06/14/2013 01:30 pm ET Updated Aug 14, 2013

The Carnival Is Over

In the late '90s, I lived in the Catholic theological seminary in Mainz, a city in the Southwest of Germany. The seminary, nicknamed "the box," was housed in the city's old Augustinian monastery. Daily life was reminiscent of the atmosphere of an all-boys school: We were human -- all too human -- and rarely wild but often immature. Each month, all members of the seminary would come together for a general assembly, which was an attempt to introduce a democratic element to the organization of our communal life. Most assemblies dragged on forever and offered little substantive discussion.

It was a point of pride in Mainz to point out that students had received personal keys to the seminary as early as the 1960s; increased freedoms for future priests were emblematic of the spirit of the time. To be completely honest, seminary officials availed themselves of a simple trick: They gave out keys to the bike shed, which happened to unlock the main doors as well. It was a bit of casuistry, executed with the ingenuity for which Catholics are famous.

Celibacy was a topic of discussion almost every day. We studied at the city's Johannes-Gutenberg University alongside theology students who aspired to teach religion in high school, who wanted to become active in their local Catholic organizations, or who seemed to have wandered into the lecture hall entirely by accident. This implied an inevitable confrontation with members of the same sex and the opposite sex and with one's own sexual desires. It was an open secret within the seminary who was gay and who wasn't. Then there were the asexuals, a (medically inaccurate) description used for those young men who seemed to never have wasted a thought on the topic of their sexuality. Homosexuals and asexuals were present in roughly equal numbers. Heterosexual students constituted the smallest of the three groups.

Many students had to wrestle honestly and sincerely with their commitment to celibacy. Many, including myself, eventually came to the decision that a celibate life wasn't for them. A small minority also engaged in "sinful" practices during our time at the seminary; they had sex regularly or even maintained intimate relationships. Sometimes the seminary leadership was aware of the violations of the oath of celibacy, sometimes it wasn't. Sometimes disciplinary action was taken, and sometimes the breaches were tolerated.

Now we learn that Pope Francis allegedly said that the Vatican -- which, to be honest, is like a theological seminary blown up to the size of a city-state -- is filled with gays, with queer networks and with a culture of granting professional favors to each other. Yet the pope has decided to clean up his shop. He is quoted as saying, "the carnival is over."

In Germany, the journalist Daniel Deckers, writing for the esteemed Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, describes the culture of homosexuality within the Vatican in drastic words:

The cult over expensive robes and lavish lace, the culture of devout worship that is infused with all kinds of erotic connotations, the asexual imagery of Mary and the excessive worship of relics are the public and - since the liturgical resurgence during the reign of Benedict XVI - papally sanctioned counterparts to a private world in which the worship of relics morphs into fetishism: the worship of Mary becomes the admiration of under-weight models and prepubescent singers; women are as banned from the altar room as they are banned from an all-male sauna or from the darkroom; the ornate Sunday mass with golden brocade and lace robes comes to resemble a queer ballet performance.

I have never once heard a member of the seminary argue that holy mass is akin to queer theater and sexually stimulating in one way or another. References to relics probably indicate necrophilia rather than hemophilia. And I still don't understand Deckers' claim that homosexual men secretly lust for female models or young singers. Or is he talking about people with an androgynous look, for whom some gay men might have a preference? The passage quoted above is filled to the brim with homophobic clichés.

In 1998 and 1999 I continued my studies in Rome at the Papal Gregoriana University. Homosexuality was a known feature of student life there. But while German seminaries had learned to discuss the issue -- a legacy of the '68 student movement and the cultural liberation it represented -- Italians didn't quite know how to approach it. Homosexuality was still a social taboo in Italy in the late 1990s! I used to sing in a choir in the Capella Giulia near St. Peter during the Sunday vespers, and it seemed that the confines of the choir were the only refuge where homosexual students could interact with each other. Those who weren't gay tolerated it.

It was truly an upside-down world: Homosexuals in Italy were protected from discrimination as long as they stayed within the culture of the Church -- despite the fact that official Catholic doctrine rejected homosexuality. I never experienced homosexuals as aroused by brocade and lace robes. Instead, their quest was one of mutual assurance before they returned to a life with a wife and kids, a life that was ultimately built on lies about themselves. At the Gregoriana University, things sometimes got "tight" in every sense of the world: It was well known that certain bathrooms stalls weren't used for their intended purpose.

Why are many men attracted to the life of a priest? Surely it's not because priestly robes remind them of the dresses that many of them would secretly like to wear, as Mr. Deckers insinuates. The priesthood protects homosexuals from inquisitive neighbors, friends or family members, who demand to know why there's no girlfriend or no plan to get married. Not every country is as tolerant of homosexuals as Germany: Russia recently passed a new piece of homosexual legislation (that description alone sounds derogatory), which imposes further restrictions. Words like "gay" and "queer" are still used as insults even in tolerant liberal cultures.

What would happen to the Church if "the carnival is really over"? The number of priests would continue to decline. But one of the more unfortunate attributes of Catholicism is that many practicing Catholics arrange themselves with their circumstances a bit too easily by shutting their eyes and closing their ears. By circumstances, I mean casuistry -- and in this case, criticism of homosexual networks as a synonym for bigotry. Most of us Catholics have grown up with a whole arsenal of jokes about the infidelity of priests, and we have laughed hard about them. A joke can remove tension; it's the proverbial hole that lets the truth come out. And, as the Lord says, the truth renders us free (John 8:32). So maybe having a bit of a network in Rome isn't such a bad thing.