Is Pope Francis about to launch an anti-gay witchhunt in the Vatican?

The pontiff's remarks about the existence of a "gay lobby" in the Vatican draws on a number of age-old homophobic tropes.

There's allegedly a secretive "gay lobby" that wields massive behind-the-scenes influence at the Vatican. Pope Francis himself appears to have confirmed it, during what was intented to be a private conversation with a delegation of Latin American religious orders. His words somehow got leaked, and although his visitors apologised, his press office hasn't denied that the quote is genuine. Francis was discussing the difficulties he faced reforming the Vatican's notoriously inefficient and scandal-ridden bureaucracy, the Curia. 

"There are holy people," he said, "But there is also a stream of corruption. The 'gay lobby' is mentioned, and it is true it is there! We need to see what we can do."

My first thought was that if there is indeed a "gay lobby" at the Vatican it must be doing a singularly ineffective job. The Catholic Church continues to teach that homosexuality is "intrinsically disordered", that same-sex marriage is a sin against God and man (and even, according to the retired pontiff, against the environment) and that men with "deep-seated" gay inclinations should be barred from the priesthood, even if they manage to remain celibate. If I belonged to the Vatican gay lobby I'd be hanging my head in shame, or at least ringing up Stonewall for some pointers about how to run an effective lobbying operation.

But of course "gay lobby" here doesn't mean a campaign group, but rather something furtive and distinctly sinister: not so much a gay lobby as a gay mafia, a gay cabal, a gay conspiracy even. The "gay lobby" has even been held responsible for Pope Benedict's resignation. Back in February, La Repubblica claimed to have details of a secret report Benedict had commissioned into the "Vatileaks" scandal which saw former papal butler Paolo Gabriele convicted of passing confidential documents to a journalist. The leak described the existence of "a cross-party network united by sexual orientation." The Pope was so shattered by the revelation, the report claimed, that he made up his mind then and there to step down.

That some Catholic priests are gay and sometimes actively so is well known and hardly surprising. The celibate priesthood has long attracted gay men unable to express their sexuality openly and not wanting to live a lie; in former decades it was a respectable, even praised, alternative to marriage and children. Given the severity and inflexibility of the church's teaching, however, gay priests could scarcely be open about their orientation. And some priests, straight or gay, break their vows. In recent years, there have been several lurid exposés in the Italian press featuring gay clerics based in the Vatican.

But the existence of gay priests is not the same thing as a "gay lobby", a highly dubious concept that draws on a number of age-old homophobic tropes. 

Firstly, there's the idea that homosexuals form a hidden network of influence and patronage, advancing each other's careers as well as some unspoken agenda. 

A related fear is that because they're unable to be open about their sexuality gay people are uniquely vulnerable to blackmail. A purge of thousands of gay men and lesbians from government positions formed part of the McCarthy process in 1950s America, even though investigations failed to find evidence of any gay civil servants ever being blackmailed into revealing state secrets. That gay people were a security risk was simply assumed, as it was in Britain where homosexuals were notoriously barred from membership of the security services or, where discovered, assumed to be Soviet spies. Likewise, the concept of a secret gay network at the heart of the Vatican leads inevitably to suggestions of blackmail and fraud.

Finally and most insidiously, some people continue to make a link between gay clergy and the perpetration and covering-up of child abuse. One especially hateful article written last year by a Polish theologian described attraction to pubescent boys as "a typical deviation related to homosexuality". The author claimed that the cover-ups were in large part orchestrated by highly placed members of the "homomafia" including cardinals and bishops - men who, suffering from an "internal wound" (i.e. being gay) tend to become Macchiavellian careerists with an overwhelming desire to protect and promote people like them, even if they're found to be child abusers. Needless to say, there's no evidence for any of this.

So is Pope Francis, who until now has won plaudits for his down-to-earth approach and gently modernising moves, about to launch an anti-gay witchhunt in the Vatican? While the respected Vatican-watcher John Allen sees no evidence that he will, the pontiff's quoted words do appear to link the existence of a "gay lobby" with "corruption" and suggest that some sort of action may be forthcoming. At the very least, the Pope's words imply that he's sympathetic to the underlying idea: that gay people are an inherent threat, spreading their tentacles of improper influence even in the sacred precincts of St Peter's. Nor is it reassuring that the offensiveness of the concept has gone almost unremarked in media coverage of the Pope's words.

There's ultimately only one cure for this type of phantom gay lobby, and that's a real gay lobby.

Pope Francis waves to crowds in St Peter's Square in March 2013. Photograph: Getty Images
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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.