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21 Gay Popes, Cardinals, and Assorted Catholic Leaders

21 Gay Popes, Cardinals, and Assorted Catholic Leaders


Take a look at some of the queer leaders of one the world's most influential organized religions.

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 evidence 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.02-john-xii2. 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.03-benedict-ix3. 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 1049.04-boniface-viii4. Boniface VIII (1294-1303)
King Philip IV of France, an enemy of the pope, would dispatch spies to gather information on Boniface, and based on reports from Roman aristocrats, he would publicly accuse the pope of sodomy, according to Who's Who in Gay and Lesbian History: From Antiquity to World War II.05-john-xxii5. John XXII (1316-1334)
While there's less bountiful evidence than with other popes, John XXII made the list of gay popes included in Noel Garde's 1964 tome Jonathan to Gide: The Homsexual in History.06-paul-ii6. Paul II (1464-1471)
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.07-sixtus-iv7. 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.08-alexander-vi8. Alexander VI (1492-1503)
Known to modern audiences for his portrayal by Jeremy Irons in The Borgias, Alexander VI has generally been regarded by history as the most morally bankrupt pope in the church's history, thanks among other things to the wild orgies over which he would preside. He was believed to have sired at least eight illegitimate children, but the Florentine friar Savonarola also accused the pope of having same-sex affairs. Alexander had Savonarola killed, but upon his own death, the church would deem the pope too scandalous and violent a figure to be buried at St. Peter's Basilica.09-julius-ii-9. Julius II (1503-1513)
Prevailing sexual mores didn't bind Julius II, who infamously issued a dispensation to Henry VIII to marry the previously wedded Catherine of Aragon. More personally revealing, the bisexual pope was the first known to contract syphilis, and he reportedly fathered children by at least one mistress. In 1511, the church brought charges against the pope of committing lewd sex acts with male prostitutes.10-leo-x10. Leo X (1513-1521)
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.11-captain-general-pier-luigi11. Captain General Pier Luigi (1537-1547)
Believed to be the illegitimate son of Pope Paul III, Pier Luigi Farnese was named as Captain General of the Church. In that post, he would keep a regiment of male lovers and use Roman police to keep tabs on men who refused his advances. He also would be plagued by accusations of raping bishops and other clergy in the Vatican. Eventually, he was stabbed to death Caesar-style by a conspiracy of enemies who hanged his body from a window of the plaza at Piacenza.Gay Popes12. Julius III (1550-1555)
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.Gay Popes13. 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.Gay Popes14. Cardinal Carlo Carafa (1555-1559)
The nephew of Pope Paul IV, the Italian cardinal likely had a relationship with a young man named Ascanio that would be immortalized in a poem by Joachim du Bellay. Pro-French opponents of the cardinal would allege other same-sex affairs as well that would be reported to the pope, who would eventually exile his relative. In 1567, new Pope Pius V would rehabilitate Carafa and allow him to be entombed by his uncle.Gay Popes15. Cardinal Henry Benedict Stuart (1803-1807)
The Cardinal of York would be recorded in history as the last Stuart pretender to the English throne. Writer Guiseppi Gorani reported that the cardinal showed little discretion about numerous affairs with men. "His palace seemed to me to be filled with young men of a very comely appearance, dressed as abbots," Gorani wrote. "This led me to suspect that this Royal Eminence could have the taste with which some of his brethren are accused."Gay Popes16. Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman (1939-1967)
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.Gay Popes17. John XXIII (1958-1963)
Credited with modernizing Catholic dogma with Vatican II, the '60s-era pope has frequently been compared to Pope Francis as having a socially progressive outlook for his time. The Gay Sunshine Interviews, Vol. 2 suggested that the more tolerant view of homosexuality decreed by John may have stemmed from his sexual orientation.Gay Popes18. Paul VI (1963-1978)
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.19-archbishop-rembert-weakland-ap19. Archbishop Rembert Weakland (1977-2002)
The Wisconsin archbishop resigned from the church in 2002 amid allegations he'd used $450,000 in archdiocesan funds to pay a sexual harassment settlement. In 2009, he would come out in a memoir as gay.20-juan-carlos-maccarone-ap20. Archbishop Juan Carlos Maccarone (1996-2005)
The Buenes Aires-born Maccarone became Bbishop of Chascomus in 1996 and then was nominated as bishop of Santiago del Estero in 1999. But the Argentine church leader would become embroiled in scandal in 2005 when a video surfaced of him engaged in sex with another man. The scandal led quickly to the archbishop's resignation.21-cardinal-keith-obrien21. Cardinal Keith O'Brien (1985-2013)
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.

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