THE BLOG
10/28/2013 07:24 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

The First Gay Pope

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When Newsweek famously dubbed Barack Obama "the first gay president" of the United States, the magazine was wrong on two counts: Obama isn't gay, and at least one gay president preceded him. That would be James Buchanan, whose life partner was William Rufus King, the 13th vice-president. Newsweek's phrase didn't really refer to Obama's own sexuality, of course, but to his positive attitude toward gay people and his support for gay causes, which eventually included gay marriage. So should Pope Francis likewise be considered "the first gay pope"?

So far, at least, Francis' outreach to gay people has been quite tentative, and it is only remarkable in its contrast to the conservative attitudes and pronouncements of his predecessors. So Francis is not Obama-style gay, and he's not the first literally gay pope, either: As far as anyone knows, he's not gay himself, and there have been plenty of truly gay popes before him.

So who was the first gay pope? There's a whole litany of popes who were notorious for their licentious behavior with men or boys, such as the 15th-century Pope Paul II, who is said to have died of a stroke while being sodomized by a male page. But those "party popes" don't interest me as much as the gay popes who refrained from sexual behavior, in conformity with the church's teachings regarding priestly celibacy and chastity. These popes are forever lost to history, so I made one up: Pope Stephen II, who held office from 752 to 757. He's the central character in my just-published novel, The Donation of Constantine.

The real Stephen II played a key role in turning the papacy into a major political power in medieval Europe, and the story of that transformation is colorful enough: It was achieved by conspiracy, a winter crossing of the Alps, and some splendidly blood-drenched battles. But in my imagination, Stephen was also blessed with homosexual tendencies. These never found expression in physical sex, but his attraction to a curly-haired Muslim slave, and what he learned from that youth about the history of Islam, was the trigger that empowered him to lead the church in a radically new direction -- one that saved Rome and the papacy from destruction.

In the Catholic Church's eyes, celibacy is to be valued mainly because it avoids the distractions of lust or sexual relationships: It allows priests to "adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart," in the words of Canon Law. But I agree with Sigmund Freud (for once) in his belief that the sex drive is the powerhouse behind action in many spheres of life, and not just in those that we easily recognize as sexual. And this is true regardless of whether we're talking about a heterosexual or a homosexual orientation.

Although we may not be able to see how this works out in the lives of popes, some lowlier members of the Catholic Church have led slightly more transparent lives. I'm thinking of, for example, the Victorian poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, who is believed to have been gay but celibate. It's not hard to see how his sexuality fueled both his ministry and his creativity, even though these two parts of him were often at war with each other; read a poem like "Felix Randal" to get a sense of that.

How far this all is from everyday discourse about homosexuality in the Catholic Church -- from priests fondling choirboys in the sacristy, or the doings of secret cabals of Vatican prelates! No, the real Catholic homosexuality, like Catholic heterosexuality, is something to be honored and celebrated, whether in the sex lives of workaday Catholics or in the devout minds of celibate popes -- past or present.