The Vatican on Tuesday issued an apology after Pope Francis’ use of an offensive word in Italian regarding seminarians who identify as gay.

Matteo Bruni, the Holy See spokesman, said in Tuesday’s press statement that the Holy Father was “aware of the articles recently published about a conversation, behind closed doors, with the bishops” of the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI).

Italian media reported that Pope Francis had met with the CEI on May 20 in the Vatican’s Synodal Hall. At that meeting the pope was asked about the admission of declared gay men to the seminary. 

Telling the bishops that gay men should not be admitted to priestly formation, the pope argued “there is too much ‘frociaggine’ in seminaries,” a slur translated as “faggotry” or “faggotness.” 

Bruni told journalists that 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.”

The remarks were first reported by the Italian tabloid website Dagospia and later confirmed by major Italian newspapers La Repubblica and Corriere della Sera.

Quoting several unnamed bishops, Corriere della Sera suggested that the pope did not understand the gravity of the term in Italian.

The Vatican nearly two decades ago addressed the topic of gay-identified men entering Catholic seminaries. In 2005 the Congregation for Catholic Education issued an instruction titled “Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with Regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in View of Their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders.” 

The document stated that “it is necessary to state clearly that the Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called ‘gay culture.’” 

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The instruction went on to note the difference between those who display “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” and those “dealing with homosexual tendencies that were only the expression of a transitory problem.” 

Pope Francis upheld the ruling in 2016. In 2018 he again told Italian bishops to carefully vet candidates. 

La Repubblica noted the Italian bishops during their meeting in Assisi last November approved a new Ratio Formationis Sacerdotalis, a document detailing the admission criteria and standards for men in Italy’s seminaries.

The Italian paper added that the document “has been under consideration by the Vatican Dicastery for the Clergy for final approval.”

Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh wrote on X on Tuesday that the pope’s “concern is with gay men seeing the priesthood as a way of living out their sexuality, and the gay subculture in many seminaries.”

The pope has at times been hailed for his outreach to the LGBT-identified community.

During an in-flight press conference in 2013, the pope responded to a question from a journalist on his experience as a confessor to homosexual persons by asking rhetorically: “Who am I to judge that person?”

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The pope expanded on these remarks in a 2016 book-length interview titled “The Name of God Is Mercy,” where he said he was “paraphrasing by heart” the Catechism of the Church, which states that “these people should be treated with delicacy and not be marginalized.”

“I am glad that we are talking about ‘homosexual people,’” the pope continued, “because before all else comes the individual person, in his wholeness and dignity.” 

In December of last year, meanwhile, the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith issued Fiducia Supplicans, a declaration allowing for nonliturgical blessings for couples in “irregular” situations, including same-sex couples. 

Responding to the strong criticism the document received, Pope Francis said in February that to be “scandalized” by gay couple blessings is “hypocrisy.” 

“No one is scandalized if I give a blessing to an entrepreneur who perhaps exploits people: and this is a very serious sin,” the pope said in the interview to the Italian weekly print periodical Credere. 

“Whereas they are scandalized if I give it to a homosexual … This is hypocrisy! We must all respect each other. Everyone,” the Holy Father said.