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 Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.