France appoints openly gay man as ambassador to Vatican City

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France, one of Europe’s most staunchly Catholic countries – 88% of the country belongs to the Roman Catholic Church – has appointed Laurent Stefanini, an openly gay man, as its ambassador to Vatican City. Stefanini will be the first openly LGBTQ person to serve as an ambassador to the Vatican, if the Roman Curia (the administrative arm of the Holy See) approves his appointment. Before being appointed, Stefanini served as France’s Chief of Protocol.

In recent years, under Socialist president Francois Holland, France has gradually become more pro-LGBTQ, though not without a strong negative response, mostly from the country’s religious right. Mass protests, some of them violent, rocked Paris and other French cities soon after Hollande publicly backed a bill in parliament that would legalize same-sex marriage and adoption.

The French far right has also become ever-so-slightly more receptive to LGBTQ people. The National Front, an ascendant nationalist political party headed by Marine Le Pen, appointed Sébastian Chenu, a gay rights activist and founder of advocacy organization GayLib, as Le Pen’s “cultural adviser” last year.

There has been a mixed reaction to Stefanini’s appointment from the Vatican. According to Swiss news site Blasting News (French), Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the Archbishop of Paris, has sent a letter of approval to Pope Francis, but unnamed members of the Roman Curia have expressed their discomfort and disapproval. Additionally, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has describedthe appointment as a “provocation.”

France has previously attempted to appoint an openly gay man to the position, in 2008. The Vatican refused to allow him to serve, with the Roman newspaper La Repubblica writing that he wasn’t approved because he is “not only homosexual but … stably united with an official companion.” That was, of course, when both Vatican City and France were under the more conservative administrations of Pope Benedict XVI and President Nicolas Sarkozy, respectively.

Religion News Service noted in 2008 that the Vatican had refused other ambassadorial appointments, writing, The question of how much influence the “gay lobby,” as its’ detractors like to call it, has on the Vatican has been raised more and more in recent years. Last year, the Swiss paper Schweiz am Sonntag ran an interview with Elmar Mäder, a former Commandant of the Swiss Guard, in which he said,

“I can speak from personal experience as to the existence of this lobby… A gay lobby so powerful could be dangerous for the safety of the pope.” This followed a 2013 La Repubblica story that claimed a powerful “gay lobby” forced Pope Benedict XVI to step down in 2013.

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