The Vatican is facing accusations of homophobia after failing to deny claims that France’s new choice of ambassador to the Holy See has effectively been rejected because of his sexuality.
Laurent Stefanini, the openly gay diplomat at the centre of the row, was nominated as ambassador to the Vatican by France’s council of ministers on 5 January. He should by now have filled the post left when Bruno Jouvert departed the position at the end of February.
But with the Vatican still failing to confirm that it has accepted the new ambassador, French and Italian newspapers are widely reporting that Mr Stefanini’s sexuality is connected to his apparent rejection by the city state.
In France, Le Journal du Dimanche quoted a Vatican insider as saying that the rejection was “a decision taken by the Pope himself”. The daily newspaper Libération headlined its article on the story: “The Pope tarnishes his image”.
In pictures: 'The many popes of Pope Francis'
In pictures: 'The many popes of Pope Francis'
1/12 The Pro-Gay Pope
In just a year, Pope Francis has managed to change the public perception of the Catholic Church, and the stance it takes on civil issues, like gay rights. Despite originally protesting the legalisation of gay marriage in his native Argentina some years ago, he told reporters this year: “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?”
2/12 The Rebel Pope
No other Pope has urged a shake-up of the Catholic Church quite like Pope Francis, a true rebel of the dioceses. Who, incidentally, used to be a night club bouncer.
3/12 The Graffiti Pope
Pope Francis become... SUPER POPE in this Vatican-approved street art. But was he happy with the reference to the fictional DC comic character?"To depict the pope as a sort of superman, a sort of star, seems offensive to me. The pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps tranquilly and has friends like everyone else, a normal person," he said. So, that's a no, then.
4/12 The Biker Pope
Yes, the Pope used to own a Harley Davidson. And yes, he auctioned it off this year and donated the proceeds to a charity that feeds the hungry in Rome. Very Papal.
5/12 The ‘Blue’ Pope
Dropping the 'F' bomb during Sunday service? Classic Pope Francis. Sadly, down to a Spanish-speaking slip of the Italian language rather than pure bad-assery.
6/12 The ‘Because I’m Worth It’ Pope
That awkward moment when your Papal hat blows off, forcing your barnet into Sesame Street-like spikes. Pope Francis has been there.
7/12 The Chocolate Pope
Imagine the Pope's delight (horror?) when he was presented with a giant chocolate replica of himself outside the Vatican by by students on a chocolatier course at the Accademia of Maestri Cioccolatieri, near Venice.
8/12 The Rock Star pope
The one and only religious leader ever to grace the cover of Rolling Stone magazine? Introducing... Pope Francis.
9/12 The People’s Pope
His U-turn attitude towards sexuality won him Time magazine's coveted Person of the Year accolade, and the cover of gay rights magazine The Advocate.
10/12 The Merchandise Pope
Thongs, mugs, onesies, earrings and even a baby mobile adorned with decapitated Pope heads, the 'Francis Effect' has seen sales of Papal merchandise soar by 200% over the last year.
11/12 The Fashion Pope
The only Pope, as far as we're aware, to be compared to fashion royalty (Karl Lagerfeld. Yes way.) and win Esquire's Most Stylish Man of 2013 award, too.
12/12 The Modern Pope
Let it be said, Pope Francis knows a thing or two about social media. He might be a way off 'doing a Dalai' and opting for Instagram, but he's not above posing for the odd 'Selfie' on Twitter.
Asked by The Independent if Mr Stefanini’s sexuality had led to his rejection, a spokesman for the Vatican said: “We have no comment to make.”
A French foreign ministry source said, however, that Mr Stefanini, 55, a practising Catholic, remained “the best possible candidate for the role”.
A Vatican source told the Catholic News Service in 2009: “For Catholic ambassadors, there is the question of their matrimonial situation. But outside of that, I don’t think there are other criteria.”
Italian media have been quick to remind Francis of comments about gays he made in 2013, which seemed to indicate a shift in attitude from his ultra-conservative predecessor Pope Benedict: “If someone is gay and is looking for the Lord, who am I to judge him? You should not discriminate against or marginalise these people, and the Catechism says this as well,” Francis told journalists.
More recently, though, Francis has spoken in opposition to gay marriage and has declared that though he believes homosexual orientation is not sinful, homosexual acts are.
Liberal Catholics’ hopes for a more inclusive church were further dashed last October when an interim synod report on social issues, which stated that gay people had “gifts and qualities to offer” was watered down drastically by the time the final version appeared, following a fierce backlash by conservative bishops.
Commentators have noted the Vatican’s history when it comes to of blackballing diplomats from overseas.
In 2008 it blocked the appointment of gay French diplomat Jean-Loup Kuhn-Delforge as ambassador to the Vatican. And in 2012 the Vatican rejected Bulgaria’s choice of ambassador to the Holy See because, it was claimed, he had written a novel containing a gay sex scene.
The Bulgarian diplomat Kiril Marichkov, a lawyer who speaks Italian and four other languages, and who is married to an Italian woman, appeared to be an ideal choice to take over as Sofia’s man at the Vatican.
But it emerged that Archbishop Janusz Bolonek, the Pope’s representative in the Bulgarian capital, wrote to his superiors highlighting the offending part of the novel, which was a finalist for an annual literary award in his native country.