Guest Blogger

Man Loving & Medieval: Gay Popes in Fact & Fiction

Filed By Guest Blogger | November 30, 2013 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Catholic church, gay popes, Pope Benedict IX, Pope Julius III, Pope Paul II, Pope Stephen II

Pope-Benedict-IX.jpgEditors' Note: Guest blogger Simon LeVay is a neuroscientist who's well known for his research into the "gay brain." His novel "The Donation of Constantine" is available on Amazon.com and elsewhere.

Homosexuality and the Catholic Church don't mix. Or do they?

The fact is, of course, that men-loving men have played significant roles in the Church since ancient times. Nowadays we only get wind of this when priests are accused of molesting males - often teens who are under the priests' pastoral care. What may go on at higher levels of the Church, in the Vatican for example, is well hidden from public view.

What can't be hidden is the history of homosexual popes.

  • Pope Julius III, who held office from 1550 to 1555, fell in love with his teenage nephew - a homeless youth named Innocenzo who had been adopted by Julius's brother. Julius not only took Innocenzo for his bedfellow, he also named him a cardinal. Another cardinal, shocked at this scandal, described Innocenzo as "a Ganymede in a red hat."
  • Pope Paul II (1464 to 1471) preferred the name Maria, wore rouge, and outdid all his predecessors in the number and splendor of the jewels in his tiara. His sexuality might have been lost to history, had it not been for one regrettable misstep: he dropped dead of a heart attack or stroke while he was being sodomized by a male page.
  • Pope Benedict IX, who held office on three separate occasions during the eleventh century, turned his palace into a male brothel. He was twice kicked out of the papacy on account of his dissolute ways; both times he regained his office by force of arms. Even the Catholic Encyclopedia, normally the most pope-friendly of sources, described him as "a disgrace to the Chair of Peter."

These three popes were poor advertisements for homosexuality, of course. Still, there must have been many other popes who were homosexual but didn't engage in gay sex, or did so in a more discreet and responsible manner than Julius, Paul, or Benedict. Precisely on account of this discretion nothing is known about them.

I recently published a historical novel, The Donation of Constantine, that portrays an eighth-century pope, Stephen II, as having homosexual tendencies. Whether that was the case or not is unknown. We do know that Stephen played an important role in Catholic history; he helped turn the Church into a political powerhouse in Europe.

In my novel, Stephen's sexuality helped spur his actions. As I portray him, he was obsessed with a teenage Muslim slave named Zaid. In the course of a winter journey across the Alps Zaid recounts the militant history of early Islam: this persuades Stephen that he, like Muhammad, must take a more aggressive approach to defending and spreading his religion.

Sexuality isn't just about sex; it's a source of psychic energy that drives our whole lives and it can be a powerful force for good or for evil. The nature of that sexuality - heterosexual or homosexual - is irrelevant. The Catholic Church demands that its representatives be celibate because that allows them to "adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart." Perhaps that's another way of saying that the sex drive can be channeled to other productive purposes than sex itself.

The tragedy is that the gay side of this reality has been so vilified or, at best, hidden and ignored. I hope that someday a "good gay pope" will be open enough about himself to demonstrate that homosexuality can be a force for good - in the Catholic Church and elsewhere.


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