How the critique of Catholicism changes and yet remains the same.
The rhetoric of anti-Catholicism, whether its sources are Protestant or secular, has always insisted that the church of Rome is the enemy of what you might call healthy sexuality. This rhetorical trope has persisted despite radical redefinitions of what healthy sexuality means; one sexual culture overthrows another, but Catholicism remains eternally condemned.
Thus in a 19th-century context, where healthy sexuality meant a large patriarchal family with the wife as the angel in the home, anti-Catholic polemicists were obsessed with Catholicism’s nuns — these women who mysteriously refused husbands and childbearing, and who were therefore presumed to be prisoners in gothic convents, victims of predatory priests.
Then a little later, when the apostles of sexual health were Victorian “muscular Christians” worried about moral deviance, the problem with Catholicism was that it was too hospitable to homosexuality — too effete, too decadent, too Oscar Wildean even before Wilde’s deathbed conversion.
Then later still, when sexual health meant the white-American, two-kid nuclear family, the problem with Catholicism was that it was too obsessed with heterosexual procreation, too inclined to overpopulate the world with kids.
And now, in our own age of sexual individualism, Catholicism is mostly just accused of a repressive cruelty, of denying people — and especially its celibacy-burdened priests — the sexual fulfillment that every human being needs.
The mix of change and consistency in anti-Catholic arguments came to mind while I was reading “In the Closet of the Vatican,” a purported exposé of homosexuality among high churchmen released to coincide with the church’s summit on clergy sexual abuse. The book, written by a gay, nonbelieving French journalist, Frédéric Martel, makes a simple argument in a florid, repetitious style: The prevalence of gay liaisons in the Vatican means that clerical celibacy is a failure and a fraud, as unnatural and damaging as an earlier moral consensus believed homosexuality to be.
The style of Martel’s account is fascinating because it so resembles the old Protestant critique of Catholic decadence. Instead of a tough-guy Calvinist proclaiming that Catholicism’s gilt and incense makes men gay, it’s a gay atheist claiming that the gays use Catholicism’s gilt and incense to decorate the world’s most lavish closet. Instead of celibacy making men deviant, celibacy is the deviance, and open homosexuality the cure. Celibacy used to offend family-values conservatism; now it offends equally against the opposite spirit.
The book is quite bad; too many of its attempted outings rely on the supposed infallibility of Martel’s gaydar. And yet anyone who knows anything about the Vatican knows that some of the book’s gossip is simply true — just as the other critiques of Catholicism have some correspondence to reality.