Since the Vatican is a global institution, understanding it often requires at least a passing familiarity with a few foreign languages. Italian is a no-brainer, Latin still helps, and in the Pope Francis era, Spanish gives you a leg up, too — especially Porteño, the brand of Spanish spoken in Francis’ native Buenos Aires.
Perhaps the most challenging language, however, is what one might call “Vaticanese,” referring to a frequently bewildering cluster of terms and phrases that have taken shape in and around the place, and often mean something only to insiders.
One recent entry in that lexicon is “gay lobby,” which emerged during the first Vatican leaks scandal under Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 and still pops up in Italian tabloid headlines and water-cooler chatter.
Shortly after his election, Francis reportedly said he had to “see what we can do” about this “gay lobby” in an informal session with leaders of men’s religious orders. More recently, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, coordinator of the pope’s council of cardinal advisors, told a newspaper that there is, indeed, such a “gay lobby,” and that Francis is trying to chip away at it.
Here’s the confusing thing: When Italians say “gay lobby,” they don’t mean “lobby” in the conventional political sense, and they often don’t really mean “gay” in the sense that sex has much to do with it.
For Americans, a “lobby” is a political pressure group with a clear set of aims. We think of the National Rifle Association’s fight against gun control, for instance, or Planned Parenthood’s defense of abortion rights.
Yet when Italians say there’s a “gay lobby” in the Vatican, they don’t mean an organized faction with the aim of changing Church teaching on homosexuality or same-sex marriage.
Instead, what they have in mind is an informal, loosely organized network of clergy who support one another, keep one another’s secrets, and help one another move up the ladder. The group is perceived to have a vested interest in thwarting attempts at reform, since they benefit from secrecy and old-guard ways.
It’s called “gay” because, the theory goes, a Vatican official’s homosexuality can be a very powerful secret, especially if he’s sexually active, and threatening to expose him can be an effective way of keeping him in line. It’s hardly the only such possibility, however, and, in any event, the emphasis is not on sex but secrecy, as well as the related impression of people getting promoted or decisions being made on the basis of personal quid pro quos.
That’s not to say that the perception of a widespread presence of gays in the clergy isn’t a strong part of the picture, especially in light of the furor last fall over Polish Monsignor Krzysztof Charamsa, the former Vatican official who outed himself on the brink of a controversial Synod of Bishops on the family.
Yet the speculation over a “lobby” isn’t really about sexual orientation, but the impression of a system in which people living personally conflicted lives look out for one another. In that sense, the term “gay lobby” is often synonymous for Italian-speakers with corruption, secrecy, and a sleazy sort of personal patronage.
Think about it this way: Suppose you have two Vatican officials, one of whom is an embezzler and another who’s made dubious deals to climb the ladder. They come to learn of one another’s secrets, and forge an alliance to help each other and to expand their influence.
Most Italians would say they’re members of the “gay lobby,” even though neither man may be gay.
Thus, for instance, when Italians float the popular conspiracy theory that Pope Benedict XVI was brought down by the “gay lobby,” they don’t mean a group that targeted Benedict on the basis of his views on gay rights, or that it was only gay clergy involved.
Instead, they mean that a shadowy old boy’s network with skeletons in the closet was afraid of Benedict’s desire for “purification,” and did what it could to hamper and sabotage him — some members of which may be gay, but certainly not all.
That’s the sense in which many Italians are still convinced that Paolo Gabriele, the ex-papal butler convicted and later pardoned for stealing documents off Benedict’s desk and leaking them to journalists, was a patsy acting for the “gay lobby.”
Similarly, when people — occasionally including the pontiff himself — say that Francis is attempting to eradicate the “gay lobby,” they don’t mean he’s launching a witch hunt against gay clergy, or that he’s drawing lines in the sand against changing doctrine.
Instead, in Vaticanese, “gay lobby” is a placeholder term for all sorts of corruption and mutual back-scratching, and “taking it on” means a drive for transparency, accountability, and doing things in the full light of day rather than under the cover of darkness.
So, in sum: The Vatican’s supposed “gay lobby” is not a lobby, and it’s not exclusively about being gay. No wonder it’s a head-scratcher for people who don’t follow the place … and sometimes, even for those who do.