Pope Francis Apologizes After Reports That He Used an Anti-Gay Slur

The Vatican said on Tuesday that Pope Francis “extends his apologies” after reports that he used an offensive slang word referring to gay men at what was intended to be a private meeting with 250 Italian bishops last week.

Francis had been taking questions from the bishops at their annual assembly when the question of whether to admit openly gay men into seminaries, or priesthood colleges, came up.

According to several people present at the meeting, who spoke anonymously to Italian news outlets, Francis stated a firm no, saying that seminaries were already too full of “frociaggine,” an offensive Italian slang term referring to gay men.

“Pope Francis is aware of articles that recently came out about a conversation, behind closed doors,” Matteo Bruni, the press office director for the Holy See, said on Tuesday. “The pope never intended to offend or express himself in homophobic terms, and he extends his apologies to those who were offended by the use of a term, reported by others.”

The incident was first reported by the gossip website Dagospia and then picked up by mainstream Italian news organizations.

Francis has been widely credited with urging the church to be more welcoming to the L.G.B.T.Q. community, and he has delivered a mostly inclusive message.

Shortly after the start of his papacy in 2013, he said, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” He has also met often with gay-rights activists, and he decided last year to allow priests to bless same-sex couples.

The opening to the L.G.B.T.Q. community has been met with a backlash from conservative Catholics. The decision to bless same-sex unions, for example, was widely criticized by bishops in conservative areas of the church, such as many in Africa, who say the practice contradicts church doctrine.

The Vatican quickly explained that blessings are not formal rites and do not undercut church teaching against same-sex marriage.

At the same time, the church has remained firm in its decision not to allow openly gay men to become priests.

A document issued in 2005 under Pope Benedict XVI, Francis’ predecessor, excluded most gay men from the priesthood with few exceptions, barring in strong and specific language candidates “who are actively homosexual, have deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture.’”

The document allowed ordination only for candidates who had experienced “transitory” homosexual tendencies that were “clearly overcome” at least three years before ordination as a deacon, the last step before priesthood.

Under Francis, the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy issued a document in 2016 that restated the 2005 ban. The document said that the church could not overlook the “negative consequences that can derive from the ordination of persons with deep-seated homosexual tendencies.”

In a 2018 interview, published as a book, Francis underscored that he was concerned about relationships between homosexual candidates for priesthood and other religious posts, who take vows of celibacy and chastity and then end up living double lives.

“In consecrated life or that of the priesthood, there is no place for this type of affection,” the pope said in the book. “For that reason, the church recommends that persons with this deep-seated tendency not be accepted for ministry or consecrated life.”

Francis had already made these concerns known to Italian bishops. In another closed-door session in 2018, reported by the Italian news media, Francis said men with “deep-rooted” homosexual tendencies should not be allowed to enter into seminaries.

“If in doubt, do not let them enter,” the pope told the bishops.

That comment prompted reaction, with some progressives warning that it could foster hostility within the church toward L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics.

Francis is reported to have used the slur last week in responding to questions at the conference of Italian bishops, which recently adopted a document regarding the regulations for seminaries. The document has not been made public, as it is awaiting Vatican approval.

While Francis DeBernardo, director of New Ways Ministry, which advocates on behalf of L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics, welcomed Francis’ apology for using “a careless colloquialism,” he said he was disappointed “that the pope did not clarify specifically what he meant by banning gay men from the priesthood.”

“Without a clarification,” Mr. DeBernardo said, “his words will be interpreted as a blanket ban on accepting any gay man to a seminary.” He called on the pope to “provide a clearer statement on his views about gay priests, so many of whom faithfully serve the people of God each day.”

An article published by The New York Times in 2019 took a look at some two dozen priests and seminarians in the United States who shared details of their lives as gay men within the church. Though only a handful of priests in the United States have come out publicly, gay priests and researchers estimate that gay men probably make up at least 30 to 40 percent of the Catholic clergy in the United States. Like all Catholic priests, they take a vow of celibacy.

In reporting the incident, some Italian news outlets have suggested that Francis used the term jokingly or that, as a nonnative Italian speaker, he was unaware of the gravity of the slur.

Known for an informal, avuncular style, Francis is no stranger to linguistic gaffes.

Shortly after his election as pope, he told a group of nuns that they should be mothers, “not a spinster.” Two years later, speaking to reporters during an in-flight news conference, Francis said that should a friend ever insult the pope’s mother, “he’ll get punched for it! This is normal! It is normal.” Also in 2015, referring to contraception, Francis said: “Some people believe that — pardon my language — in order to be good Catholics, we should be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood.”

And this was not his first public apology. After a video showed Francis twice slapping the hands of a woman who had grabbed his while he was greeting the faithful in December 2020, he apologized. “Many times we lose our patience,” he said during his weekly audience the day after the incident. “I do, too, and I’m sorry for yesterday’s bad example.”

In its statement Tuesday, the Vatican spokesman avoided confirming that the pope had used the term reported in Italian media, as the Vatican does not reveal what the pope says behind closed doors. But the statement did say that Francis had “stated on several occasions, ‘In the church there is room for everyone, for everyone! No one is useless, no one is superfluous. There is room for everyone. Just as we are, everyone.’”

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