The critical success of the Showtime television series “The Borgias” has renewed interest in the men who historian E. R. Chamberlin called “the bad popes.” Of course not all the popes were bad. There have been 265 popes - from St. Peter to Benedict XVI - and they include good popes, bad popes and mediocre popes. But the bad popes are often more interesting. One of them, who was so notorious that he merited his own entry (by historian Louis Crompton) in glbtq.com, was Pope Julius III (ruled 1550-1555). Famous as “a skilled expert in canon law” and a patron of the arts, Julius also “created one of the most notorious homosexual scandals in the history of the papacy.” While still Cardinal Giovanni Maria del Monte the pontiff fell in love with a 15-year old named Innocenzo. Two years later del Monte, now Pope, made Innocenzo a cardinal and his “chief diplomatic and political agent.” Though Church scholars insist that Julius’ interest in Innocenzo was strictly platonic, Crompton quotes the Venetian ambassador to the Holy See, who reported that the young Ganymede “shared the pope’ bedroom and bed.” Not surprisingly, Cardinal 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, most of who were priests, were also 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 (955-964), Benedict IX (1033-1045; 1047-1048), John XXII (1316-1334), Paul II (1464-1471), Sixtus IV (1471-1484), Julius II (1503-1513) and Leo X (1513-1521), along with Julius III, in his list of “gay popes.” Garde and his book must be taken with a rock of salt, for he also included in his list Alexander VI (1492-1503), the Borgia Pope, who was portrayed in history (and on television) as very heterosexual. Even so, Garde’s list leads us to conclude that some of the popes ignored the Church’s rule against homosexuality to the extent that they practiced it themselves.
John XII according to Dynes, “modeled himself on the scandalous Roman emperor Heliogabalus, holding homosexual orgies in the papal 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 “the first pope known to be primarily homosexual,” if only for having “turned the Vatican into a male brothel.” 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 “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, born Francesco della Rovere, made his nephew Petro Riario - who was also his lover - a cardinal. According to Crompton, this time in his monumental Homosexuality and Civilization, Sixtus was labeled a sodomite in the dispatches by the always astute Venetian ambassador and in the diaries of Vatican insiders Stefano Infessura and Johann Burchard. Another nephew, Giuliano della Rovere, known to history as the “terrible pope” Julius II, “was condemned by the Council of Pisa as ‘this sodomite, covered with shameful ulcers.’” The Council based its conclusions on “Julius’s 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.’”
In modern times Pope John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli; 1958-1963) and Pope Paul VI (Giovanni Battista Montini; 1963-1978) were suspected of being gay. Winston Leyland, in Gay Sunshine Interviews Vol. 2, attributed these 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 Irish-American Churches. Paul VI was outed by the gay French writer Roger Peyrefitte, in a 1976 interview he did in response to that pope’s antigay edicts. According to Peyrefitte, who knew his way around aristocratic circles in France and Italy, Paul VI led an active gay life while he was still Archbishop of Milan. Recalling the incident in a Gay Sunshine interview, Peyrefitte recalled that 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 Vatican.
All this leads us to the current Pope, Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger; 1205-). Though “Papa Ratzi” is best-known for his antigay pronouncements, in 2010 the gay (and Catholic) writer Andrew Sullivan wrote a column arguing for the pontiff”s homosexuality. Sullivan noted the pope’s “prissy fastidiousness, the effeminate voice, the fixation on liturgy and ritual, and the over-the-top clothing accessories” and his intimate relationship with Georg Gaenswein, the handsome Bavarian priest whom the pope made his personal secretary. All this is speculation of course; and there is no reason to believe that Benedict XVI is gay. In fact, given his entrenched homophobia, I would rather that he wasn’t.