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    Wednesday, June 19, 2024

    Vatican apologizes after Pope Francis is accused of using homophobic slur

    Rome — Pope Francis on Tuesday issued a rare apology after he was accused of using a highly pejorative slur to refer to gay men in a closed-door session with bishops last week.

    The pope’s choice of words, reported by major Italian news outlets and confirmed to The Washington Post by a senior Vatican official, appeared to run counter to his efforts to thaw the relationship between the Catholic Church and the LGBTQ+ community. Since he first declared “Who am I to judge?” shortly after becoming pope in 2013, Francis has gone further than any pontiff in building bridges to gay Catholics.

    In the meeting with Italian bishops, however, the pope was quoted as using the word “frociaggine,” which in the Roman Italian dialect roughly translates as “f-----ness.”

    “The pope must explain himself,” said the Rev. Wolfgang Rothe, an openly gay German Catholic priest serving in the archdiocese of Munich, who said he was writing a protest letter to Francis and requesting a meeting with him in Vatican City. “I am not certain he understands [the term], but I think he does, and it makes me sad. A pope should not speak in such a manner.”

    In a statement to journalists, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni offered verbal acrobatics. Without specifically confirming the pope’s use of the term, he said Francis was aware of the reports of his words at the closed-door session.

    “The Pope never intended to offend or express himself in homophobic terms, and he apologizes to those who felt offended by the use of a term reported by others,” Bruni said.

    He emphasized that the pope believes “in the Church there is room for everyone, for everyone! Nobody is useless, nobody is superfluous, there is room for everyone. Just as we are, all of us.”

    A senior Vatican official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters, confirmed the pontiff had uttered the pejorative during a May 20 meeting with the Italian Episcopal Conference.

    More than 200 bishops were gathered in a Vatican City auditorium, and Francis was reiterating his opposition to gay men studying for the priesthood. In seminaries today, Francis reportedly said, there is already too much “frociaggine.”

    It was possible, the official said, that Francis was not “aware” of the extent of the word’s negative connotation: “His ‘who am I to judge’ stance remains” the pope’s position, the official said.

    A second Vatican official familiar with the pope’s private conversations, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue, said the pontiff has used the word “frociaggine” on previous occasions — not as a catchall for homosexual men, but for anyone, gay or straight, who forms closed, gossipy cliques.

    Some Vatican watchers portrayed the 87-year-old pope’s use of the term as the sort of verbal gaffe an elderly relative might make. The Italian outlet Corriere della Sera noted that Francis has sometimes unintentionally referenced mental illness by mixing up the Italian words for “psychiatric” and “psychological.”

    But the pope — born into an Italian family in Argentina — has spoken Italian from an early age, and some argued that he must understand the word’s meaning, even if he did not mean to wield it maliciously.

    “I think this constitutes a heavy blow to Francis’s prestige,” said Marco Politi, author of several books on Francis. “Because a pope is not to use those words, neither in private nor in public. Among both Catholics and non-Catholics who admire the pope, I have witnessed a devastating impact, whereas on the right, among those who never loved the pope, they’re quite happy with the pope using words interpreted as homophobic. This is quite a dramatic incident, although Francis has wisely backtracked.”

    Francis has a history of being, at times, less than reverent.

    “It’s widely known inside of the Vatican that, when angered, Pope Francis will resort to colorful language,” said Lucetta Scaraffia, a church historian and former editor of a Vatican magazine.

    In 2020, he apologized for slapping the hand of a woman who had grabbed him during a New Year’s Eve event, and in 2016, he derided a crowd in Mexico as “selfish” after he was yanked by his robes into a man in a wheelchair.

    His use of the loaded term for gay men was seen as more jarring — particularly among those in Catholic LGBTQ+ ministry who have hailed his outreach and landmark gestures.

    Francis has endorsed blessings for same-sex couples and approved of transgender people serving as godparents. He has welcomed nearly 100 transgender women to the Vatican, publicly denounced anti-gay laws, backed secular civil unions for same-sex couples and pronounced that “being homosexual is not a crime.”

    Yet, he has also compared “gender theory” to nuclear weapons, and he signed off on a Vatican document in April that framed “sex-change surgery” as an affront to human dignity.

    The substance of his latest comments did not break new ground. The pope has drawn a sharp line between pastoral acceptance of LGBTQ+ Catholics and the admission of gay men into ordained ministry. In 2018, he told prelates at the same Italian Episcopal Conference gathering that “even the slightest doubt” that a seminary candidate is gay should be enough to bar him from the seminary. He has supported a 2005 Vatican ruling that “homosexual candidates cannot become priests because their sexual orientation estranges them from the proper sense of paternity.”

    Italian bishops have been studying softer language that might open the door to more openly gay, if celibate, priests. Francis seemed to frown on that prospect, which critics saw as a setback.

    The papal apology “confirms our thought that use of the slur was a careless colloquialism,” said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of U.S.-based New Ways Ministry, which does Catholic LGBTQ+ outreach. “We are disappointed, however, that the pope did not clarify specifically what he meant by banning gay men from the priesthood. Without a clarification, his words will be interpreted as a blanket ban on accepting any gay man to a seminary.”

    The Italian gossip site Dagospia first reported the pope’s use of the slur, which was later independently confirmed by major media outlets.

    The Global Network of Rainbow Catholics, a pro-LGBTQ+ group, suggested the leak from a private meeting with Francis may have been an act of sabotage by conservative critics out to sully Francis and his outreach to gay Catholics.

    “There is definitely mischief afoot to try and undermine Pope Francis,” the group said in a statement.

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