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Frederic Martel’s Bitch-Fest

Frederic Martel defending his book on French TV (Le Quotidien screenshot)

Tomorrow morning I guess I’ll wake up to find Frederic Martel’s book In The Closet Of The Vatican in my Kindle, having pre-ordered it. I’m not looking forward to reading the book. I don’t often agree with Father James Martin, but his review of the book confirms my worst fears about it. Excerpts:

Yet what prevents his book from presenting a convincing portrait of a decadent culture, despite four years of research, is precisely that.  Essentially, it is a book largely about naming and shaming, tittle-tattle and denigration, both of groups and, especially, individuals.  To wit:

The Order of Malta?  “A mad den of gaiety” (24). The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre?  “An army of horse-riding queens” (40).  Cardinal Raymond Burke, who is the subject of the author’s special ire: “A Viking bride!” (27). Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò is a “drama queen” (50).  Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo is a “tacky apostle” (288).  St. John Paul II?  A man “of great vanity and misogyny” (247).

Much of what he says about the gay subculture in the Vatican may be true.  Even if a tenth of the book is accurate, it would be awful: the worst perhaps being his description of a cardinal who enjoyed beating male prostitutes.  (Martel’s long chapter on prostitution in Rome, with interviews with not only prostitutes but police officers, is compelling).

Yet one’s ability to rely on the narrator is fatally compromised by the style in which he writes: hard-won research buried under an ocean of gossip, innuendo and what he would call bitchiness.  Martel also uses that worst of reporting techniques: imagining, guessing, hypothesizing:

“I guess that Burke is a hero to his young assistant, who must lionize him” (259).  “I have a sense that the Jesuit father wants…” (57). Cardinal Gerhard Mueller places a phone call in the author’s presence and though Martel apparently does not speak German, he insinuates that the cardinal is speaking to a lover. When Martel peers into a priest’s bedroom, even his bed is suspect: “A place for a secret rendezvous?” (305). About Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: “Did he discover a wound cauterised by chastity?” (427).  But Benedict is suspect for other reasons.  He likes Mozart, “the most ‘gender theory’ of all operatic composers” (430).

Another technique is his reliance on a skill not available to all reporters. “My gaydar works quite well” (42), he says often. This convinces him that Cardinal Francis Stafford is “probably not homosexual himself” (42).


According to witnesses, he says, faithful gay priests are in the “minority” (417).  With this book, however, not only would you not be able to tell, for so relentless is his focus on the evils of the gay priest; but because of his book’s predilection for guesswork and innuendo, you would never be able to know.

Read the whole thing.  Father Martin’s review is part of a wider symposium on the book.

At this point, I am able to believe just about anything about the sex lives of priests and bishops — but that does not mean that I will believe these claims. Martel claims that the more anti-gay a cleric is, the greater the likelihood that he is gay. Well, isn’t that convenient for Martel’s thesis? The guy seems to have put in a massive amount of work on the book, but it sounds from Father Martin’s review like Martel’s editor did not save him from his own bitchy self. Anyway, I’ll read the book for myself, and report back.

One question that’s going to be on my mind as I read: who benefits from this book? Lots of cardinals and other Vatican officials spoke to Martel for the project. Why on earth would they? I’ve read various online comments by journalists and others who have read the book, and who say that Martel seems to think of his project as making Pope Francis look good. Hard to see how that might work, but I guess I’m about to see for myself.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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