The first two years of Pope Francis’ papacy have been marked by a convoluted series of mixed messages to the LGBT community. While his much quoted “who am I to judge?” approach to homosexuality has been buoyed by significant moves — such as his publicly dining with gay and transgender prison inmates, demoting the virulently homophobic Vatican Chief Justice, Cardinal Raymond Burke, and stating that “homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community” — other actions have repeatedly undermined progress in the highest ranks of the church. In addition to likening trans people to nuclear weapons, Francis encouraged Slovakians to vote against marriage equality, and he has persistently and robustly defended traditional marriage. Most recently, the diplomatic tussle over the appointment of Laurent Stefanini, the 54-year-old, openly gay nominee put forth by France to serve as its ambassador to the Holy See, has called into question the pope’s true stance.
The celebrated diplomat, who served as the French deputy chief of mission at the Vatican from 2001 to 2005, was not confirmed within the first month of his appointment, as is customary. This sparked anger in France and among LGBT activists worldwide. Despite the usual discretion surrounding diplomatic appointments, it has been widely speculated that Stefanini, who is unmarried and a practicing Catholic, was being resisted because of his sexuality. Reports that Francis held a personal meeting with Stefanini — lasting anywhere from 15 to 40 minutes — in which he assured the Frenchman that he had no personal issues with his appointment, only serve to further confuse the situation.
It is possible that Francis is sincere in his intention to extend Catholic acceptance of LGBT people. Regardless of his personal views, there are limits to the effects one man, even the head of the Catholic church, can have against the entrenched interests and forces of the Vatican. The true test of Francis’ intentions, and the lengths to which the Vatican is willing to go to meet its LGBT followers, will be at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia this September. The pope announced his intention to attend in the midst of a synod addressing the church’s attitude towards sexuality, and as it is hosted in a state with same-sex marriage, in a city with some of the best workplace protections for LGBTs, many will be looking for signs.