here’s another classic Martelism:

I have seen several Saint Sebastians in the Vatican museums, in particular the one by Girolamo Siciolante da Sermoneta, which is so enticing and libidinous that it could be used on the cover of an encyclopaedia of LGBT cultures. And that’s not counting the Saint Sebastian in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which has a chapel dedicated to it, on the right of the entrance, just after Michelangelo’s Pietà. It is also where John Paul II’s body is laid.

Get it? John Paul II is buried in a chapel where a saint whose martyrdom, as represented in art, has become a key gay male icon. Nudge-nudge, wink-wink. Martel loves insinuations like this.

Here he is on Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s failing to be sufficiently considerate to a nun who served him tea:

The ancient sister, who came in quite diligently, leaves in a sulk. Even a maid in a well-to-do family would be treated better! I felt sorry for her and later, when the time came to leave, I wanted to go and see her to apologize for his rudeness.

Assuming that this is even true, what does it have to do with anything? This is Martel’s style, though: anybody he identifies as being homophobic or in any way opposed to Pope Francis, he snipes at bitchily. Roman cardinals, archbishops, and monsignors receive Martel in their apartments. If the apartments are sizable and luxurious, Martel mocks the lavishness, and the bad taste of the decor. But if he likes the figure he’s interviewing? Well, take a look at this description of the Jesuit priest (and Francis intimate) Antonio Spadaro’s place:

And what an office! The Villa Malta, Via di Porta Pinciana, where the journal is based, is a magnificent location in the area around the Villa Medici and the Palazzo Borghese.

That kind of thing constantly interferes with the narrative, and makes you realize that our Freddy is a world-class flibbertigibbet.

It’s easy to figure out where Martel stands on every personage he writes about: if they’re pro-gay, they’re heroes, and might even be straight (he says his gaydar tells him that liberal Cardinal Walter Kasper is probably “one of the few cardinals in the Curia who aren’t [sic] homosexual.”) If they’re against liberalizing Church teaching on homosexuality, then they are self-hating closet cases.

I’m not exaggerating. It’s just that simple for Martel. Which is an extremely convenient position for a gay man trying to change Church teaching to take.

The Leninist principle of who, whom? guides Martel’s judgments. When Pope Francis speaks out of both sides of his mouth, it’s no bad thing. “So ambiguity remains preferable, which suits this Jesuit pope, who is quite capable of saying a thing and its opposite within a single sentence. Being both gay-friendly and anti-gay — what a gift!”

But when Cardinal Marc Ouellet grants an interview, he’s described as “an expert in double-speak: he is a Ratzingerian who claims to be defending Pope Francis.”

Martel says flat out that the fight going on in the Vatican today between Francis and his opponents is a civil war between gay factions. I’ve not read the whole book, remember, but so far, theology plays almost no role in his account, except for a passage in which a French Dominican is reported to have discovered that St. Thomas Aquinas really didn’t think anything is wrong with same-sex love. Martel doesn’t care about theology. He just wants the closeted conservatives to lose, and gay priests to be able to come out of the closet and have open sex lives. Whatever advances that goal is, by his definition, good; whatever opposes it is bad.

He doesn’t take seriously for one second the theological challenges of reconciling the Sexual Revolution (in its homo and hetero forms) with Christian teaching, both in Scripture and in the Church’s authoritative tradition. This is because, especially in the gay case, it cannot be done — or if it is going to be done, it requires extraordinary casuistry. To be fair, one shouldn’t expect Martel to solve this complex and difficult issue in this book. But he gives no evidence (so far; remember, I’m only about 40 percent in) of taking seriously the position of cardinals, bishops, and priests who really do believe that Scripture, and the Church’s magisterium, teach the truth — however difficult it is to live out that truth.

This is the stuff of great human courage and tragedy — as Martel’s moving discussion of Jacques Maritain indicates — but for the author, it’s about nothing but hate and hypocrisy. In an amazingly trite and self-regarding series of paragraphs, Martel praises himself for being a Frenchman and an atheist who holds the Church in contempt, and who refuses to use the proper titles for the Church dignitaries he meets, out of disdain for the hierarchy. Fine, that’s his right — but his profound ignorance of theology, and why a man would choose to sacrifice his own sexual desire for the sake of serving God, fatally flaws this book. Martel believes that everybody else in the world is as shallow and lust-driven as he is.

What’s so frustrating about this book is that Martel’s thesis, I believe, is sound. There really is an extraordinarily powerful network of gay men in the Vatican. It really does matter in terms of which kind of men are elevated into the episcopate. Martel writes:

To this sociological selection of priests we might add the selection of bishops, which amplifies the phenomenon still further. Homophilic [Martel’s term for gay-positive, though not necessarily gay] cardinals privilege prelates who have inclinations and who, in turn, choose gay priests. Nuncios, those ambassadors fo the pope who are given the task of selecting bishops and among whom the percentage of homosexuals reaches record levels, in turn operate a ‘natural’ selection. According to all the statement that I have collected, the priests who have such inclinations are thought to be favoured when their homosexuality is guessed. More prosaically, it is not rare for a nuncio or a bishop to promote a priest who is also part of ‘the parish’ [gay] because he expects some favours in return.

It really has mattered in the sex abuse crisis. Martel writes, from a pro-gay perspective, a truth that our mainstream media have resisted for years, because of political correctness:

Behind the majority of cases of sexual abuse there are priests and bishops who have protected the aggressors because of their own homosexuality and out of fear that it might be revealed in the even of a scandal. The culture of secrecy that was needed to maintain silence about the high prevalence of homosexuality in the Church has allowed sexual abuse to be hidden and predators to act.

I believe these things are true based on what I have seen and heard over the years, but I can’t prove them. They would be hard for anyone to prove. If he is to be believed, Martel had unprecedented access to this hidden world — and blew it because he was intellectually unprepared to understand what he was seeing, and incapable of writing with sobriety. It’s as if Virgil took a writer on a three-day tour of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, but instead of Dante, the writer had been late-era Truman Capote, who thought he had been in the back rooms at Studio 54.

At first, I couldn’t understand what Martel’s game was. Why would anyone, much less Vatican conservatives, agree to talk to him? He’s not an unknown quantity. He made his name writing gay books. The answer, I believe, comes when he effusively praises Antonio Spadaro, the combative Jesuit editor of Civiltà Cattolica, and one of Francis’s inner core of advisers, and Monsignor Battista Ricca, the Vatican diplomat who was caught up in gay sex scandals while serving in the field, but rehabilitated by Francis and put in charge of the papal residence. Martel openly credits Spadaro and Ricca for opening doors to him in the Vatican. About Spadaro, he writes:

Young, dynamic and charming, Spadaro is an impressive man. His ideas fly around with obvious speed and intelligence. The Jesuit is interested in all kinds of culture, particularly literature. He already has several books to his credit, including a far-sighted essay on cyber-theology and two biographical works on Pier Vittorio Tondelli, the Catholic homosexual Italian writer who died of AIDS at the age of 36.

In Martel-world, when Vatican priests, whatever their theological orientation, express interest in gay literary figures, it is an infallible sign that they are of the parish. That the author chose to highlight Spadaro’s writing about Tondelli here is meaningful. And, to be frank, you can see a more carnal version of the first two sentences of this paragraph in Martel’s long section about male prostitutes around Roma Termini.

Cardinals, bishops, and others cooperated with Martel, I think, because he came to them with the imprimatur of Spadaro — which carried with it the authority of the Pope. Whether or not Francis knew this is a different question. My theory is that Spadaro is the mastermind of this project, and is gambling that a big book portraying Francis’s opposition in the Curia and in the College of Cardinals as consisting of nothing but self-hating homosexual hypocrites will turn the tide of battle in a progressive direction. Think of it: if the Vatican really is overwhelmingly gay, and conservatives fighting Francis’s liberalizing are nothing but hypocrites trying to protect a system that lets them have secret sexual affairs while forbidding those freedoms to the laity, well, the laity may turn on the conservatives, giving Francis victory.

Why do I say that? Aside from what you’ve already read in this post, the book is at its best offering truly interesting details about infighting around the Synod on the Family in 2014, when Francis was checked by opponents. There’s no point in repeating Martel’s blow by blow account here, much of which (the public actions) has been reported before. It’s enough to know that it vindicates the conservative Catholic claim that the entire Francis reform process is meant to normalize homosexuality in particular, and the Sexual Revolution in general. Martel says all this from a pro-reform point of view. The villains in the conservative narrative are the heroes of Martel’s account — but their actions are the same.

If I were a Catholic, my blood would run cold, reading about the Machiavellian maneuvering going on at the summit of the Catholic Church, and observing how close the liberals — homosexual and homophilic both — are to winning. The fight going on in Rome right now is a battle that will decide the future of global Catholicism — and the good guys are in serious trouble.

(They are in trouble because they allowed the rot within the institution to fester for far too long, as I suspect I will read in the rest of the book, which covers the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.)

I mentioned earlier that Martel never gives those he identifies as enemies of gays any breaks. He sees Pope Francis, though, as a truly revolutionary figure, and excuses any anti-gay remarks Francis makes. For example:

Sentenced to live with this very unusual fauna, Pope Francis does what he can.


One of the specialists in Argentinian Catholicism … sums up the debate more or less as follows: ‘What do you expect of Francis? He’s an 82-year-old Peronist priest. How do you expect him to be modern and progressive at his age?”

And so forth. For conservatives, inconsistencies is a sign of diabolical hypocrisy. For Francis? Well, you have to understand, darling… . It’s who, whom all the way down.

Martel praises Francis for his compassion, his humility, his hatred of hypocrisy, and, yes, his fabled mercy. In an interview with Father Federico Lombardi, the retired Vatican spokesman, Martel presses him on whether or not Francis is talking about of both sides of his mouth about homosexuality, with his “Who am I to judge?” rhetoric (which, please note, was spoken in response to a question about the disgraced Msgr Ricca). Lombardi says:

“What I mean is that this phrase is not evidence of a choice or a change of doctrine. But it did have a very positive aspect: it is about personal situations. It is an approach based on proximity, accompaniment, pastoral care. But that isn’t to say that [being gay] is good. It means that the pope doesn’t feel it is his place to judge.”

“Is it a Jesuit formula? Is it Jesuitical?” [Martel asks]

“Yes, if you like, it’s a Jesuit phrase. It’s the choice of mercy, the pastoral way with personal dilemmas. It is a phrase of discernment. [Francis] is looking for a path. In a way he is saying: “I am with you to go on a journey.” But Francis replies to an individual situation [the case of Msgr Ricca] with a pastoral response; on matters of doctrine, he remains faithful.”

Again: if the same kind of thing came from a conservative, Martel would condemn it as rank hypocrisy. But because this kind of casuistry is used to advance the pro-gay cause while pretending to be doctrinally orthodox, wonder of wonders, Francis is the pope of mercy.

This passage summing up Spadaro’s 2013 Civiltà Cattolica interview with Francis (which you can read on the Vatican’s own website), in which the pope laid out his ideas on homosexuality and Church reform, gives away the end goal of all this:

Spadaro won’t let go of the gay question, pushing Francis on his entrenchments and leading him to sketch out a truly Christian version of homosexuality. The pope asks that homosexuals be accompanied “with mercy,” and he imagines pastoral care for “irregular situations” and the “socially wounded” who feel “condemned by the Church.” Never has a pope had so much empathy and, let’s say the word, fraternity, for homosexuals. It’s a genuine Galilean revolution! And this time, his words certainly weren’t improvised, as they might have been for his famous phrase: “Who am I to judge?” The interview has been minutely edited and very word carefully weighed (as Spadaro confirms to me).

For Francis, however, the crux lies elsewhere: it’s time for the Church to move away from questions that divide believers and concentrate instead on the real issues: the poor, migrants, poverty. “We can’t only insist on questions bound up with abortion, homosexual marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. It’s not possible … It isn’t necessary to go on talking about it all the time,” the pope says.

Ah. Remember what Francis appointee Cardinal Blase Cupich said last summer, about the Viganò testimony claiming that gays in high Vatican positions had covered up for Uncle Ted McCarrick? Cupich told a Chicago TV station that investigating the Viganò claims would be going down a “rabbit hole,” that the pope has “got to get on with other things, of talking about the environment and protecting migrants and carrying on the work of the Church.”

This wasn’t just Cupich’s idea. It started with Francis, at the beginning. Francis named Cupich as one of the four organizers of the current Vatican conference on dealing with sex abuse. Homosexuality in the priesthood is not on the agenda. It cannot be officially acknowledged, one understands, but by opening the doors to this hidden world to Martel, Coach Spadaro of Team Francis appears to be playing a dangerous double game.

By the way, about the pope of mercy praised by Martel and the pro-gay Vatican figures? Here’s how Francis got even with the cardinals and bishops who opposed him in the earlier Synod on the Family sessions:

It is now that we see the third part of Francis’s battle against his opposition: the Luciferian. Methodically, the pope will punish his enemies, one cardinal after the other: either by taking away their ministries … ; by emptying their function of all substance … ; by dismissing their entourages … ; or by letting the cardinals weaken themselves… . Who said Pope Francis was merciful?

Now I turn to the greater part of the book: the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

UPDATE:Andrew Sullivan is far more positive about the book. Here are excerpts from his essay:

Among the named sources: Francesco Lepore, a brilliant young gay Latin translator and priest. He soared through the ranks, directly serving Popes Benedict XVI and Francis, until, as a gay man, he found a way to quit his post because he couldn’t abide the double life he was forced to lead, or the rancid hypocrisy of the whole system. He says he saw everything from the inside: “He has had several lovers among archbishops and prelates; he has been propositioned by a number of cardinals, whom we discuss: an endless list. I have scrupulously checked all of those stories, making contact myself with those cardinals, archbishops, monsignori, nuncios, assistants, ordinary priests or confessors at St Peter’s, all basically homosexual.” This is not the peddling of innuendo, or salacious gossip. It’s reporting.

Well, maybe. I fully credit the possibility, even the likelihood, that this is true. But without names attached to the claims, the reader has to trust the author. Martel makes this very, very difficult to do. I say this as a reader who, though a theological and moral conservative, is inclined to believe, broadly, these claims. (Martel seems to believe that they help the liberal cause, but I think an equally strong case can be made for the opposite conclusion.) But precisely because I am prepared to believe them, I am on guard against confirmation bias.

More Sullivan — from the parts of the book that I have not yet read:

The revelations keep coming, page after page. For example: Martel explains how two of John Paul II’s favorite cardinals — whose nicknames within the Vatican are Platinette (after a drag queen) and La Mongolfiera — set up an elaborate and elite prostitution service that continued through the papacy of Benedict XVI, and was financed from the Vatican coffers. We know this through police records from the eventual criminal proceedings, where the actual ringleaders remained anonymous and without charges, because of the Vatican’s diplomatic immunity. Here are some of the minutes of the recorded phone conversations from the trial: “‘I won’t tell you any more. He’s two metres tall, such and such a weight, and he’s 33.’ ‘I have a situation in Naples … I don’t know how to tell you, it’s really not something to miss … 32 years old, 1 metre 93, very handsome.’ ‘I have a Cuban situation.’ ‘I’ve just arrived from Germany with a German.’ ‘I have two blacks.’ ‘X has a Croatian friend who wanted to see if you could find a time.’ ‘I’ve got a footballer.’ ‘I’ve got a guy from Abruzzo.’”


Then there’s simply the reporting. Some of the most conservative clerics concede the truth of the book on the record. Or take Martel’s interaction with the Swiss Guards, one of whom vents: “The harassment is so insistent that I said to myself that I was going straight home. Many of us are exasperated by the usually rather indiscreet advances of the cardinals and bishops.” Or the prostitutes who keep elaborate records of their clients, and have already caused huge scandals in Italy. Or a confessor-priest in Saint Peter’s who guides Martel into the Vatican with the words: “Welcome to Sodoma.” Martel double-checks rumors until he can confirm them. Of course, many of these sources remain unnamed. The very subject matter makes that unavoidable. But critics of the book — and the defensive dismissals of it as mere salacious gossip are already out there — have to argue that Martel is a liar, a fabulist, a con artist, who faked these remarkable interviews. I don’t buy it.

If you want to find a figure who crystallizes all this hypocrisy in the narrative, it would be the late Colombian cardinal, Alfonso LópezTrujillo, tasked by John Paul II in the 1970s to rid Latin America of liberation theology, and then to launch a global crusade against homosexuality and the use of condoms. While he was in Colombia, Trujillo toured the country on a witch hunt for progressive prelates. How do we know? Trujillo’s own master of ceremonies on these trips tells us: “López Trujillo travelled with members of the paramilitary groups … He pointed out the priests who were carrying out social actions in the barrios and the poorer districts. The paramilitaries identified them and sometimes went back to murder them. Often they had to leave the region or the country.”

From Sullivan’s description, it sounds like Martel’s reporting on things in JP2’s and BXVI’s papacies is on far more solid ground. I’ll read it for myself, and hope (I think) that the last 60 percent of the book is better than the first 40 percent — more objectively credible, I mean. If Martel had had a stronger editorial hand guiding him, his book would have been much better.

Whatever my eventual take on the book is, I completely share Sullivan’s view that all of this must be exposed, no matter who it hurts. The lies, and the structures of lies, have to end. If it requires conservatives having to face squarely and without excuse the failures of St. JP2 and BXVI, then so be it. If even half of this is true, the Catholic Church has an existential crisis on its hands, something as threatening to it as the Reformation. The people ought to know it.

Sullivan ends his column on a deeply personal note. I can tell you, as someone who was in touch with him as he was reading the book, that this is entirely true and heartfelt:

As for me, someone who has wrestled with the question of homosexuality and Catholicism for much of my adult life, this book has, to be honest, been gutting. All the painful, wounding Vatican documents on my “objective disorder” that I have tried to parse and sincerely engage … I find out they were written, in part, by tormented gay men, partly to deflect from their own nature. Everything I was taught growing up — to respect the priests and hierarchs, to trust them, to accept their moral authority — is in tatters. To realize that the gay closet played a part in enabling the terrible, unimaginable abuse of the most vulnerable is a twist my psyche is having a hard time absorbing. Reading this long book, I found myself falling asleep not because it was boring. Au contraire. In some way, my psyche just couldn’t take any more. My mind and body kept shutting down.

Read the whole thing. 

UPDATE.2:Michael Brendan Dougherty weighs in. Excerpt:

Martel’s preferred story is one of moral hypocrisy. That may be a real moral problem for some churchmen. But because this is Martel’s bias, he is incapable of looking at the crisis through the lens of moral indifference, moral lassitude, and moral cronyism, which are the major factors in the crisis of sexual abuse and predation in the Church.

That Martel was helped in this sordid endeavor of cover-up and baseless accusation by the pope’s closest advisers should be a source of immense scandal to those in the Church and outside it. He likes opera. He must be gay. He likes vestments. Must be gay. He has a pleasant voice. Gay. This is the kind of moral enlightenment that Pope Francis’s allies have brought to the Church? The only stereotype that Martel doesn’t use is the one about men who engage in constant salacious sexual gossip and speculation, as it would indict all his sources.

The book is trash. The supposed justice meted to McCarrick amounts to a cover-up. The pope’s summit is trash and a coverup. These men do not fear the justice of God or men. All their training in theology, and their great insight about man’s depravity, is the schoolyard taunt “Whoever smelt it, dealt it.” To hell with them all.

Whole thing here. 

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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