For the month of Gay Pride (in church), it would be great if we we could simply celebrate a list of unambiguously gay popes – but we can’t. This is not because they don’t exist (there were undoubtedly several popes whom we know had physical relationships with men), but because of the inadequacies of language, and the weakness of the historical record over something so deeply personal, especially among the clergy. Both of these difficulties are exemplified by Mark Jordan’s use of the phrase, “Papal Sodomites”. In medieval terms, a “sodomite” was one of utmost abuse, which meant far more than just the modern “homosexual”. It could also include, bestiality, or heresy, or withcraft, and (in England, after the Reformation) “popery”, which is deeply ironic, and hence treason.
So in the years before libel laws and carefully controlled democratic institutions, accusations of “sodomy” were a useful slander for the powerful to throw at their political enemies. Some at least of the charges against the popes will have been without foundation. We just don’t know, and probably never will, which of these charges were simply malicious. On the other hand, the historical facts around some of the others are clear.
In the modern world, the problem is somewhat different. There have been clear reports and claims that at least two modern popes have had male lovers, but in the deeply closeted world of the Vatican, these claims remain as yet not conclusively proven (not have they been clearly refuted).
Still, it is worth considering both those are definitely known to have had male lovers, as well as those who may have done, and also those who did not, but tolerated or protected others.
About Paul II (1464 – 1471) Sixtus IV ( 1471-84), Julius II (1503-1513), Leo X ( 1513-1521), and Julius III (1550-1555) there is little room for doubt: the historical record is clear.
About Boniface, Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503), Benedict IX and John XII (r. 955-964) the evidence is less certain.
Among the early popes who notable 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.com 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 thousans 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.
In the modern period, there have been claims that Pope John XXIII was preparing a gentler teaching on same sex relationships before his death, that Jon Paul I in his brief papacy promoted a gentler approach and may have had some gay experience in his past, and that Pope Paul VI had an extensive history of homosexual affairs in his early career.
Vatican apologists will no doubt acknowledge that there have been times when appallingly inappropriate men occupied the papacy, especially in the scandalous centuries before the Counter-Reformation. However, Leo IX at least is regarded as one of a great wave of reforming popes from the 11th and 12th centuries. More importantly, it is central to Vatican claims of supremacy and authority that by apostolic succession, they are the direct representatives of Christ on earth. If this argument is valid, what possible reason can there be for assuming that the harsh arguments espoused by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI should carry any more weight than the example of their predecessors?