Blackmail or corruption? Catholics respond to the Vatican’s ‘gay lobby’

The international media reaction to Pope Francis’ comment on a “gay lobby” differed depending on who told the tale.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis admits that a 'gay lobby' exists in the Vatican after private remarks from a leaked speech [EPA]

Last week websites from left to right lit up with the announcement: Pope Francis admitted that a “gay lobby” operates in the Vatican. In the scurry to explain, few articles revealed much about the Pope or the Vatican. They disclosed much more about the current lightning-rod status of homosexuality and same-sex marriage in Catholic culture, as well as the growing paranoia of some Catholic hierarchs.

The remark itself was buried in an account of an extended dialogue with Francis, recorded from memory by a group of Latin American and Caribbean leaders who later apologised for making their record public. The reference seemed simply to confirm Italian newspaper La Repubblica’s February account of a secret report issued just before Benedict’s retirement. That report purportedly outlined a culture of blackmail and corruption involving, or perhaps only against, gay Vatican functionaries. In other words, it was rumoured conjecture about rumoured conjecture, which does not normally count as news except on the celebrity pages.

What made it news depended on who was writing. For some – roughly lining up with American liberal Catholicism – the issue was corruption. Although the New York Times opted to spice its title with “gay lobby” rather than “blackmail”, it highlighted Vatican historian Alberto Melloni’s worry that members of the curia who betray Catholic sexual norms are vulnerable to coercion: “This is a question of blackmail and blackmailability, not homosexuality.” Vatican insider and National Catholic Reporter correspondent John Allen predictably followed the same path: the issue is not sexuality but power, “the potential for manipulation anytime someone serving the pope is leading a double life”. 

Sexuality or corruption

Toward the middle of the road, other news purveyors followed the Associated Press line, refusing to weigh either sexuality or corruption more heavily than the other. Most of these accounts included Francis’ reported acknowledgment of his own administrative ineptitude and confidence in the eight cardinals whom he has appointed to reform the Vatican.

But for outlets hewing to the traditionalist side, the point was definitely homosexuality. One of the strongest responses came from Il Giornale interviewee Dariusz Oko of the John Paul II Political University of Krakow, who condemned “homoheresy”; he recommended purging gay students and instructors from seminaries. Jimmy Akin of the National Catholic Register surmised that a “gay lobby” is a “lobby for gays”, who perhaps are attempting to alter Catholic teaching on sexuality or the Catholic policy on the ordination of gay men.

Dwight Longenecker of Aleteia decried the American Catholic “lavender mafia” at all levels but also hypothesised that the Vatican’s “gay lobby” may be celibate and conservative. If so, the “gay lobby” accusation could be a liberal plot “aiming at this group as the secretive ‘gay lobby’ that needs to be outed and routed”.

‘Catholic Holocaust’

This anxiety, bordering on paranoia, reveals a fear that is deep and real in isolated quarters of American Catholicism for whom “gay” is now shorthand for legal same-sex marriage and all the social approbation it implies. In the wake of gay-friendly legal precedents, Francis Cardinal George of Chicago warned that continued resistance to accommodation could lead to the exclusion of Catholics from public office and the professions, possibly even a “Catholic Holocaust”.

What could cause an American prelate to risk offending the interfaith community with such a comparison? Within days, the US Supreme Court is expected to rule on two same-sex marriage cases. According to George, same-sex marriage would overreach the state’s “proper authority”, which does not extend to the natural institution of marriage.

US citizenship fuels same sex-marriage debate

In addition, the implied elevation of “protection of individual rights” to an absolute good is a danger akin to “fascism, totalitarianism, communism”. In other words, he fears that legalising same-sex marriage would dissolve the foundations of American society and American religious freedom. 

The best measure of this anxiety is that same-sex unions have joined the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive measures as headline issues for this summer’s United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Fortnight for Freedom prayer and action initiative, which begins today, June 21. But if bishops like George are feeling persecuted on this issue they should perhaps consider whether they are generating their own bad press. George in particular has billed same-sex marriage above immigration reform in his public efforts, a choice that has stung the 42 percent of Chicago-area Catholics who are Latinos.

Same-sex marriage concerns

To be sure, early versions of the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive policy threatened the religious freedom of particular medical professionals and religious institutions. But same-sex marriage initiatives do not require Catholic individuals or institutions to act against their religious beliefs. Same-sex marriage initiatives do not require Catholic clergy to marry gay and lesbian couples and do not devalue heterosexual marriage or encourage casual sex. If anything, same-sex marriage enshrines stable two-parent households as profoundly valuable, all things being equal, to children’s welfare.

For some media outlets the “g-word” may have been irresistible because it reopens the ever-painful wound of the Catholic Church’s exclusion of people in gay, lesbian, and transgender relationships. For others it was irresistible because it raises the politically powerful spectre of social disorder and religious persecution. For all, it was an unfortunate choice of headlines for a conversation in which Francis’ most revelatory line apparently had to do with neither Vatican corruption nor sexuality directly: “If you look at the peripheries, the indigent… the drug addicts! Human trafficking… This is the gospel. The poor are the gospel…” 

Now there’s great material for a headline.

Cristina LH Traina is a professor of religious studies and a fellow with the Public Voices OpEd Project at Northwestern University.