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Jesse’s Journal
by Jesse Monteagudo

Some Poop about the Popes (The Gay Popes)

From St. Peter to Benedict XVI, there have been 265 popes. Only one has merited his own entry - by historian Louis Crompton, no less - in the glbtq.com online encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer culture: Pope Julius III (ruled 1550-1555). Famous as “a skilled expert in canon law,” and a patron of Michelangelo and Palestrina, Julius also “created one of the most notorious homosexual scandals in the history of the papacy.” Just before he became pope, then-Cardinal Giovanni Maria del Monte fell in love with a 15-year old ragamuffin named Innocenzo. Two years later del Monte, now Pope Julius III, made young Innocenzo a cardinal and his “chief diplomatic and political agent." Though Church scholars insist that Julius only wanted Innocenzo to pet his monkey, Crompton agreed with the Venetian ambassador, who reported that the young “Ganymede” “shared the pope's bedroom and bed.” The “Cardinal-Monkey” Innocenzo’s glory days ended when his papal partner died in 1555. Innocenzo himself died in 1577.

Recent studies suggest that a large percentage of Roman Catholic priests are homosexual. If this is so, it stands to reason that a relatively large number of popes, who are themselves priests, were gay. According to Wayne R. Dynes, who wrote about the “Papacy,” in his Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, “given the custom of monastic sex-segregation and the extension of celibacy to the priesthood in the Western church beginning in the eleventh century, it is not surprising that a number of Roman pontiffs should have been involved in homoerotic sentiments and behavior.” Noel I. Garde, in his gossipy 1964 book Jonathan to Gide: The Homosexual In History, included John XII (r. 955-964), Benedict IX (r. 1033-1045; 1047-1048), John XXII (r. 1316-34), Paul II (r. 1464-1471), Sixtus IV (r. 1471-1484), Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503), Julius II (r. 1503-1513) and Leo X (r. 1513-1521), along with Julius III, in his list of “gay popes.” Though we must take Garde with a rock of salt - some of his “gay popes” were promiscuously heterosexual - his list provided a launching pad for other historians to study the matter and conclude that some of those pontiffs ignored their Church’s rule against homosexuality to the extent that they practiced it themselves.

John XII (r. 955-964), according to Dynes, “modeled himself on the scandalous Roman emperor Heliogabalus, holding homosexual orgies in the royal palace.” But the bisexual John also liked women, which allowed Lynne Yamaguchi Fletcher, in The First Gay Pope and Other Records, to rightly call Benedict IX (r. 1033-1045; 1047-1048) “the first pope known to be primarily homosexual.” Benedict’s pontificate, which “turned the Vatican into a male brothel,” was so scandalous that he was deposed, not once but twice.

The Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries featured a set of intelligent, sophisticated and corrupt popes who did not let their spiritual duties get in the way of having a good time. When Pietro Barbo, who was beautiful and knew it, was elected pope in 1464 he announced that he wished to be called Formosus (“beautiful”). The appalled cardinals talked him out of it, and Barbo took the less pretentious name of Paul II. According to Dynes, Paul II (1464-1471) “was a collector of statuary, jewelry, and (it was said) handsome youths. Given to the most sumptuous ecclesiastical drag, he was lampooned by his enemies as ‘Our Lady of Pity.’” I must add that Paul II, like most Renaissance popes, was also a skilled administrator and an avid patron of the arts.

Two Renaissance popes of the della Rovere family were accused of “sodomy” by their political and religious enemies. Sixtus IV (r. 1471-1484), born Francesco della Rovere, was notable enough to have the Sistine Chapel named after him. Like Julius III with Innocenzo, Sixtus made his lover Petro Riario - who was also his nephew - a cardinal. According to Crompton, this time writing in his monumental history Homosexuality and Civilization, Sixtus was labeled a “sodomite” in the dispatches of the Venetian ambassador and the diaries of Vatican insiders Stefano Infessura and Johann Burchard. Another nephew, Giuliano della Rovere, later achieved infamy as the “terrible pope” Julius II (1503-1513). Best known for hiring Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of his uncle’s Chapel, the second Julius, Crompton noted, “was condemned by the Council of Pisa as ‘this sodomite, covered with shameful ulcers.’” Though the Council of Pisa, controlled by Julius’ enemies, was obviously prejudiced, it based its conclusions on “Julius’ fondness for Federigo Gonzaga, Francesco Alidosi, and other young men.” Crompton also quoted another Vatican diarist, Girolamo Priuli, who “reported that Julius disported with Ganymedes ‘without shame’ at Ostia and Città Castellana.”

In modern times Pope John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli; r. 1958-1963) and Pope Paul VI (Giovanni Battista Montini; r. 1963-1978) were thought to have been gay. Winston Leyland, in Gay Sunshine Interviews Vol. 2, attributes those popes’ relative tolerance of homosexuality to their own sexual orientation; though it could be argued that the Italian Church has traditionally been more tolerant of “sins of the flesh” than the Polish or German (or American) Churches. Paul VI was outed by the gay French author Roger Peyrefitte, in a 1976 interview in response to the pope’s antigay edicts. According to Peyrefitte, who knew his way around aristocratic circles in France and Italy, Paul VI had an active gay life while he was Archbishop of Milan. Recalling the incident in a Gay Sunshine interview, Peyrefitte revealed to the press that then-Archbishop Montini “had a relationship with a young movie actor” named Paul, whose name Montini took when he became pope. The future pope also visited “a discreet house” where he and other Milanese notables would “meet boys.” Peyrefitte’s revelations caused a sensation, and a sharp rebuttal from the horrified pope.

As we all know, both Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) and Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) went out of their way to condemn homosexuality as an “intrinsic moral evil.” What they thought of their predecessors, who practiced such an “evil,” we may never know.

Jesse Monteagudo is a freelance writer and activist who has been working for GLBT rights in South Florida for thirty years. Write him at jessemonteagudo@aol.com.