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When God died, the official cause was elderly enfeeblement; after reading Frédéric Martel’s exposé of infamy in the Catholic church, I suspect that the old boy committed suicide in remorse, aghast at the crimes and un-Christian sins of organised religion.
Although Martel’s book is published just in time to spoil a pious conference on clerical paedophilia convened by the pope, the abuse of minors is not all that St Peter’s pharisaical heirs have to answer for. The Vatican combines a venality that the mafia might envy with a bigotry worthy of Steve Bannon (who not coincidentally was in Rome for last week’s gathering), and to this already foul mixture it adds an unctuous hypocrisy. The moral fraudulence of the church is Martel’s subject: having spent four years sleuthing in all corners of the Catholic world, he establishes that during the past few papacies the fieriest critics of homosexuality – the cardinals who regarded Aids as a divine judgment, condemned the distribution of condoms in Africa, called gender theory an abomination, and ignored peccadilloes like those of the Cuban priest who administered a special blessing to the penises of little boys – were themselves unabashedly gay.
Some of them cruised in Roman parks, claiming diplomatic immunity whenever they were bothered by the police; others used their smartphones to summon Arab hustlers. Many attended infernally red-lit orgies in the Vatican, with party drugs and strapping seminarians on tap, and quite a few rejoiced in drag-queen nicknames. One financially canny episcopal plutocrat added Rome’s busiest gay sauna to his bulging property portfolio. Martel includes a single incongruously heterosexual anecdote, about a prince of the church who died of a heart attack in Paris while having overenergetic sex with a prostitute called Mimi. Jesuitical spin doctors claimed he’d paid her a visit in the hope of persuading her to repent, which didn’t explain why he was naked when the ambulance arrived.
Is all this a symptom of bad faith, or perhaps of closeted self-disgust? No, it simply reveals the convenient duplicity of Catholicism: as André Gide put it, after the theologian Jacques Maritain failed to dissuade him from publishing his memoir of romps with Arab boys, “I hate lying. That’s where my Protestantism takes refuge. Catholics don’t like the truth.” The scale of the Vatican’s sanctimonious mendacity reminds Martel of the Third Reich, where the euphemisms and evasions of an entire society destroyed “the reality of a common world”.
Visiting a cardinal who is “refined and well pomaded”, Martel is “submerged in a cloud of scent” when he makes a detour to the man’s bathroom and checks his medicine cabinet; inside the Vatican, his astute French nose detects expensive traces of “amber, violet, musk, champaca” when his perfumed interviewees waft towards him. But the prevailing odour in his book is sulphur, a metaphorical stink that alerts Martel to the presence of the devil.
He flinches when introduced to George Pell, the Australian cardinal recently found guilty of sexual abuse in Melbourne (he will be sentenced later this month), whose colleagues in the Vatican treasury called him “Pell Pot” in homage to the bloodthirsty Cambodian dictator Pol Pot. Martel manages not to feel frightened on this occasion, but is glad never to have encountered two Latin American priests who strike him as unequivocally “evil”. In Mexico, the “diabolical” Marcial Maciel amassed “insane levels of wealth” and indulged in systematic “sexual violence”, while of course exhibiting pious meekness on public occasions; in Colombia, López Trujillo – like Maciel, now defunct – connived at the murder of dozens of priests and bishops, who were eliminated by paramilitary brigades after he fingered them for their progressive opinions.
Among all this villainy, Martel has a sneaky fondness for Pope Benedict XVI, who railed against homosexuals while flouncing about in natty ermine-lined bonnets and lipstick-red Prada slippers. In one decadent episode, Benedict moons over his hunky chamberlain Georg Gänswein during the younger man’s consecration as an archbishop, caressing his Clooneyesque salt-and-pepper curls for all of 19 enraptured seconds. Despite such florid displays of an apparently platonic affection, Martel sees Benedict as a victim of wishful self-neutering. As Nietzsche remarked, “The saint pleasing to God is the ideal castrato”.
It’s a pity that Martel’s book is so preposterously long and lazily repetitive; lacking an index, it will be useless as a reference work. I also worry a little about its methods. Some highly placed informants are given the benefit of anonymity, and others are lured into confiding or confessing by the flirty signals Martel transmits. “He employs guile with me,” he says during a teasing duel with Pope John Paul II’s former secretary, “and I play with him.” Stray comments reveal a double standard. Thus he denounces Catholic potentates for the luxury in which they live, yet grimaces like a snooty interior decorator when he visits one residence: “The furniture is horrible, as it often is in the Vatican,” he sniffs. The tone falters because Martel seems unsure whether to be horrified by the church’s corruption or to let out a gasp of high-camp amazement at its excesses. Given the evidence that he has uncovered, I’d say that outrage is the better option.
• In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy by Frédéric Martel, translated by Shaun Whiteside, is published by Bloomsbury (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy by Frédéric Martel – review | Books