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Vatican apologizes after Pope Francis is accused of using homophobic slur

By Anthony Faiola and Stefano Pitrelli Washington Post

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 Roman Italian dialect roughly translates as “faggotness.”

“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.”

Francis invoked the slur while reiterating to bishops his opposition to gay men studying for the priesthood, a subject some watchers took more seriously than the slur. A senior Vatican official familiar with the comments, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters, confirmed the pontiff had uttered the pejorative during his May 20 closed-door meeting with the Italian Episcopal Conference held at a Vatican City auditorium and in which more than 200 bishops were in attendance.

It was possible, the person 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.

Some Vatican watchers sought to downplay the significance of an 87-year-old man colloquially deploying such language, particularly in the context of the pope’s landmark outreach to the gay community. They portrayed his use of the term as the kind of verbal gaffe an elderly uncle or grandfather might make, or that perhaps the pontiff didn’t fully appreciate how negative the term sounds in Italian. The Italian outlet Corriere della Sera noted that the pope has sometimes referenced mental illness while apparently not meaning to by mixing up the Italian words for “psychiatric” and “psychological.”

A second Vatican official familiar with the pope’s lexicon in private and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue said the pontiff has used the term “frociaggine” before. The person said the pope uses the word not as a catchall for homosexual men, but for anyone, gay or straight, who forms closed, gossipy cliques.

But the pope - a native Spanish speaker born into an Italian family in Argentina - has spoken Italian from an early age, and others argued there is little chance he did not understand the word’s meaning, even if he did not mean to wield it maliciously.

“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.

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

But his use of the loaded term for gay men last week, observers say, was seen as more jarring - particularly among those in Catholic LGBTQ+ ministry who have hailed the pontiff’s outreach and landmark gestures.

“I think this constitutes a heavy blow to Francis’s prestige,” said Marco Politi, a Rome-based 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’s track record, his defenders say, speaks for itself. In December, Francis approved a highly polemic new policy allowing Catholic priests to offer short blessings to same-sex couples, a decision that came just one month after he explicitly permitted transgender godparents and baptisms for transgender people. In recent years, 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 “homosexuality is not a crime.”

Yet, the same pope has also compared “gender theory” to nuclear weapons and signed off on a Vatican document in April that questioned whether “sex change surgery” was an affront to human dignity.

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

His comments last week came as Italian bishops have been studying softer language that could have opened 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 pope, who often speaks colloquially in private, said last week that in seminaries today, there is already too much “frociaggine.” The Italian gossip site Dagospia first reported the pope’s use of the phrase. Major Italian outlets Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica later said they had confirmed the report, citing unnamed sources. Dagospia also reported the pope had additionally used the word “checche,” or “pansies.”

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.

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