The name “Borghese” will be familiar to many art lovers and tourists in Italy from the name “Villa Borghese”, the palace which was designed by the architect Flaminio Ponzo from sketches by Cardinal Borghese himself, and which housed his impressive art collection.
The mere existence of this collection and its magnificence poses important questions about the institutional Catholic Church. What does this vast wealth that this collection represented, have to do with pastoral care, outreach to the poor, or preaching the Gospels? The questions become even murkier in the light of its manner of acquisition:
In 1607, the Pope gave the Cardinal 107 paintings which had been confiscated from the studio of the painter Cavalier D’Arpino. In the following year, Raphael’s Deposition was removed by force from the Baglioni Chapel in the church of San Francesco in Perugia and transported to Rome to be given to the Cardinal Scipione through a papal motu proprio.
At this site, however, I am not interested in exploring the iniquities of the historical church. Instead, what interests me here is the nature of the artists and the works in the collection. Several commentaries of the collection note its substantial number of clearly homoerotic works, and he bestowed direct patronage on several well -known homosexual artists – Caravaggio the best-known among them.
He was also implicated in numerous scandals around his homosexual interests, including a close friendship with one Stefano Pignatelli, who acquired such a strong influence over Borghese that the Pope banished him entirely. Borghese thereupon fell into a long and serious illness, from which he only recovered once his dear friend was eventually allowed to return.
Pope Paul V then made the best of a bad job with Pignatelli, and made him a cardinal.
Although the implications are clear, and contemporary allegations plentiful, there appears to be little hard evidence for a specifically sexual relationship between Borghese and Pignatelli. If there was such a relationship though, Pignatelli will not have been the first to owe his cardinal’s red hat to sexual favours granted.
This is how it is described in Aldrich & Wetherspoon, “Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History from Antiquity to WWII”
He was adopted by his uncle who, when became pope with the name Paul V, made him Cardinal at age 29. His uncle’s favour allowed Borgese to accumulate an immense fortune, which he used to acquire which he used to acquire the vast land-holdings where he built Villa Borghese, now one of the most important Museums in Rome.
Scipione was oriented towards his own sex, and this led to full-blown scandals. In 1605, soon after being made a cardinal, Borghese wanted to bring to Rome Stefano Pignattelli, his intimate “friend”.
Paul V compelled Stefano to move out of Shipone’s house, but the cardinal doubled his love for his friend and succumbed to a severe melancholy which resuletd in a long and serious illness. Only when Stefano was allowed to return to Rome to look after Scipione, did the cardinal recover.
Shipione’s uncle the pope, thereupon decided that in order to keep a check on Pignattelli he must co-opt, rather than combat, him. He had Stefano ordained, the beginning of a carreer which led to his becoming a cardinal in 1621. But Stefano died in 1623. Scipione died ten years later.
In 2003, The Rt. Rev.V. Gene Robinson was elected bishop of the diocese of New Hampshire, making him the first openly gay Episcopal bishop. His ordination caused a global rift within the Episcopal Church and led to international debate about the inclusion of gay clergy in church hierarchy. In the weeks leading up to his consecration, Robinson received hate mail and death threats, triggering the FBI to place him under 24-hour protection.
Gene Robinson grew up outside Lexington, Kentucky. The son of poor tobacco sharecroppers, he was raised without running water or indoor plumbing. He recalls his childhood as rustic and religious, with Sunday school and services at a small Disciples of Christ congregation.
Robinson earned his bachelor’s degree in American studies from the University of the South and his Master of Divinity from the Episcopal General Theological Seminary in New York. He was ordained a priest in 1973.
Despite doubts about his sexual orientation, Robinson married in 1972. He and his wife moved to New Hampshire where they raised two daughters. Robinson worked as youth ministries coordinator for the seven dioceses of New England and cofounded the national Episcopal Youth Event. Robinson divorced his wife and came out in the mid-1980’s.
Robinson is the coauthor of three AIDS education curricula. In Uganda, he helped set up a national peer counseling program for AIDS educators working with religious institutions.
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force honored Robinson with a Leadership Award in 2004. In 2007, he received the Flag Bearer Award from Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) for leadership and inclusion in faith communities.
In 2008, Bishop Robinson and Mark Andrew, partners for more than 19 years, exchanged vows in a civil union ceremony in New Hampshire.
Bishop Mary Glasspool has now been consecrated as a bishop in the diocese of Los Angeles, making her the second openly gay bishop in the Episcopal church. Some sources are describing her as the second gay bishop in history” – but that would be pushing it, and is breathtaking in its cultural myopia.
So, for context and a refresher once again of how deeply homoerotic relationships have been embedded in the Christian church, I offer some reminders. Mary Glasspool is the first openly lesbian bishop in the Episcopal church, but not the first lesbian bishop globally: That would be Bishop Eva Brunne, consecrated by the Swedish Lutherans last year (2009).
Popular reports name Bishop Gene Robinson as the first gay bishop, but that’s oversimplifying. He was the first modern bishop in the Anglican communion to be consecrated while openly gay, but there have been others before him who came out openly after being named bishop – for example, Otis Charles, also of Utah, Derek Rawcliffe of Glasgow and Galloway in the Scottish Episcopalian church, and Mervyn Castle of False Bay (part of the Archdiocese of Cape Town in the Anglican, “Church of the Province of South Africa”).
In the days of the early church, Bishop Paulinus of Nola not only had a boyfriend, he commemorated his love in some frankly erotic love poetry. Bishop Venantius Fortunatus was another. Both of these men are canonized saints. Bishop Arno of Salzburg may not have written erotic verse, but he received some, from Saint Alcuin of Tours. (He also had a relationship with Paulinus, as did Alcuin, in some kind of clerical threesome). Bishop Marbod of Rennes (11th century) also wrote erotic verse to a boyfriend, but was not canonized. Other early bishops also had male lovers, but because they are not remembered as saints, and have not left memorable erotic verse, we do not know their details.
We do know about the ordination of one openly gay bishop, John of Orleans, in the eleventh century, at the instigation of his lover Ralph, the Archbishop of Tours, because of the scandal it caused. This scandal was not because John was both gay and famously promiscuous, but because of his youth and Ralph’s obvious nepotism. How many other openly gay bishops were consecrated at that time without the same scandal, we just don’t know.
Clouding the issue of “gay” bishops is one of terminology, especially against a background of monastic celibacy. There are strong grounds for describing another recognised saint, Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury, as “gay”, even if celibate, on the basis of his writing and passionate love letters to his monastic “friends”. He should definitely be remembered as a protector of gays, for rejecting a decision by the London synod to impose harsh penalties for homosexual actions.
Then are the succession of gay popes: Julius II, Julius III, Paul II, and possibly John XII (r. 955-964), Benedict IX (r. 1033-1045; 1047-1048), John XXII (r. 1316-34), Paul II (r. 1464-1471), Sixtus IV (r. 1471-1484), Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503), Julius II (r. 1503-1513) and Leo X (r. 1513-1521) (See Jesse’s Journal at Gay Today).
In the modern Catholic Church , there have been no openly gay bishops or popes, but there have certainly been many in the closet. There are credible claims that that Paul VI may have had his share of boyfriends, at least before becoming pope, and similar suggestions that the “Smiling Pope“, John Paul I, may have been gay. And on Wiki Answers, there is a claim that Pope Benedict himself is gay.
Then there are certainly hundreds of closeted gay bishops in the Catholic Church. The late Cardinal Spellman of New York was notorious in his day. Allegations have been made against Cardinal Wuerl of Washington and others who surround themselves with obviously gay fan clubs – while publicly attacking LGBT equality.
I accept that hard as it is to be openly gay as a Catholic priest, it will be obviously that much harder as a bishop. But I do wish journalists, who undoubtedly have the required evidence, would be less reticent about outing those gay bishops who are publicly hostile. If it is too much to hope that we in the Catholic Church can expect any time soon to see bishops coming out publicly to join their Episcopal and Lutheran counterparts, perhaps the threat of involuntary outing could at least dampen their public hostility to civil rights advances.