Thinking about 'Sodoma': Critics on left, right have many similar concerns about Martel's work

So, now that the big splash is over in Rome, does anyone need to take the time to read “In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy” by the French LGBTQ activist Frédéric Martel?

That’s the English title. In other parts of the world the book was given an even more provocative title — “Sodoma.”

Everyone agrees, basically, that the book contains some serious allegations about gay life and gay power networks in Catholic life, and the Vatican to be specific.

But what has Martel been able to document with solid, journalistically respectable information? On many crucial points, everything depends on whether readers are inclined to accept the accuracy of the author’s “gaydar,” that gay extra sense that tells him — based on issues of culture, style and his own emotions — whether this or that person (or pope, even) is gay.

This is your rare chance to read radically different cultural voices attack the same book for some very similar reasons. For starters, it doesn’t help when — the critics agree — a book is packed with factual errors and appears to have been edited by someone with years of experience in supermarket tabloid work.

I mean, check this out: Rod “Benedict Option” Dreher pointing readers toward an essay by Michael Sean Winters of The National Catholic Reporter?

Here is a choice bite of Winters review:

Martel sees gay influence everywhere. He has a whole chapter on Jacques Maritain, the gist of which is this: "To understand the Vatican and the Catholic Church, at the time of Paul VI, or today, Jacques Maritain is a good entry point." Why? "I have gradually understood the importance of this codex, this complex and secret password, a real key to understand The Closet. The Maritain code." He mentions in passing that Maritain is the father of Christian democracy, and mentions not at all that Maritain's reading of Thomas Aquinas is critical in understanding how the Second Vatican Council came to many of its conclusions. None of that really matters. The key is that he hung out with gay writers.

Such stereotypes would be denounced as sheer bigotry if they came from a straight man (and would not get reprinted in NCR). Why is Martel given a pass to traffic in them because he is gay? Bigotry is repugnant no matter the source.

Now, here is a key Dreher passage:

If he is to be believed, Martel had unprecedented access to this hidden world — and blew it because he was intellectually unprepared to understand what he was seeing, and incapable of writing with sobriety. It’s as if Virgil took a writer on a three-day tour of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, but instead of Dante, the writer had been late-era Truman Capote, who thought he had been in the back rooms at Studio 54.

Also on the right, here are the editors of The National Catholic Register, in an editorial about the book entitled, “Take New Book on Vatican ‘Sodom’ With a Pillar of Salt.”

Martel tries very hard to accuse Pope Benedict XVI of being a homosexual on the basis of externals — his red shoes and chubby cheeks — and he warns that Pope Francis knows about the massive homosexual colony behind the walls of the Vatican.

While the claim of the immense investigative operation, which the author says took him up to four years, led him to 30 countries and was facilitated by 80 “researchers” (most of whom also identify as homosexual), begs the immediate question of who funded it, the even more pressing problem with the book is the shoddy and nasty quality of the research that was produced. Most of his claims are not backed by any verifiable evidence.

Does Martel reveal some likely true details about a “gay mafia” in the Vatican? Yes, he does. But that is hardly a shocking discovery, as the presence of active homosexual priests in the Vatican is nothing new.

What makes this book, published in eight languages no less, so problematic, however, are its agenda and its timing. Make no mistake, Martel’s sensationalist exploration into depravity and hypocrisy has an agenda.

Now back to the Catholic left. How about Father James Martin?

… What prevents his book from presenting a convincing portrait of a decadent culture, despite four years of research, is precisely that. Essentially, it is a book largely about naming and shaming, tittle-tattle and denigration, both of groups and, especially, individuals. To wit:

The Order of Malta?  “A mad den of gaiety” (24). The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre?  “An army of horse-riding queens” (40). Cardinal Raymond Burke, who is the subject of the author’s special ire: “A Viking bride!” (27). Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò is a “drama queen” (50). Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo is a “tacky apostle” (288). St. John Paul II? A man “of great vanity and misogyny” (247).

Much of what he says about the gay subculture in the Vatican may be true. Even if a tenth of the book is accurate, it would be awful: the worst perhaps being his description of a cardinal who enjoyed beating male prostitutes. (Martel’s long chapter on prostitution in Rome, with interviews with not only prostitutes but police officers, is compelling).

Yet one’s ability to rely on the narrator is fatally compromised by the style in which he writes: hard-won research buried under an ocean of gossip, innuendo and what he would call bitchiness.

Wait, there’s more on the cultural right. Here’s Michael Brendan Dougherty at National Review:

Martel’s methodology for determining whether certain churchmen are gay is to stereotype them. Churchmen whom he deems to oppose homosexuality too much are deemed homosexual themselves. This logic does not apply, however, to Pope Francis, who has occasionally urged gay men to leave the priesthood or not enter it at all. Francis is held up as a hero to Martel. But the influence of Francis’s inner circle is evident in the choice of targets.

Martel meets with the German conservative cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller and insinuates that the cardinal’s “perfumed voice” gives him away as a homosexual. Pope Benedict XVI is deemed a homosexual because he likes opera. The traditionalist cardinal Raymond Leo Burke is deemed homosexual or even transsexual because he prefers the Church’s most elaborate vestments. 

I could go on and on. These authors do not, of course, agree on some of the conclusions reached by Martel. It appears that the key is whether a reader agrees with the basic thesis of the book, which is that the Vatican is divided into two warring camps — self-hating gays and gays who are in hiding and seeking reform.

I will end where I began: Who needs to read this book and why do they need to read it? Are there enough sections that feature basic reporting (police documents and on-the-record interviews) to make this sleazy enterprise worthwhile?

Frankly, I have not made up my mind whether to dive into this or not. Any advice?

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