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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder