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What the Vatican’s stalled response to France’s openly gay ambassador might mean

Pope Francis salutes as he gives his traditional Christmas “Urbi et Orbi” blessing from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica on December 25, 2014 at the Vatican. ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

It’s been a few months since France appointed Laurent Stéfanini, a practicing Catholic who is also openly gay, to be the country’s next ambassador to the Holy See. This week, the European press noticed that the Vatican has yet to accept the appointment, which many are interpreting as an implicit rejection of candidate.

The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, declined via e-mail on Thursday to comment on Stéfanini’s appointment, adding that “any host government has the right to grant agrément or refuse it for their own reasons.”

An agrément is a formal diplomatic approval of another country’s choice of an ambassador. That the Vatican has reportedly thus far withheld agrément for an ambassador who has been chosen will be seen as a rejection.

Federico Lombardi, the head of the Holy See’s press office, added in a second e-mail, “The Press Office has never done comments about appointments of ambassadors to the Holy See.”

[Vatican meeting on family walks back liberal language on gay couples, divorce]

Stéfanini worked at France’s embassy to the Vatican from 2001 to 2005, Le Monde reported, before French President François Hollande decided to appoint him to the job in early January of this year. According to Le Monde, Stéfanini is unmarried and has no children.

The rumors about the meaning of the Vatican’s apparent non-response to the appointment seem to stem from a report in “Le Journal du Dimanche.” The report, citing an unnamed Vatican insider, alleges that a decision to essentially freeze the application came from the “pope himself.”

No matter what’s going on privately at the Vatican over the appointment, the decision to appoint an openly-gay ambassador to the Vatican (even one as experienced in Paris-Vatican diplomacy as Stéfanini) was interpreted by some Vatican watchers as both a provocation and a challenge to the Vatican by the French government.

That being said, the appointment reportedly had the support of the archbishop of Paris, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, who is said to have written a letter to the pope in support of the nomination. a spokeswoman for the archbishop told “Libération,” that the Cardinal’s communications are a “private” matter.

The Vatican has reportedly rejected potential ambassadors in the past over their personal lives, although such a rejection or non-response is somewhat unusual. In 2008, France tried and failed to appoint several candidates to the same job after its previous ambassador died. “The first candidate was divorced … another Protestant, and the last not only homosexual but … stably united with an official companion,” Italian paper La Repubblica reported at the time.

The Vatican has also objected to the appointment of an Argentinian ambassador who had remarried after a divorce, Religion News Service noted.

How Pope Francis’s Vatican responds to France’s appointment, if at all, will be closely watched, given his famous “Who am I to judge” remark in 2013 when asked about gay priests. That and other moves have left GLBT equality advocates hopeful that they have an ally in him. But Francis’s support is limited. He has reiterated when asked that he supports traditional Catholic teaching on sexuality, earlier this year saying gay marriage advocates “threaten to disfigure God’s plan for creation.”

However, the pope has made multiple efforts in his papacy to reach out in new ways to LGBT Catholics, who have been marginalized by the church in the past.

The French Catholic church leadership, including the cardinal who reportedly supports Stéfanini, strongly opposed an ultimately successful French bill that legalized gay marriage in the country. Those who opposed the law protested in huge numbers – sometimes into the hundreds of thousands – on the streets of Paris during and after its passage.