I find it hard to carve a single passage from Colm Toibin's quite astounding essay in the London Review of Books on the Catholic church and the homosexuality question. It's beautifully crafted and honest and true and inescapably Catholic. It covers a lot of ground that this blog has covered, but its description of the crisis of moral authority in the hierarchy is particularly nuanced and fine. What Toibin conveys is the special love many homosexuals have had - for two millennia - for this institution and its mission; and the choice the hierarchy has had for several decades to move forward in hope with these Catholics or to move back in fear against them.
So far, tragically, fear has won. But Toibin also sees the potential for a reborn Christianity in the papacy of John Paul II - wrecked by the white-knuckled reactionary politics that grew under him and now defines the Vatican. Here is what I too found so mesmerizing about Wojtila - as Toibin describes an event in John Paul II's native Poland in the spring of his papacy:
Twice Wojtyla spent long periods with his hands over his face. The crowd below watched him, fascinated. All the lights were on him. It was hugely dramatic and unexpected, the pope unplugged, as it were. He was offering an example of what the spiritual life would look like; his message was mysterious and charismatic. If you did not know anything about the religion he represented, you would say that it was one of the most beautiful ever imagined, wonderfully speculative and exotic, good- humoured and sweet but also exquisite and exalted. While he lost nothing of his strength and power, the glory of his office, Wojtyla seemed at times almost sad about his own elevated position, suggesting that his real life was the one he spent alone in prayer and contemplation, the one we had seen when he sat without moving, his face covered. He was offering this rich private life of his to the crowd as the life they could have if they followed him.
The choice between this kind of affirmation of spirituality and love and a politics of control and fear was what the church faced under John Paul II, as modernity pressed. Toibin puts it this way:
The first way the Church could go emphasizes the spiritual and the mysterious element in Christianity; the second emphasizes the Church’s interest in control.
The church under Wojtila and Ratzinger took both paths, but the one, alas, has slowly eclipsed the other - until the sex abuse scandal tipped the scales to a near total collapse of moral authority in so many places, Ireland most spectacularly. The pursuit of control is really a fear of scrutiny and transparency which, when added to the unspeakable crimes of the past, ineluctably led to the current meltdown in the West. The homosexual question is not in any way marginal to this; in fact, you could see it as a central challenge for a church caught between truth and power. The path is littered with might-have-beens. The hope I once saw in the 1975 document on gays and then the reactionary bitterness of the 1986 retreat and Ratzinger's subsequent campaign against gay people and all gay priests, regardless of their conduct, encapsulates what has happened to the Catholic community in these years of crisis. (I cover all this ground in Virtually Normal.) And this collapse of authority rightly means that this Pope himself is no longer immune to the kind of scrutiny once deemed unimaginable.
The church, having been revealed to have concealed raw evil, now has little option but to allow the light in, or face sheer disbelief.
It seems pretty obvious to me - as it does to Angelo Quattrochi, whose book is reviewed by Toibin - that the current Pope is a gay man (just as it was blindingly clear that John Paul II was straight). I am not claiming that Benedict is someone who has explored his sexuality, or has violated his own strictures on the matter. There is absolutely no evidence of that, or of hypocrisy of any sort. But that does not mean that he isn't gay. In fact, Ratzinger's command that gay priests should actively lie about their orientation makes any public statement about this on its face lacking in credibility. But when you look at the Pope's mental architecture (I've read a great deal of his writing over the last two decades) you do see that strong internal repression does make sense of his life and beliefs. At times, it seems to me, his gayness is almost wince-inducing. The prissy fastidiousness, the effeminate voice, the fixation on liturgy and ritual, and the over-the-top clothing accessories are one thing. But what resonates with me the most is a theology that seems crafted from solitary introspection into a perfect, abstract unity of belief. It is so perfect it reflects a life of withdrawal from the world of human relationship, rather than an interaction with it. Of course, this kind of work is not inherently homosexual; but I have known so many repressed gay men who can only live without severe pain in the world if they create a perfect abstraction of what it is, and what their role is in it. Toibin brilliantly explains this syndrome, why the church of old was so often such a siren call for gay men who could not handle their own nature. In Benedict, one sees a near-apotheosis of this type, what Quattrocchi describes as "simply the most repressed, imploded gay in the world."