Queer Saints 5: Gay Popes & Others

One of the many paradoxes  in the story of the church’s response to same-sex relationships, is that during the rise of direct, active persecution of “sodomites”, in Europe and in the newly establised colonies, the church included in its highest echelons popes, cardinals and senior bishops who are known to have had male lovers, as well as others who may have done, and also some who did not, but tolerated or protected others who did. These are not in any sense to be regarded as “saints”, but they do present evidence that same-sex adventures or interests, were not always a barrier advancement to high church office.

Among the popes, there is little room for doubt about some, for whom the historical record is clear. There’s the notable and embarrassing death of  Paul II (1464 – 1471) for instance.  Sixtus IV (1471-84) appointed one of the young men he favoured as Cardinal archbishop of Parma, in part on account of his “gifts of the spirit and the body“. , Leo X ( 1513-1521). Julius III (1550-1555) was another who was notorious for having appointed a young lover ( Innocenzo Ciocchi Del Monte, aged only 17) as cardinal.
For others, such as  Boniface, Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503),  Benedict IX and John XII (r. 955-964), the evidence is less clear.  Julius II (1503-1513) was widely rumoured to have had many homosexual liaisons, Whether or not they were well-founded, what is beyond doubt, is that he commissioned Michaelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel. Julius’s enthusiastic patronage of Michelangelo’s homoerotic depictions of the male figure also indicates that he may have fully appreciated the physical beauties of men.
Among other early popes who notably tolerated or protected people accused of homosexual practices, we should remember Pope Callistus, who was harshly criticized by Tertullian for his failure to condemn sex between men; Pope Leo IX, who implemented many of St Peter Damian’ s proposals for church reform, but rejected the appeals for harsh penalties against clerical “sodomites”, and also rejected appeals to prevent the consecration as bishop of the promiscuous John (or Jean) of Orleans. Later, Paul III (1534 -49) is said to have protected and bestowed honours on his son, Pier Luigi Farnese, who surrounded himself with male lovers, used Roman police to track down a young man who had spurned his advances, and was accused of raping a bishop and other clerics.
A passage from the glbtq archives is fascinating for the very different picture it paints to that prevailing elsewhere, at a time when the inquisition and secular powers were burning between them thousands of men across Europe and in the New World:
The papacy generally revealed in practice a relatively tolerant attitude to sexual “deviation.” Within the Papal States, penalties against sodomy were enforced less rigorously than in many other territories. By the fifteenth century, Rome had developed a vibrant subculture of men who enjoyed sexual relationships with other men. (The situation of women in Rome is less well documented.)
Thus, throughout the early modern era, men found refuge in Rome from the harsh punishment of sodomy, which was more “routine” in northern Europe and which was also vigorously prosecuted in Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Although popes at least acquiesced in the prosecutions under the Inquisition, the persecution of sodomites probably resulted from local animus and zeal rather than from directives from Rome. Protestant reformers consistently condemned papal toleration of homosexual acts.


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