Among the Flutterers

Colm Tóibín

In 1993 John McGahern wrote an essay called ‘The Church and Its Spire’, in which he considered his own relationship to the Catholic Church. He made no mention of the fact that he had, in the mid-1960s, been fired from his job as a teacher on the instructions of the Catholic archbishop of Dublin because he had written a novel banned by the Irish Censorship Board (The Dark), and because he had been married in a register office. Instead he wrote about the great gift of being brought up in the Catholic Church:

I have nothing but gratitude for the spiritual remnants of that upbringing, the sense of our origins beyond the bounds of sense, an awareness of mystery and wonderment, grace and sacrament, and the absolute equality of all women and men underneath the sun of heaven. That is all that now remains. Belief as such has long gone.

In considering a future in which the Church in Ireland would have no power at all, a future that has, due to the antics of its leadership, very quickly come to pass, McGahern quoted a letter Proust wrote in 1903, at the height of an anti-clerical wave which was sweeping through France:

I can tell you that at Illiers, the small community where two days ago my father presided at the awarding of the school prizes, the curé is no longer invited to the distribution of the prizes … The pupils are trained to consider the people who associate with him as socially undesirable … When I think of all this, it doesn’t seem to me right that the old curé should no longer be invited to the distribution of the prizes, as representative of something in the village more difficult to define than the social function symbolised by the pharmacist, the retired tobacco-inspector and the optician, but something which is, nevertheless, not unworthy of respect, were it only for the perception of the meaning of the spiritualised beauty of the church spire – pointing upward into the sunset where it loses itself so lovingly in the rose-coloured clouds; and which, all the same, at first sight, to a stranger alighting in the village, looks somehow better, nobler, more dignified, with more meaning behind it, and with, what we need, more love than the other buildings, however sanctioned they may be under the latest laws.

Within 15 years of McGahern’s essay, the power of the Church in Ireland has been fatally undermined. A number of reports into the abuse of children by members of the Catholic clergy have found that such abuse was widespread, at times endemic, and that the Church authorities failed almost as a matter of policy in their duty to protect children. The bishops in response have learned the language of apology, which they use as often as they can. There are fascinating lapses, however, such as the outburst, at the end of the three-day Irish Episcopal Conference last March, by the bishop of Elphin, Christopher Jones, a member of the Bishops’ Liaison Committee for Child Protection, who accused the media of being ‘unfair and unjust’: ‘Could I just say with all this emphasis on cover-up, the cover-up has gone on for centuries, not just in the Church … It’s going on today in families, in communities, in societies. Why are you singling out the Church?’ ‘I object to the way the Church is being isolated,’ he continued, ‘and the focus on the Church. We know we’ve made mistakes. Of course we’ve made mistakes. But why this huge isolation of the Church and this huge focus on cover-up in the Church when it has been going on for centuries? It’s only now, for the first time ever, that victims have been given a voice to publicly express their pain and their suffering. And, before that, for centuries, no one spoke.’ He added that when Freud alluded to the high levels of venereal disease among children, ‘he had to withdraw it. That’s the kind of cover-up that has gone on for centuries.’

Such lapses in the new humility were echoed in the Vatican on Easter Sunday this year when Cardinal Sodano dismissed criticism of the child sex abuse scandal in the Church as ‘idle gossip’. Or on Palm Sunday in New York when Archbishop Timothy Dolan compared the pope to Jesus, saying he was ‘now suffering some of the same unjust accusations, shouts of the mob, and scourging at the pillar’, and ‘being daily crowned with thorns by groundless innuendo’. Or on Good Friday in the Vatican when Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household, told those at St Peter’s Basilica, including the pope himself, that he was thinking about the Jews in this season of Passover and Easter because ‘they know from experience what it means to be victims of collective violence and also because of this they are quick to recognise the recurring symptoms.’ He was referring to the ‘collective violence’ of those who have been critical of the Church. He went on to quote from a letter written by an unnamed Jewish friend: ‘I am following with indignation the violent and concentric attacks against the Church, the pope and all the faithful by the whole world. The use of stereotypes, the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt, remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-semitism.’

The idea that the Church authorities simply don’t understand what is going on was further emphasised when the Vatican last month outlined its opposition to the sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy and to the ordination of women in the same document, and threatened greater punishment for those who got involved in the latter than in the former. Indeed, the document went further in its unwitting indication of how deep the Catholic hierarchy is in denial. It made a change in the way allegations of sexual abuse would be handled, doubling the statute of limitations from ten years after the victim’s 18th birthday to 20 years. It is clear that the Church still believes that it, more than the civil authorities, has a role in handling such cases, and that its rules about the statute of limitations remain somehow relevant.

The Church now has a strange ghostly presence in Irish society. Its hierarchy still meets as though it represents something, including power; and to some extent it does still represent power. Catholic parish priests still control the majority of primary schools: they appoint the teachers and chair the boards of management, despite the fact that in the most recent opinion poll only 28 per cent supported their control of schools. Orders of nuns in Ireland still own convents and schools and have control over some major hospitals. This might seem amusing until you need to ask for advice about abortion in one of those hospitals, or seek genetic counselling, or, indeed, try to get promotion as a doctor who has spoken out on these issues. The bishops, priests and nuns are sinking, but have every intention of putting up a struggle before they drown.

The laity too are putting up a struggle. In the United States the media, including the New York Times, have been reporting regularly on cases of abuse and on the Church’s handling of such cases. They have been reporting that the Church protects priests, for example, rather than reporting them to the civil authorities, and that it moves abusers from parish to parish. This reporting has been deeply shocking for the Catholic laity. In her New York Times column on 27 March, Maureen Dowd wrote:

The Catholic Church can never recover as long as its Holy Shepherd is seen as a black sheep in the ever darkening sex abuse scandal. Now we learn the sickening news that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, nicknamed ‘God’s Rottweiler’ when he was the Church’s enforcer on matters of faith and sin, ignored repeated warnings and looked away in the case of the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, a Wisconsin priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys. The church has been tone deaf and dumb on the scandal for so long that it’s shocking, but not surprising, to learn from the Times’s Laurie Goodstein that a group of deaf former students spent 30 years trying to get Church leaders to pay attention.

On 6 April, Dowd, certain that the hierarchy might listen better if criticism of them came from a man rather than a woman, quoted from her ‘conservative and devout’ brother Kevin’s views on where the Church was going, mentioning that she had learned, ‘shockingly’, that she and her brother ‘agreed on some things’. ‘Vatican II made me wince,’ Kevin Dowd wrote:

The church declared casual Friday. All the once rigid rules left to the whim of the flock. The Mass was said in English (rendering useless my carefully learned Latin prayers). Holy days of obligation were optional. There were laypeople on the heretofore sacred ground of the altar – performing the sacraments and worse, handling the Host. The powerful symbolism of the priest turning the Host into the body of Christ cracked like an egg.

In his book Goodbye! Good Men, author Michael Rose writes that the liberalised rules set up a takeover of seminaries by homosexuals.

  Vatican II liberalised rules but left the most outdated one: celibacy. That vow was put in place originally because the Church did not want heirs making claims on money and land. But it ended up shrinking the priest pool and producing the wrong kind of candidates – drawing men confused about their sexuality who put our children in harm’s way.

A few weeks earlier, in her column on 30 March, Dowd had referred to the efforts to demonise gay priests as a way for the hierarchy to wriggle out of responsibility:

In an ad in the Times on Tuesday, Bill Donohue, the Catholic League president, offered this illumination: ‘The Times continues to editorialise about the “paedophilia crisis”, when all along it’s been a homosexual crisis. Eighty per cent of the victims of priestly sexual abuse are male and most of them are post-pubescent. While homosexuality does not cause predatory behaviour, and most gay priests are not molesters, most of the molesters have been gay.’

This idea was echoed the following month when Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said it was homosexuality, not celibacy, that was to blame for the child abuse in the Church. ‘Many psychologists and psychiatrists,’ he said, ‘have shown that there is no link between celibacy and paedophilia, but many others have shown, and I’ve been told recently, that there is a relationship between homosexuality and paedophilia. That is the truth. I read it in a document written by psychologists, so that is the problem.’ (The Vatican distanced itself from the cardinal’s remarks.)

It seemed interesting that Kevin Dowd felt as free as Bill Donohue and Tarcisio Bertone to mention the existence of homosexual priests and seminarians as a problem for the Catholic Church. And interesting too that, as quoted approvingly by his sister, he wanted a return to the time before the ‘takeover’ of seminaries by homosexuals; that he deplored the ‘shrinking’ of the ‘priest pool’ that had allowed ‘men confused about their sexuality’ to become priests. It seemed odd that he believed there really was a time when ‘men confused about their sexuality’ did not become priests, when other sorts of men, men not confused in this way, were ordained. He was filled with nostalgia for an earlier Church: ‘The Church I grew up in,’ he wrote, ‘was black and white, no greys. That’s why my father, an Irish immigrant, liked it so much. The chaplain of the Police and Fire Departments told me once: “Your father was a fierce Catholic, very fierce.”’

The issue of homosexuality and the Catholic Church about which Donohue, Cardinal Bertone and Maureen Dowd’s ‘conservative and devout’ brother seem so concerned is not likely to go away in the near future. For the many gay priests in the Church it is deeply disturbing and indeed frightening that their sexuality can be so easily associated with rape, sexual cruelty and the abuse of minors, and that there is a view that somehow before they came along the Church was just fine, and, indeed, if they could be rooted out, and the Church could go back to the ‘black and white’ days of Dowd père, then the problems would all dissolve.

There are very good reasons why homosexuals have been traditionally attracted to the priesthood. I know these reasons because I, as someone ‘confused about my sexuality’, had to confront and entertain the idea that I should join the priesthood. In 1971, aged 16, I gave up my Easter break so I could attend a workshop for boys who believed they had a vocation.

Some of the reasons why gay men became priests are obvious and simple; others are not. Becoming a priest, first of all, seemed to solve the problem of not wanting others to know that you were queer. As a priest, you could be celibate, or unmarried, and everyone would understand the reasons. It was because you had a vocation; you had been called by God, had been specially chosen by him. For other boys, the idea of never having sex with a woman was something they could not even entertain. For you, such sex was problematic; thus you had no blueprint for an easy future. The prospect, on the other hand, of making a vow in holiness never to have sex with a woman offered you relief. The idea that you might want to have sex with men, that you might be ‘that way inclined’, as they used to say, was not even mentioned, not once, during that workshop in which everything under the sun was discussed.

That you were gay was something you managed to know about yourself and not know at the same time. I am almost certain, for example, that when I was warned by a priest at school that a boy who had parted his hair in the middle had by this act given a sign that he was homosexual (the only time the term was mentioned in those years), the priest himself had no clear and open idea that he himself liked teenage boys. (He would spend time in jail more than 20 years later for abusing teenage boys.) He would have had a way, learned for good reasons in adolescence, of keeping some of his actions and desires secret from himself. His sense of power and entitlement would also have meant that such crimes as he committed would most likely not see the light of day. The priesthood had, as far as he was concerned, solved his problems for him.

This is almost an aspect of the Catholic religion itself, this business of knowing and not knowing something all at the same time, keeping an illusion separate from the truth. We knew that the bread and wine, for example, were literally and actually changed into the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ by the priest at Mass, and, at the same time, we must have known that this was not the case, that, really, they remained just bread and wine.

The shame an adolescent felt about being gay in those years should not be underestimated; the feeling that you were less than worthy, that if people found out the truth about you they would despise you, went deep into your soul. This was another reason to become a priest. You could change your own powerlessness into power. As a priest, you would be admired and looked up to, you would spend your life – as so many Catholic priests have indeed spent their lives – doing good and being good. And being seen to be good, being needed by the sick and the dying, being wanted to officiate at weddings and baptisms and funerals, saying the sacred words which would mean so much to the congregation, all this would offer you a fulfilled and fulfilling life. Becoming a priest solved not only the outward problem of forbidden and unmentionable sexual urges, but, perhaps more important, offered a solution to the problem of having a shameful identity that lurked in the deepest recesses of the self.

This idea of knowing two things at the same time has been essential to gay people in other ways. Gay people have known that our sexuality was actually, despite what we read or were told, quite normal, quite natural; it was only the world that thought otherwise. While the world’s view often ate into the self, there was another part of the self which remained intact, confident, sure. Introspection, the study of the self, for gay people became necessary, fruitful. The struggle between our knowledge and their prejudice often meant that a spiritual element in our being – something private, wounded, solitary and self-aware – had reason to come to the fore and seek nourishment in a close relationship to God. This is another reason so many gay men have become priests.

Gay liberation made its way, strangely, into the seminaries. I have a letter from a friend, an Irish writer, sent in response to a piece I wrote for this paper about the Ferns Report, describing his visit to an Irish seminary in the 1980s.[*] Since the Church was liberalising at that time, it would not have been unusual for writers to be invited to seminaries to speak. My friend had no intention of being shocking, or amusing. He spoke about literature, choosing the dullest subject for the seminarians. What he noticed among them, however, was anything but dull; and it surprised him greatly. He saw an immense amount of male fluttering; he listened as young candidates for the priesthood, boys from rural Ireland, attempted Wildean witticisms; he noticed them wearing specially tailored soutanes, moving around each other, excitedly, like a flock of girls. Here it was, and he was not the only one to witness it: ‘the takeover of the seminaries by homosexuals’.

But this was merely what it looked like. What such a seminary would have looked like a generation or two earlier, or indeed a century or two earlier, was as much an illusion as what my friend witnessed. Before the creation of a post-Stonewall gay identity and the presence of gay role models on television and in the movies, most gay men worked out a strategy, in early adolescence, to do a perfect, lifelong imitation of a straight man, to move around in that gruff, rangy way straight men had invented for themselves. For many homosexuals, the stereotype of the mincing, high-pitched queen was the most frightening idea that ever walked towards them. They hated it and feared it and worked out ways not to look like that themselves, or to be invisible when they did so.

Catholics, such as Maureen Dowd’s father, who grew up in a black and white Church, and who, like Dowd’s brother, resented the changes made by Vatican II, might have cause to believe that the abuse of minors by priests was a sign of decadence. But they might be wiser to pay attention to the words of Christopher Jones, the bishop of Elphin, when he expressed the view that this ‘has been going on for centuries’, that ‘it’s only now, for the first time ever, that victims have been given a voice to publicly express their pain and their suffering. And before that, for centuries, no one spoke.’

This new fearlessness on the part of victims is, as Jones would have it, a feature of the age in which we live; it is this same age in which homosexuals have won freedom and celibacy is viewed with suspicion. In many parts of the world now there are gay priests who entered the seminary in good faith, and found self-knowledge and more good faith among the flutterers there. They are either celibate as a conscious, thought-out choice, or they use the gay scene when it suits them. Many of them are open to themselves and, to some extent, to their congregations about their sexuality, which is no longer a poison, but a gift, a way of understanding others, including Christ himself and his apostles, whom the world wished to victimise and marginalise. This poses a serious problem for the Catholic hierarchy, serious enough for them to ignore it, which is one of their skills. It is one of the most notable features of the Catholic Church in the United States.

Homosexuality in the Church, however, comes in many guises. It comes in the guise of this new openness, but it also arrives on the news-stands in a time when the press is less afraid to declare sexual activity among Catholic priests in the Vatican, say, a form of hypocrisy. A time, too, when the police are less likely to be subservient. In January this year, for example, the carabinieri in Rome recorded an exchange in which Angelo Balducci, a Gentleman to his Holiness (a name for ushers in the Vatican who are expected to ‘distinguish themselves for the good of souls and the glory of the name of the Lord’), a man who was also a senior adviser to the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, spoke to a Vatican chorister on the telephone. They discussed a seminarian. Balducci is said to have asked: ‘Listen, have you spoken with the seminarian by any chance?’ The chorister replied that he was ‘probably at Mass or something’. Later, the chorister called again to recommend ‘a colleague, a friend’ of the seminarian because the latter was unavailable. He said the colleague is ‘better, taller, a bit taller than you’. Later, he asked: ‘Can I send [him] around straight away?’ and inquired where Balducci was. Balducci replied: ‘Up at the seminary … where the cardinal lives.’ The chorister replied: ‘He could get there within half an hour … the time it takes to catch a taxi and get there.’ The transcripts also implied that over a period of around five months in 2008, the chorister procured for Balducci at least ten contacts with, among others, ‘two black Cuban lads’, a former male model from Naples, and a rugby player from Rome.

In July this year two undercover journalists from the magazine Panorama, which is owned by Berlusconi, witnessed priests in Rome having gay sex and visiting gay clubs and bars. John Hooper in the Guardian reported that the diocese of Rome, in response, urged gay clerics to leave both the closet and the priesthood. It said: ‘Consistency would require that they come into the open,’ but they ‘ought not to have become priests’. Hooper went on:

One priest, a Frenchman in his thirties identified as Father Paul, attended a party at which there were two male prostitutes, then said Mass the following morning before driving them to the airport, Panorama reported. A photo on its website claimed to show the priest in his dog collar but without his trousers with a gay man who acted as decoy for the magazine. In other shots, priests were shown apparently kissing Panorama’s collaborator.

A member of the clergy quoted by the magazine put the proportion of gay priests in the Italian capital at ‘98 per cent’. The Rome diocese insisted the vast majority of priests in the city were ‘models of morality for all’, while adding that the number of gay clergyman was ‘small, but not to be written off as isolated cases’. A review eight years ago of research on the American Church concluded that between a quarter and a half of seminarians and priests there were homosexual.

A former Italian MP and gay activist, Franco Grillini, said: ‘If all the gays in the Catholic Church were to leave it at once – something we would very much like – they would cause it serious operational problems.’

Another well-known spokesman for the gay community, Aurelio Mancuso, condemned Panorama’s investigation as a ‘horrible political and cultural operation’, but agreed that if priests in Rome were to follow the advice given to them in yesterday’s statement, it would ‘paralyse’ the diocese.

For those at the top of the Church, and for many among the faithful, all of this is a headache. The general air of freedom has made victims of abuse by the clergy feel free to speak. It has also made gay priests more self-aware, more assertive, more willing to be openly gay and openly celibate at the same time, or more free to consult their consciences and break the rules of celibacy should they see fit. It has also made other priests, members of the old school as it were, the sort who hire prostitutes, more at risk of getting caught by a press no longer afraid of the Vatican.

There are two ways the Church can now go, and it is perhaps a tribute to the extraordinary personality of Karol Wojtyla, who was a master of ambiguities, that during his papacy the Church went both of these ways. I witnessed what the first of them might look like in Poland in August 1991, when John Paul II came to Jasna Gora, the monastery of the Black Madonna, in Czestochowa. He came to address a million young people, most of them from Eastern Europe, many of them in search of a new belief system to replace the one which had recently faded.

We all watched entranced as Wojtyla walked up to the altar where he would address the crowd and say Mass. He moved slowly, hesitantly. There was one moment when he looked as though he could go no further, and when he turned he had that strange melancholy expression which was one of his signature looks, that mixture of bemusement and power. He walked as though he were in a state of reverie and contemplation, and then he turned and waved, not as a celebrity might wave, but rather as someone briefly distracted, oddly bewildered, with larger things on his mind. This spellbinding mixture of strength and weakness, the softness of his eyes against the hardness of his jaw and mouth, the power of his office and its burden, worked on the crowd, worked on all of us.

For six hours that night the pope sat at the altar with television lights beaming on him. He sat at first on his throne with his head in his hands, as if he were alone in prayer and contemplation. When he finally spoke, he was funny and welcoming. Later, in his sermon, he was serious. ‘During this night vigil,’ he said, ‘so full of feelings and enthusiasm, I would bring your attention, my dear young friends, boys and girls, to three terms that are our guides: “I am,” “I remember,” “I watch.”’ He did not mention sex once, or sin, or Church rules; he made no reference to what these young people must or must not do. He did not hector us. His words were suggestive, at times poetic. There was hymn singing; there were blessings in Latin; a large cross was solemnly carried to the altar.

Twice Wojtyla spent long periods with his hands over his face. The crowd below watched him, fascinated. All the lights were on him. It was hugely dramatic and unexpected, the pope unplugged, as it were. He was offering an example of what the spiritual life would look like; his message was mysterious and charismatic. If you did not know anything about the religion he represented, you would say that it was one of the most beautiful ever imagined, wonderfully speculative and exotic, good-humoured and sweet but also exquisite and exalted. While he lost nothing of his strength and power, the glory of his office, Wojtyla seemed at times almost sad about his own elevated position, suggesting that his real life was the one he spent alone in prayer and contemplation, the one we had seen when he sat without moving, his face covered. He was offering this rich private life of his to the crowd as the life they could have if they followed him.

The spell was broken somewhat, and a sign of the future offered, by a press conference held the following day at the monastery. All the journalists were told to be there as a very important announcement was to be made. I wondered if John Paul was ready finally to announce that Catholics could use artificial contraception, or that women could be priests, or that he was going to abolish the rule of clerical celibacy, but instead a local journalist told me not to bother going, the conference would merely announce that Danuta, the wife of Lech Walesa, had not, despite the rumours, slept in the monastery the previous night, that no woman had ever done so. Scotching these rumours was, for the Church in Poland, a matter of the utmost importance, it seemed.

The first way the Church could go emphasises the spiritual and the mysterious element in Christianity; the second emphasises the Church’s interest in control. This latter route was best illustrated by its role in the Cairo Conference on Population and Development in September 1994. The Vatican attended the conference with the aim of preventing any agreement that would imply toleration of abortion, support for artificial methods of contraception and any new definition of the family that did not correspond to the Catholic definition. In attempting to wield influence, and to combat what it viewed as the liberal agenda of the Clinton White House on the issue of abortion, the Church forged alliances with states such as Libya and Iran. The Vatican representative told Arab delegates that he supported their wish ‘to respond to the challenges of the modern world in a way which does not damage what is precious in those traditions’, including ‘the special role of women’.

Before the conference, Wojtyla became involved personally, as though he were a head of state (which technically he is, since the Vatican is a state), summoning 120 ambassadors to the Holy See to explain the Church’s position. Church authorities forced the United States to enter into negotiations with it. The Vatican representative to the conference attacked the draft document, which was to be discussed and agreed on, asserting that ‘it lacked ethics and a coherent moral vision, promoted contraception and tolerated abortion.’ At the conference itself, ‘the Holy See delegation kept up a spirited attack, filibustering on several parts of the bracketed language and delaying the work of the conference,’ according to Alison McIntosh and Jason Finkle in Population and Development Review. Maher Mahran, Egypt’s minister for population and the host of the conference, asked: ‘Does the Vatican rule the world? The world is not here to be dictated to. And let me tell you the delegates here represent more than five billion people in the world, and not only 190 at the Vatican.’

This idea that the Church should represent not merely the private religious beliefs of its members, but a view of how policy on public matters should be evaluated and carried out all over the world, belongs as much to the legacy of Wojtyla as any strengthening of the Church as a locus of an advanced spirituality. As Wojtyla’s health declined, it was tempting to imagine that there was a cardinal in waiting who would resemble Gorbachev or de Klerk, who would move from the ranks of conformity into a position of leadership and would dismantle Church teaching on sexuality, clerical celibacy, human reproduction and the rights of women, matters which were bringing the Church to its knees, distracting from its spiritual mission.

Even when Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope in April 2005, it was possible to imagine, as he came out onto the balcony of St Peter’s with a benign and humble look on his face and the bearing of a kind but wily old man with a deep inner life, that he was someone with the authority, the intellectual depth and the good sense to carry out these reforms. It was possible to imagine him spending his papacy restoring prayer and the spiritual life to the heart of the Catholic faith, placing much emphasis on the mystery and beauty of the Eucharist and dwelling as much as he could on ideas of redemption, responsibility, solidarity, forgiveness and love in the life of Jesus in the New Testament.

If anyone wonders why this has not happened, it is worth taking a look at Ratzinger’s views on homosexuality, which are offered in full in a number of appendices to The Pope Is Not Gay! by Angelo Quattrocchi. In 1986, as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger wrote a letter to the Catholic bishops, which was approved by the pope, on ‘the Pastoral Care of Homosexuals’. He referred to an earlier Vatican declaration on the matter in 1975, which ‘took note of the distinction commonly drawn between the homosexual condition or tendency and individual homosexual actions’ and described the latter as ‘intrinsically disordered’. But in the discussion that followed, according to Ratzinger, ‘an overly benign interpretation was given to the homosexual condition itself, some going so far as to call it neutral, or even good. Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency towards an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as a moral disorder.’

In plainer language, whereas in 1975 having sex if you were gay was ‘disordered’, now doing nothing at all – singing hymns, say, or watching reruns of Bernadette of Lourdes – was also ‘disordered’. Just sitting there, you were ‘disordered’. There was no way out, since Ratzinger’s catechism of 1992 also declared that ‘masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.’ Ratzinger went on in his letter of 1986 to wonder whether, since homosexuality ‘must be seen as an objective disorder’, this required the faithful to attack homosexuals. No, he thought, it did not. ‘It is deplorable,’ he wrote, ‘that homosexual persons have been or are the object of violent malice in speech or in action … But the proper reaction to crimes committed against homosexual persons should not be to claim that the homosexual condition is not disordered.’ He went on:

When such a claim is made and when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behaviour to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.

Ratzinger does not name these ‘other distorted notions and practices’, but it is not hard to conclude that he may be referring to the sexual abuse of children. It is hard, indeed, to think what else he could possibly mean. He is thus implying that legislation for gay rights has somehow led to an increase in paedophilia. He is careful, however, not to spell this out. This is an interesting moment, the beginning of a culture of denial, a culture in which someone else, somewhere else, had to be blamed.

The ‘revised statement’ of 1992 was mostly a repeat exercise of his letter of 1986 but there were some interesting additions. In Section 12, for example, he wrote:

Among other rights, all persons have the right to work, to housing etc. Nevertheless, these rights are not absolute. They can be legitimately limited for objectively disordered external conduct. This is sometimes not only licit but obligatory. This would obtain moreover not only in the case of culpable behaviour but even in the case of actions of the physically or mentally ill. Thus it is accepted that the state may restrict the exercise of rights, for example, in the case of contagious or mentally ill persons, in order to protect the common good.

Two clauses later, Ratzinger moves from associating homosexuality with disease and madness to pondering the question of coming out, or remaining in the closet. Ratzinger makes clear that he favours the closet.

The ‘sexual orientation’ of a person is not comparable to race, sex, age etc also for another reason … An individual’s sexual orientation is generally not known to others unless he publicly identifies himself as having this orientation or unless some overt behaviour manifests it. As a rule, the majority of homosexually oriented persons who seek to lead chaste lives do not publicise their sexual orientation. Hence the problem of discrimination in terms of employment, housing etc, does not usually arise.

Not publicising your sexual orientation was something the Vatican supported, perhaps with good reason. However, the idea that ‘an individual’s sexual orientation is generally not known to others unless he publicly identifies himself as having this orientation or unless some overt behaviour manifests it’ is more complex than Ratzinger might think. An individual may manifest this orientation without intending to, for example. There are ways for people who do not want to identity themselves as homosexual to identify themselves as such while thinking, or hoping, that they are not in fact doing so.

In Czestochowa in August 1991 after morning Mass said by the pope, I was wandering around the monastery of Jasna Gora when something caught my eye in the cloisters below. Twelve cardinals and more than 200 bishops were being disrobed of their splendid and colourful vestments by a swarm of nuns. A prelate, fresh from the altar, would stand with his arms in the air while two nuns removed his richly coloured vestments and carried them to a clothes rack to hang up, leaving the prince of the church with his hair tousled, wearing only black. A few years later, on Easter Sunday, as I wandered around the inside of St Peter’s in Rome after Mass, I noticed vast numbers of bishops and cardinals, all in their regalia. Since the sun was shining, some of them had the most beautiful seminarians or young priests standing behind them holding yellow umbrellas over their heads. It was a sight for sore eyes.

When I listed the reasons homosexuals might be attracted to the Church and might want to become priests, I did not mention the most obvious one: you get to wear funny bright clothes; you get to dress up all the time in what are essentially women’s clothes. As part of the training to be an altar boy I had to learn, and still remember, what a priest puts on to say Mass: the amice, the alb, the girdle, the stole, the maniple and the chasuble. Watching them robing themselves was like watching Mary Queen of Scots getting ready for her execution.

Priests prance around in elaborately fashioned costumes. Bishops and cardinals have even more colourful vestments. This ‘overt behaviour’ on their part has to be examined carefully. Since it is part of the rule of the Church, part of the norm, it has to be emphasised that many of them do not dress up as a matter of choice. Indeed, the vestments in all their glory might make some of them wince. But others seem to enjoy it. Among those who seem to enjoy it is Ratzinger. Quattrocchi draws our attention to the amount of care, since his election, Ratzinger has taken with his accessories, wearing designer sunglasses, for example, or gold cufflinks, and different sorts of funny hats and a pair of red shoes from Prada that would take the eyes out of you. He has also been having fun with his robes. On Ash Wednesday 2006, for example, he wore a robe of ‘Valentino red’ – called after the fashion designer – with ‘showy gold embroidery’ and soon afterwards changed into a blue associated with another fashion designer, Renato Balestra. In March 2007, for a visit to the juvenile prison at Casal del Marno, he wore an extraordinary tea-rose-coloured costume.

Quattrocchi draws conclusions a little too easily from a consideration of the connection between the fury of the pope’s attacks on homosexuality and his attire. ‘The secularist,’ he writes,

will inevitably wonder, not particularly maliciously, whether such fury isn’t the fruit of a deeply repressed desire for what he condemns. Of an unconscious desire which manifests itself as its opposite … Now that he has ascended to the throne, our hero has discovered the dazzling clothes, the trappings of power and wealth, which centuries of pomp have draped on the shoulders of his predecessors. In this way, his true nature, his deepest unspoken inclinations are revealed. In short, he might simply be the most repressed, imploded gay in the world.

Quattrocchi also considers the relationship between the pope and his private secretary. The private secretary is called Georg Gänswein. Gänswein is remarkably handsome, a cross between George Clooney and Hugh Grant, but, in a way, more beautiful than either. In a radio interview Gänswein described a day in his life and the life of Ratzinger, now that he is pope:

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.’

In his book, Quattrocchi prints many photographs of the pope in his papal clothes, and many of Gänswein looking sultry, like a film star, and a few of the two together, taking a walk or the younger man helping the older one to put on a robe or a hat. He writes:

About ten years before he became pope, when age was beginning to take its toll and was maybe sharpening the secret internal rage, Ratzy [Ratzinger] met Don Giorgio [Gänswein]. And it was a spark of life amid the doctrinal darkness … So we can at least imagine how a pure soul becomes inflamed when it meets its soulmate, when a nearly 70-year-old prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith meets a brilliant 40-year-old priest from his native Bavaria who shares the same outlook on the world … When we see the photos, which we publish in this book, of Georg putting Ratzy’s little hat on for him, handing him his stole, watching his back, looking after him, accompanying him and helping him as he walks, we cannot help being moved.

It seems to me that Quattrocchi is pushing his luck here. In his attacks on homosexuals, Ratzinger was using his full skills as a hardline Catholic theologian; he was indeed displaying himself as doctrinaire, but he was operating during the papacy of Wojtyla. He could not have issued his declarations without the agreement of the pope. While there is something oddly emphatic and absolute and oddly hateful in his diktats, it should be understood that he has taken this tone on other matters besides homosexuality. He may well have taken it out of pure conviction and seriousness; to suggest that this most ideological of figures may or may not be homosexual himself simply because he has made so many statements on the matter seems unfair to him. And in his way of wearing clothes, he is not different from any other member of the Church hierarchy. It is unlikely they all get pleasure from wandering around looking like elderly fashion victims, even if some of them, including Ratzinger, seem to do so. It may depend on who is taking the photographs. And it seems natural that Ratzinger would have a private secretary who is also from Bavaria and with whom he seems to share an ideology. It might be pure coincidence that he is one of the most handsome men alive.

The problem is that, after all that has been revealed, many of us who were brought up in the Church now know that we once listened to sermons about how to conduct our lives from men who were child molesters. And that senior members of the Church hierarchy protected these men, believing that the reputation of the Church was more important than the safety of children, and that Church law was superior to civil law. When they were found out, their sorrow was not fully credible. Thus, when we think of the Catholic Church, we think of secrecy, half-hearted apology, studied concealment.

This makes it difficult for Ratzinger, who is probably the most intelligent and articulate pope for many generations, to be heard properly when he speaks about matters of faith and morals. He wishes to make it clear, from a position that is starkly coherent, that moral values are not relative values, but absolute ones, that we must follow God’s will, and that the Catholic Church is in a unique position to tell us in some detail what this entails. However, rather than listening to this message or bowing our heads as he offers us his blessing, because of what has happened, because of a new suspicion which even the most reverent feel about the clergy, we will find ourselves examining Ratzinger’s clothes and his accessories, his gestures, and checking behind him for a glimpse of the gorgeous Georg with whom he spends so much of his day.

[*] The piece about the Ferns Report appeared in the LRB of 1 December 2005.