The Pope is not new: On the Vatican's gay problem

March 15, 2013

The crowning of a new Pope is meant to signal a new era in the papacy, a tuft of white smoke announcing to the world that change is coming. After weeks of contestation about the new face of the Catholic church, a new leaf was what the church desperately needed. However, Wednesday’s coronation appears to be more of the same from the notoriously arthritic Vatican.

To the Vatican’s credit, Francis is a first for the Catholic church in a couple ways, both of them mostly symbolic. Francis is the first Latin American and Spanish-speaking Pope, and the first to hail outside of Europe in more than a millenium. He’s also the first Pope to be elected from a country that legalized marriage equality under his watch. In 2010, Argentina voted to extend marriage rights and benefits to all couples, becoming the first country south of the border to do so. It was a landmark moment for international LGBTQ rights and a huge victory for Argentine president Cristina Fernandez, who made it a personal priority of her campaign.

However, not everyone waved their happy flag that July day. As an archbishop in Argentina, Francis campaigned vehemently against the passage of marriage equality, and according to BuzzFeed his opposition to the law was “so tone deaf that many observers credit him with helping the law pass.” Here’s what Francis had to say on the issue:

“Let’s not be naïve, we’re not talking about a simple political battle; it is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”

With an eye on queer people, Francis further suggested in an infamous letter that adoption is “discrimination against children,” which would have been news to Little Orphan Annie. Francis writes:

“[T]he Argentine people will face a situation whose outcome can seriously harm the family. At stake is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother and children. At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God. At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts.”

Interestingly, the future Pope Francis also came under fire for his role in aiding military junta in Argentina, while ignoring the government’s role in “disappearing” children of political dissidents during the dictatorship of the 1970s. Francis long denied knowledge of the 30,000 people abducted by the government during Argentina’s dirty war. As a man of God, he preferred to look away while children were separated from their parents, "deprived of their human development given by a father and mother and willed by God."

So, let's get this straight. Children being kidnapped and re-gifted to party officials: not that bad. Gay people adopting them: very bad. Good. Glad we're square.

Francis claims to have gained knowledge of the despericidos in 1985, two years after the state’s return to democratic government. His claims of ignorance have been called “cowardly” by Argentine children’s rights activists (especially “when it comes to something so terrible as the theft of babies”) and his politics reminiscent of “medieval times and the inquisition” by President Martinez. Ladies and gentlefolk, meet your new Pope.

Raise your hand if you are surprised by absolutely any of this? Anyone? Anyone? This is because Catholics just sat through eight years of Emperor Popeatine, the man who made gay bashing into an international sport.

Pope Benedict was an avowed opponent of the LGBT community, and just typing in “Pope Benedict anti-gay” on Google pulls up three million hits, a couple of them probably for really weird porn. Some personal favorite entries are when Benedict referred to homosexuality as "an intrinsic moral evil" and "an objective disorder." Gosh, our new pope sounds a whole lot like our old one.

The coronation of Pope Francis comes at a time when polls show that a majority of Catholics support marriage equality -- at a rate higher than the national average. Fifty-four percent felt that marriage benefits should be extended to all people, and a similar majority argued that the church leadership is out of touch with the general populace.

Throughout the recent abuse scandals, the Vatican has been slow to take responsibility for the rampant sexual molestation occurring in its parishes, preferring the blatant cover-up model. Amy Berg’s Oscar-nominated 2006 documentary Deliver Us From Evil showed the lengths archbishops went to protect Father Oliver O’Grady during the 1970s, and the recent Father Murphy scandal threatened to go all the way to the top. This time, where there was white smoke, there was fire.

To remain free from prosecution in the Murphy business, Benedict will continue to live in the Vatican, where he receives legal immunity. According to Catholic blogger Andrew Sullivan, little will change with the new Pope, and the move is strictly nominal, lip-service to a flock that needs good PR and a figurehead to rally them:

“[Benedict] said he would quietly disappear to serve the church through prayer and meditation. But we now realize he’s going nowhere. He’s staying in the Vatican’s walls, and retaining the honorific “His Holiness.” He will keep white robes. His full title will be Pope Emeritus. Far from wearing clerical black, returning to the title of Bishop of Rome, and disappearing into a monastery in Bavaria, he’s going to be a shadow Pope in the Vatican.

 

“If you were trying to avoid any hint of meddling, of a Deng Xiao Peng-type figure pulling strings behind the scenes, you would not be doing this. The only thing the Pope will give up, apparently, are his red Prada shoes. He has some fabulous brown leather artisanal ones to replace them.”

Benedict will keep his sexy personal manservant, Georg Ganswein, who has been nicknamed “Gorgeous Georg” by the Italian press and described as a mixture between George Clooney and Hugh Grant. In this new arrangement, Ganswein will live with Benedict at night and hang out with the new Pope during the day.

 

Many have taken this as further proof of the strange relationship between Benedict and Ganswein, one highlighted by Angelo Quattrochi in exploration of Benedict’s life. Here’s the best part of Ganswein's account, straight from the horse's homoerotic mouth:

“The pope’s day begins with the seven o’clock Mass, then he says prayers with his breviary, followed by a period of silent contemplation before our Lord. Then we have breakfast together, and so I begin the day’s work by going through the correspondence. Then I exchange ideas with the Holy Father, then I accompany him to the ‘Second Loggia’ for the private midday audiences. Then we have lunch together; after the meal we go for a little walk before taking a nap. In the afternoon I again take care of the correspondence. I take the most important stuff which needs his signature to the Holy Father.

 

“When asked if he felt nervous in the presence of the Holy Father, Gänswein replied that he sometimes did and added: ‘But it is also true that the fact of meeting each other and being together on a daily basis creates a sense of “familiarity”, which makes you feel less nervous. But obviously I know who the Holy Father is and so I know how to behave appropriately. There are always some situations, however, when the heart beats a little stronger than usual.’”

This exchange leads Quattrochi to ask if the Pope is gay (because naps), for which there is no clear answer. It reminds me of what a priest friend of mine said on the issue. He quipped, “I’ve been celibate for twenty years. There’s nothing more queer than celibacy.” I doubt that Benedict is gay in traditional terms, but in the face of scandal, it appears as though his queerness is being forced into the closet. He's the Pope that dare not speak its name.

 

However, Benedict’s “special relationship” with his manservant is the least of the Vatican’s problems, as recent allegations have claimed everything from “underground sex rings” within the Vatican and gay lobbies within the upper echelons of the Catholic church.

 

A 2013 report from Policy Mic indicates how entrenched the Vatican’s secret culture of sex is, the series of blackmails and cover-ups that have ruined the church’s image.

In 2007, a senior official was suspended from the congregation after being filmed in a ‘sting’ organized by an Italian television program while apparently making sexual overtures to a younger male. In 2010, a chorister was dismissed for acquiring male prostitutes for a papal “gentlemen-in-waiting.” A few months after, weekly news magazines used hidden cameras to record priests out on the town — visiting gay clubs and bars and fornicating, according to The Guardian.”

The Vatican released a statement to the press on the subject, which Policy Mic translated like so. It could be read as a giant papal shrug:

“We won’t confirm or deny this reports existence or content, but we don’t care if anyone else does. People should just go about their business as they see fit, while we sit back and do nothing about it. The next pope will deal with it (maybe).”

I’ve always been skeptical of conspiracy theories in the Vatican, finding it too Dan Brown for my taste, but the Vatican’s statement quieted the skeptic in me. If you read the original release, note that at no point do they deny any of the rather serious claims lobbied against them, of which Italy’s La Repubblica magazine is leading the charge. In fact, evidence shows these reports may be the other reason Benedict so quickly left the papacy.

 

A report Benedict himself commissioned in February on the state of the Vatican showed that corruption had reached the highest levels of bureaucracy, or what is called “The Curia.” Although the Daily Mail argued that Benedict must have realized he was too old too clean up “The Filth,” as they are calling the Vatican’s culture of sexual abuse.

 

Despite Benedict’s claims that he stepped down for his health, reports claim he stepped down to protect himself from public opinion -- out of sight, out of mind. Although the Daily Mail felt he must have taken the scandal to heart and realized he couldn’t fix the problem, Benedict long denied it was even an issue. He preferred to “la-la-la not listening” mode of being involved. According to Pride Source,

“Ratzinger sought to downplay the importance of allegations of sexual abuse within the Church and to protect priests rather than aid their victims. In a 2002 interview with the press he said, ‘I am personally convinced that the constant presence in the press of the sins of Catholic priests, especially in the United States, is a planned campaign.’”

Benedict stepped out right after the reports proved him wrong, which is the opposite of caring about the problem. Francis, a Jesuit, was brought in to be the young sheriff who cleaned up Dodge for Benedict, despite the fact that Francis has remarkably similar politics, especially in regards to queer people. Although Francis got credit for washing the feet of AIDS victims, he doesn’t do so well when gays aren’t dying of incurable diseases.

 

Why do Francis’ politics matter? Because, in the Vatican, Francis is going to be literally surrounded by gays, the exact group of people he’s spent most of his career demonizing, marginalizing and pushing away, the ones who made him the laughingstock of Argentina. The Rainbow Sash Movement called this the “gayest conclave in history” and Brigitte LaVictoire Lez Be Real provided important context on that assertion. What did you do if you were a closeted gay boy when Benedict and his cohorts were growing up? You had two options:

“In North America and Europe up until about 40 years ago, it was expected that a good Catholic boy or girl was either going to grow up, get married and have lots and lots of children or they were going to go into the Church. My ancestry is French Canadian, and there were always several members of my ancestral family who joined the Church rather than get married and have children.

 

“So, if you didn’t want to swallow your sexuality and pretend to have a marriage with someone you hated sexually, well, what did you do? You went to the Seminary, took vows, and spent the rest of your life serving the Church, and in some cases, you formed ‘special relationships’ with certain other members of the clergy which could very well be sexual in nature. Just look at Cardinal Keith O’Brien.

“In fact, the stereotypes of gay priests and monks and lesbian nuns is rooted in...truth. Despite the claims by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the Church is rife with gay men. This is because the Church was, and is, a magnet for gay men. After all, when society tells you to either marry or join the Church, you join the Church.”

I know a great number of gay men who are involved in the Catholic Church, the church I grew up in, the one I felt I could never really be a part of. Some of them want to go into the seminary, some of them prefer to simply worship God in the pews, and like the men who enlisted with the Vatican when queer people had few other options, they aren't going away. For a long time, you’ve gotten to be the Pope by playing the politics of the status quo and being a homophobe actually helped your candidacy. The Vatican didn’t want to try something new. Their program isn’t about change; it’s about order, one handed down from God.

 

In the face of scandal, church numbers have been rapidly declining, and I don’t expect Francis to radically change the face of the church to keep them. I expect most things will stay the same, in accordance with the church’s history. To think differently would be foolish. However, if Francis wants to lead differently, he needs to realize that our gay problem can’t just be washed away like filth on someone’s foot. Gay Catholics are here to stay. Get used to it.

 

Eventually, the Vatican is going to realize that its gay men aren't the real problem. The problem is a system that tells them that consensual relationships with other men are less valid than the protected systematic abuse of children and that, apparently, would rather see men molesting children than adopt them. They need to stop their forced policy of self-hate, before it further perpetuates this system of closeted abuse.

 

In his first few days as the Pope, Francis has shown his commitment to simplicity and grace, deciding to be the kind of Pope who takes the bus instead of the limo. If Francis really wants to clean up the church, he's got the right idea. Change needs to start with the top.

 

Nico Lang writes about LGBTQ issues in Chicago. You can find Nico on Twitter @Nico_Lang or on Facebook.