Thursday, March 28, 2019

Frédéric Martel's In the Closet of the Vatican: Concluding Remarks About Why This Book Matters — The Extensive Damage Done by a System "Perverted Since the Outset"

I've now finished reading Frédéric Martel's In the Closet of the Vatican, and want to share some concluding thoughts about the book. Two interrelated points strike me as I think about the book as a whole. The first is that the book's importance lies in how it moves what has been far too much a parochial Catholic conversation into the public sphere. The second, and related, insight is that this move is entirely necessary if the Catholic church wishes to regain any measure of moral credibility or pastoral or theological relevance following the abuse revelations.

As I read the dismissive comments about Martel and his book in Catholic publications and on Catholic Twitter, I'm struck by how very much many Catholic commentators, notably, but not exclusively, those of the hard homophobic Catholic right, do not want what has been an intra-Catholic discussion opened to a wider circle of people. They do not want the kind of information and analysis Martel shares in this book about what they see as an intra-Catholic problem shared with the general public. They bitterly resent Martel for opening their parochial discussion of the abuse situation to a larger world, and for making information they choose to ignore or control accessible to that wider world.

I'd like to point to Louis Cornellier's review of Martel's book in an article entitled "L’Église survivra-t-elle à Sodome?," to which I pointed you several days ago. Cornellier writes,

Ne croyez pas ceux qui disent que l’ouvrage de Martel n’est qu’un tissu de commérages sans preuve. Comme l’écrit Jean-Pierre Denis, directeur de la rédaction du magazine La Vie (19 février 2019), «c’est un livre sérieux et qui doit être lu sérieusement». Martel a enquêté pendant quatre ans, dans plus de trente pays et a rencontré 41 cardinaux, 52 évêques et plus de 200 prêtres. Dans le lot, il y a bien sûr quelques commères portées sur les médisances et les calomnies, mais, de l’ensemble, se dégagent quelques dévastatrices vérités susceptibles de tuer l’Église si elles ne sont pas prises en compte.

[My rough translation: "Don't believe those who say that Martel's book is nothing but a tissue of slanderous lies without proof. As Jean-Pierre Denis, editorial director of the magazine La Vie (19 February), writes, 'It's a serious book and should be read seriously.' Martel conducted his journalistic inquiries over four years, in more than thirty countries, and he interviewed 41 cardinals, 52 bishops, and more than 200 priests. All said and done, the book certainly reports some gossipy tales about this or that tidbit of innuendo or scandal, but, taken as a whole, it provides us with some devastating truths capable of killing the church if these truths are not taken into account."]

So there's that. Martel's book is being resoundingly dismissed as nothing but a pack of gossipy lies by the very Catholics who do nothing but trade in gossipy lie after gossipy lie about the purported gay mafia in the Vatican, as they shop around rumors fed by Viganò's manifesto, Lifesite News, EWTN, and Church Militant. As long as the gossipfest is entirely in their control and is aimed laserlike at that purported gay mafia, they're very happy with it.

But let an openly gay journalist who has spent several years interviewing multiple people inside and outside the Vatican, in multiple countries, report about these same matters, and they throw a conniption fit about gossip. They do not want people reading Martel's book, because they lose control of the homophobic conversation that is central to their right-wing Catholic enterprise — and, in particular, they lose control of their ability to shield from their slanderous accusations about an intra-Vatican gay mafia the very people who are leading this anti-gay crusade inside the church. And who have, Martel's book shows us, much dirty laundry of their own to keep hidden, when it comes to gay-mafia behavior . . . .

A primary value of Martel's book — and this is why it's being bitterly attacked by the Catholic right, but also by leading mainstream Catholic commentators — is that it widens the conversation so that a much larger public may now become aware of the gossipfest going on in Catholic circles about these matters, a gossipfest of which the hard homophobic right has had more or less exclusive control up to now. The book exposes the much larger group of people inside the leadership structures of the Catholic church who can justifiably be scrutinized as either homophilic or actively homosexual, while they mount attacks on the LGBTQ community. It reveals that not a small proportion of those people are the very same people leading the charge against the so-called gay mafia inside the church, and this exposé pulls the rug out from under those wanting to expose that purported gay mafia while shielding themselves or their heroes from exposure.

A lot that Martel tells us will not be new to many of us who have followed these stories with interest for years now. It will, however, be new to many people in the public at large who have seen only media-driven façades and images, who have glibly absorbed stories about St. John Paul the Great, the conqueror of communism and the rock-star pope; St. Benedict XVI, the introverted brainiac who courageously tried to tame the abuse crisis but had no strong leadership skills and was forced to admit failure and resign, etc.

Martel's book shows that what lies behind those façades so carefully tailored for years now by the mainstream media and Catholic commentators is something altogether different — and far less savory than many people in the broader public imagine. The hard homophobic Catholic right, but also many other Catholic commentators, Do. Not. Want. These. Conversations. To. Happen. Hence their perfervid pushback against Martel's book….

Martel's reporting about Benedict is particularly illuminating. I shared some of it in my last posting. Here's another extended passage that strikes me as and as right on target:

Voices are raised today, even among priests and theologians, to consider that the failure of the Catholic Church on the file of sexual abuse cases affects the very top level of the governance and the ideas of Joseph Ratzinger. Among these, some said to me: "This is a man who has devoted his life to denouncing homosexuality. He makes it one of the greatest evils of humanity. At the same time, he has said very little about paedophilia, and was very late in becoming aware of the scale of the problem. He has never really differentiated on the theological level between freely consenting relations between adults and the sexual abuse of minors below the age of 15." 
Another theologian who I met in Latin America told me: "Ratzinger's problem is the scale of value. It has been completely perverted since the outset. He has severely sanctioned the liberation theologians and punished priests who distributed condoms in Africa, but he has found excuses for paedophile priests. He ruled that the Mexican multi-recidivist and paedophile criminal Marcial Maciel was too old to be reduced to layman status. 
Still, for Pope Benedict XVI, the uninterrupted sequence of revelations about sexual abuse in the Church was more than a "season in hell." It struck at the heart of the Ratzinger system and its theology. Whatever the public denials and positions of principle might have been, Benedict was well aware deep inside, I would dare to say from experience, that celibacy, abstinence and the failure to acknowledge the homosexuality of priests were at the heart of the whole scandal. His thought, minutely elaborated at the Vatican for four decades, exploded into pieces. This intellectual failure must have contributed to his resignation (p. 514).

The Ratzinger regime, "minutely elaborated at the Vatican for four decades," "exploded into pieces" with the advent of revelations about the extent of sexual abuse of minors in the church, and the cover-up of that abuse by church officials. These revelations "struck at the heart" of the theological system Ratzinger sought to impose on the entire church. 

They revealed his theological system, with its obsessive focus on homosexuality as a singular problem to be combatted in secular culture, with its obsession with punishing queer people and making them susceptible to discrimination and violence, as "perverted since the outset."

Perverted: turned to the wrong end; turned upside down; making night day and day night. Ratzinger has always been capable of saying every ugly thing possible about the "perversion" of those made queer by God. At the very same time, he has found it well-nigh impossible to open his mouth about clerical sexual abuse of minors. The priorities of his theological system — his scale of values — could not be more perverted, even as he slings around terms like "disordered."

These are daring claims. They also strike me as substantially correct ones. And they implicate the homophobic hard Catholic right and its analysis of the abuse crisis in the most damning way possible.  They also implicate the many Catholic commentators, including those who parse the "gay experience" for all the rest of us, insofar as they have covered this perversion over, given it legs, treated it with respect — a system minutely elaborated at the Vatican for four decades, which has cast an ominous shadow over the entire church for almost half a century, and which far too many Catholic commentators have normalized and even glorified. Having broader circles talking about all of this does not bode well for them and their control of the conversation: hence (again) their attempt to shatter Martel's credibility and deter a wide readership for his book.

And the second point I see flowing from this: there is no salvation for the church in the conversation ad intra. Repeatedly, as Martel seeks to get a fix on the question of homosexuality and why it looms so large in the thinking of Benedict and his circle as the most significant moral problem to be addressed by the church today, he turns to "good guys" in the hierarchy and the Catholic academy to parse theological questions about homosexuality for him. Some of these (e.g., Timothy Radcliffe) tell him how wonderful Ratzinger is, how dense his theology is.

Radcliffe makes that assertion without even acknowledging that Ratzinger's perverted obsession with homosexuality has made many lay Catholics who happen to be queer pay a very high price, indeed — and it has also made many people in the world at large who happen to be queer pay a very high price, due to the overweening power and influence of the Catholic church at a global level. As Alan McCornick states incisively in his recent review of Martel's book,

The harm done to minds young and old (especially the young, in my view) by propagating the lie that homosexuality is "inherently disordered," is incalculable. That this evil should be propagated by men who then embrace it in practice should be made public, so it can be more broadly recognized, condemned, and discarded as a bigotry masquerading as a public good. 

It's time to introduce into these conversations some of those other voices, the voices of those harmed for a long time now by the Catholic system — if the Catholic church expects any salvation for itself following the abuse horror show. It's time to let people who were not formed within a clerical matrix, as leading gay-friendly theologians in the Catholic community have almost been been, have a theological say at long last. It's time to ask why clerically grounded theological definitions necessarily frame the Catholic theological conversation about homosexuality or any other matters — why the Catholic theological enterprise has to be clerically owned, owned exclusively by people formed within a clerical matrix, including ones who have left the clerical caste but have not left behind its clericalist way of thinking, who have never been eager to broaden this conversation to LGBTQ Catholics who were not shaped by that matrix, even as they claim to represent "the" LGBTQ voice in the church today.

It's time for all of this, that is, if the Catholic church wants salvation, and if these folks really do want to see the church rehabilitated, reformed, opened to a different way of dealing with people God has made queer . . . . And I personally am far from convinced that this is what many Catholic commentators, including the out gay theologians and journalists shaped by a clerical matrix whom Martel interviewed, really want.

I suspect what they want far more is the continuation of a a cozy insiders' club — though this is at the very heart of what has produced the abuse horror show in the Catholic church, this desire for a cozy club with insider-outsider lines separating club members and their perks and privileges from a bigger world.

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