21 Gay Popes, Cardinals, and Assorted Catholic Leaders
By Jacob Ogles
While the Roman Catholic Church has long condemned homosexual acts as sinful, history nevertheless shows many of the church's leaders engaged in same-sex love. There is evidentce that of the 266 popes in history, nearly a dozen were gay, bisexual or, in one case, transgender. The following includes Catholic popes, cardinals, and archbishops who faced rumors or accusations of unorthodox orientation.
1. Joan (est. 800)
As the story of Pope Joan goes, the female religious figure was born in Mainz, Germany, and arrived in Athens disguised in men’s clothes before joining the priesthood. She made her way to Rome and rose to the level of cardinal in the church before being elected as pope. But Joan, considered by some scholars to be the first and only trans pope, apparently did not live a life of celibacy. She would be found out when she went into labor in the third year of her papacy, according to the records of Martinus Polonus. By some accounts, her son would go on become the bBishop of Ostia and have his mother, kept in isolation post-scandal, interred there. In other accounts, she was killed immediately upon being found out. It’s unclear if the story of Pope Joan should be considered a medieval urban myth, but hundreds of chronicles tell the story of the ninth-century church leader.
2. John XII (955-964)
This church leader would model his papacy on the rule of Roman Emperor Elagabolus, a potentially transgender libertine, and would host gay orgies in the papal palace, according to historian Wayne Dynes’s Encyclopedia of Homosexuality.Historians say John also had mistresses, making him the first bisexual pope.
3. Benedict IX (1033-1045; 1047-1048)
Considered by many to be the first “primarily homosexual” pope, Benedict would be accused of turning the Vatican into a “male brothel,” according to researcher Lynne Yamaguchi Fletcher. The debauchery actually led to his being deposed as pope in 1045 after Bishop Benno of Piacenza accused him of “many vile adulteries and murders,” according to historian Ernst Ludwig Dummler, but he quickly returned to power after Benno and other critics were expelled. Indeed, he would be driven from and returned to power multiple times before his excommunication in 1049.
This pope’s immediate predecessor, Pius II, once suggested that Paul, at the time an archpriest at the Vatican Basilica, be called Mary Pietissima, according to Platina’s Lives. This may have been an insinuation about a predisposition toward fancy clothes and fine things, or it could have been a intimation of the church leader’s homosexuality, the latter of which earned Paul II ink in Arno Karlen’s Sexuality and Homosexuality.
7. Sixtus IV (1471-1484)
The Sistine Chapel was named for this popular pope, and the arts patron employed famous queer artists including Botticelli. But Sixtus, born Francesco della Rovere, also would be known for favoritism, including elevating his male lover (and nephew) Petro Riaro to Cardinal, according to Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization.
Dissatisfaction with Leo’s practice of allowing the faithful to pay for sins to be forgiven contributed to Martin Luther writing his 95 Theses and starting the Protestant movement. The controversial pope also would have to deal with scandal about his sexuality, with an anonymous pamphlet circulated in Rome alleging Leo has taken multiple gay lovers. Historians Francesco Guicciardini and Paolo Giavini both recorded observations supporting the assertion, the latter noting the pope’s banter with chamberlains and young noblemen.
The pontiff before his papacy reportedly fell in love with 15-year-old Innocenzo and maintained a suspicious relationship with him. The boy would become a servant and lover to then-Cardinal Giovanni Maria del Cicchio Monte, who would raise Innocenzo to the level of cardinal after his lover became the pope.
13. Cardinal Innocenzo Ciocchi del Monte (1550-1567)
At around age 18, the favorite of Pope Julius III would be named Cardinal Nephew and serve effectively as the papal secretary. But after the death of Julius, he would return to a criminal history. Pope Pius IV had Innocenzo arrested after he killed two men in 1559, and he was banished from Rome. He would be accused in 1567 of raping two women in Brevia and be sent to a monastery, according to historian Miranda Salvador. He was eventually allowed to return to Rome but died in 1577 in disgrace.
The cardinal, who was archbishop of New York at the time of his death, was surrounded for years by rumors of his homosexuality, with biographer John Cooney stating he interviewed at least four individuals with personal knowledge of Spellman’s leanings, according to journalist Michelangelo Signorile. And biographers of notorious FBI director J. Edgar Hoover say he had a file documenting the cardinal’s sex life.
The 20th-century pope faced written accusations from professor Franco Bellegradi, a Vatican insider at the start of Paul’s papacy, that rumors of homosexuality circulated while he served as archbishop of Milan. Bellegradi says that Paul, then Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini, had been caught by police at night in street clothes while in “suspect company,” and more specifically, that he maintained a long relationship with a male actor who colored his hair red and who would later visit the pope’s Vatican apartment freely.
The archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh was accused in 2013 of having sexual relationships with four younger priests, including a relationship that went on as recently as 2009, six years after he became a cardinal, according to reports in The Scotsman.After a church investigation, O’Brien resigned the duties of cardinal in 2015.