ROME — It must be hard to be the pope sometimes. You are either damned if you do—like when he speaks his mind—or damned if you don’t, as in the latest scandal rattling the Vatican, in which Pope Francis stands accused of nixing France’s ambassadorial candidate to the Holy See because he is gay.
On Jan. 5, French President Francois Hollande offered Laurent Stefanini’s curriculum vitae to succeed former Ambassador Bruno Jouber, who has moved on to another position within the French embassy. Generally, the Vatican approves such applications within six weeks with a letter of acceptance. It traditionally refuses applicants with radio silence, which is how Stefanini’s nomination has been received. The Vatican press office has not commented on the matter.
Some Vatican watchers have called the French nomination a true test of Pope Francis’s willingness to not judge devout gays, as he so famously pronounced early in his papacy when he told journalists on the papal plane that he did not feel worthy to judge a devout priest who happened to be gay.
Others have speculated that the problem is not so much with Stefanini’s sexual orientation but with France’s. The Vatican has been vocal in its condemnation of France’s 2013 law allowing gay civil unions. It could be simply that the Holy See feels it owes France no favors. Stefanini, who is 54, could simply be a pawn in their game.
Stefanani is not a gay activist, according to French media, and he is not an advocate of gay marriage. Some have called into question whether outing his sexual orientation is a violation of his personal privacy. “Mr. Stefanini keeps his sexuality private. He is not in a gay marriage or civil partnership,” writes Vatican expert Robert Mickens in Global Pulse “He does not publicly support any gay groups or ‘lobbies.’ In short, he is not a gay activist or a public advocate of the so-called ‘gay agenda,’ a bogeyman that scares the wits out of so many men in the hierarchy.” France’s designated ambassador is precisely the type of person Pope Francis described in his now-famous comment, “If a person is gay and is seeking the Lord and is of good will, then who am I to judge him?”
The Vatican does not have to be accountable to anyone for its decisions, and we may never know with certainty why the nomination is stuck in limbo or, if it is definitively denied, on what grounds. Stefanini is inarguably qualified for the job. He served as second-in-command to the French ambassador to the Holy See in both 2001 and 2005, making him a natural choice for the important post.
The Vatican has, in the past, refused French candidates for the post. After the ambassador to the Holy See died in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy struck out twice before nominating someone who had an acceptable profile in the eyes of the church. The first candidate was a divorced Catholic, remarried in a civil marriage, which is not accepted by the church. The second was a gay man who was also living in a civil relationship with his husband. The Vatican’s silence gave way to new candidates from France in both cases.
According to La Stampa’s Andrea Tornielli, a Vatican expert who writes for the paper’s Vatican Insider blog, the Vatican bylaws clearly state that the Holy See reserves the right to reject any ambassadorial candidate who does not live in accordance with church teachings or who is in an “irregular” living situation. Clearly, anyone living in a gay civil union or is divorced and remarried does not fit that qualification.
But Tornielli says Stefanini is a devout Catholic who, according to the French press, is much more a practicing Catholic than a practicing gay. “He has always lived as a celibate, has never married religiously or civilly,” says Tornielli. “He never denied his sexual orientation, which he explains to friends is what prevented him from getting married and having children.”
Tornielli speculates that the French government has already been asked to withdraw Stefanani’s nomination but, according to press reports out of France, Hollande has no intention of budging. And, it would seem, neither does the Vatican.