IN THE CLOSET OF THE VATICAN: POWER, HOMOSEXUALITY, HYPOCRISY by Frédéric Martel (London: Bloomsbury Continuum 2019); ISBN: 978-1-4729-6614-8; xv+, 555pp.

When a massive book as sensational and controversial as Frédéric Martel’s In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy is published, the urge of any reviewer is to churn out a review as quickly as possible.

Having got hold of the book almost immediately and devoured it in a few days, I found that in over thirty years reviewing books this was one of the most difficult to write about.

Even now I find that I cannot do a standard review of it. Why?

It’s not that I have some kind of pious objection to its contents. I don’t. Nor is it because I don’t find its contents and arguments substantially true and convincing. Broadly, I do.

What has held me back is a desire to see its impact on the current and ongoing crises rocking the Catholic Church. Not simply the clergy child abuse crimes but three underlying challenges integral to the abuse but going even deeper into the life, theology and ministry of the Church — power, sexuality and gender.

It seemed clear from the title, clearer still as I plunged into the first few hundred pages of the book, that Martel, a French journalist and academic, was not simply interested in an exposé of what he describes as a predominantly and often active homosexual – and publicly homophobic – subculture running the Vatican. His interests are in the power dynamic that runs the Church, one obsessed with sexuality but also resolutely opposed to any rethinking of matter of sex or gender in the light of modern science.

Based on extensive interviews, the transcripts of which he has placed on his website together with other references, Martel lays out his primary claim systematically. First, that the vast majority of Vatican officials (between 70-80%) are homosexual. Second, that many of them are sexually active. Third, that despite this they publicly take stands that are, at very least, opposed to homosexual activity and, at worst, hostile to homosexuality.

Paradoxically, Martel notes that senior clergy (priests, bishops or cardinals) who are to varying degrees sympathetic towards LGBTI people are more likely to be heterosexual. He also suggests that the more rabidly conservative Vatican officials are on the subject, the more likely they are to be sexually active as well, in many cases, as theologically and politically conservative.

On the latter, the classic example — and clearly Martel’s arch-villain of the book — is the late Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo.

Based on a range of sources Martel concludes that this most virulent opponent of liberation theology, of the use of condoms in HIV-AIDS prevention, of ‘gender ideology’ (a term he used to attack new ideas about sexuality and gender) and of homosexuality was himself actively homosexual. This included, Martel argues, seeking out rent boys in developing countries.

Lopez Trujillo was also, he claims, an active supporter of far right political movements, including paramilitaries that killed left-wing priests.

While perhaps the most extreme example — Martel calls him “satanic” at one point — many other high-ranking and theologically conservative Vatican officials used their power not only protect their ‘secret’ but also to control the Church.

As an inner clique – some interviewees called this ‘the parish’ — they influenced Church policy for decades, many of them dominating popes, whether the latter were gay or not.

We should be clear that according to Martel the vast majority of the Vatican ‘parish’ were not — and are not — paedophiles.

There is, however, some evidence that paedophile clergy used their knowledge of local bishops’ and of Vatican officials’ sexuality, to at least in part cover up their crimes.

Martel cites the now [in]famous case of Marcial Maciel, priest-founder of the Legionnaires of Christ, whose sexual abuse history traced back to his seminary days in the 1950s and escaped ecclesial or civil prosecution for decades.

Maciel’s crimes were covered up in part because he was protected by Pope John Paul II – against the advice of Cardinal Josef Ratzinger (Pope emeritus Benedict XVI) – who needed Maciel to channel funds to the anti-communist resistance in Poland during the 1980s. Maciel’s ‘fall’ only happened when Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI – and despite his catalogue of crimes, he was only removed from ministry and died in one of his personal residences in Florida.

More stories could be told. But the ‘review’ part must have its limit.

Is all this true? Martel’s methodology of “multiple attestation” interviews — overlapping testimonies that create a consensus — suggest that (and here I am being deliberately sceptical and conservative in my judgment) the book is substantially true. It also validates the claim of hypocrisy in the title.

Indeed, it is the hypocrisy that is most outrageous to Martel — and one suspects to the reader. Martel cares not a hoot whether a priest is gay or straight, sexually active or celibate.  It is the lies and the deliberate homophobic smokescreen that makes him angry. Particularly, I suspect, when there are growing calls in the Church for a systematic rethink on matters of both power and sexuality.

What kind of impact, then, has this book had on the Catholic Church? From what I can see, very little from official circles. Apart from a handful of far right Catholic online trolls who have cherry-picked bits of the book to attack Pope Francis. But, this is most unfair. His mistakes notwithstanding, he of all recent popes emerges as clearly one of the ‘heroes’ of the book.

A few more reasoned voices have addressed the book thoughtfully.

Theologian James Alison (one of the few interviewees willing to go public in the book) has written, in his customarily elegant and reasoned way, a fine article on it. He describes Martel as a “professional” and noted that “what I had thought to be true, turned out to be significantly truer than I had thought”.

Another interviewee, former Master General of the Dominicans Timothy Radcliffe OP, writing a week before the book was published exhorted readers not to simply dismiss it because what it said was uncomfortable, but to see it rather as a moment of grace — a call for renewal and healing of a divided church.

I have no idea whether Cardinal Reinhard Marx has read Martel’s book but his recent call for an open and frank dialogue by the Church on questions of sexuality, celibacy and power echoes much of Martel’s book. It would, however, be misguided to suggest that In the Closet of the Vatican has caused this call.

Marx is one of a growing number of bishops, theologians and above all laity who, faced with among other crises the child sex abuse scandals, has been calling not simply for reforms in these areas but also for a reassessment and reform of Church power structures.

As I read this book in these times, I am reminded that the word ‘crisis’ (in Greek and in Chinese I believe) has a dual meaning: a trial or separation but also an opportunity.

Martel’s book presents us with a crisis in the Church. It is possible that some will react against the book —and the broader crisis — with denial, denunciation and a refusal to change; with an assertion of power from the top and continuing obstruction of all efforts to reform the Church. Even if this might lead to separation (schism).

My hope — and I believe I share this with Frédéric Martel, Cardinal Marx, James Alison, Timothy Radcliffe and dare I add Pope Francis, though our analyses and ‘solutions’ may vary — is that this book will one day be remembered as a contribution to a broader movement of reform in the Church.

We need a Church that is rooted in honest, scientific, systematic and open re-examination of sexuality, celibacy, gender and power. Not, one might add, to destroy but — if I may shamelessly plagiarise St Paul — to build up the Body of Christ.