Pope Francis met April 17 with Laurent Stefanini, the openly gay foreign service officer named by France to be ambassador to the Vatican.

News of the private audience, which was kept strictly confidential, was reported April 22 by the French magazine Le Canard Enchainé, although the magazine said that the meeting took place April 18. A source from the Vatican Secretariat of State told CNA that the meeting actually took place in the late evening of April 17, and confirmed that it lasted about 15 minutes.

The case of the French ambassador-elect to the Holy See has sparked controversy and media frenzy in parts of Europe.

At the beginning of April, French media spread the news that the François Hollande administration had chosen Laurent Stefanini to be the new French ambassador to the Holy See January 5, but that the Vatican has not responded yet to the request for accreditation of the new ambassador.

According to diplomatic right, a State can reject the request for accreditation of an ambassador, without giving any explanation about the reasons why. A State can even decide not to give a response at all to the request for accreditation of the new ambassador, and the lack of response is understood as a soft rejection of the appointment.

In order to receive Holy See diplomatic approval, ambassadors appointed to the Holy See must meet certain prerequisites and must behave in accordance with Church teaching. For example, an ambassador to the Holy See cannot be a divorced and civilly remarried person or someone living an actively gay lifestyle.  

Laurent Stefanini describes himself as both gay and a self-proclaimed devout Catholic, who regularly attends Mass.

A source who serves in the Holy See diplomacy explained to CNA Apr. 21 that it should be well understood "why the Vatican delayed to give the approval to the appointment, but we can certainly assess that it was not for discrimination about his sexual orientation."

As a matter of fact, the dossier of Stefanini lies in the Vatican Secretariat of State, which is the only Vatican body that may know in depth the reasons for the delay. The Secretariat of State is not issuing comments, as diplomatic procedures require discretion in relations among States.

According to the Italian daily news portal "Vatican Insider," Archbishop Luigi Ventura, apostolic nuncio to France, invited Stefanini for a meeting in the nunciature February 5. During the meeting, Archbishop Ventura would have asked Stefanini to step down, but he had refused to do so.

As the Vatican delayed its response, news of the missed approval broke at the beginning of April, and secular media started pressuring the Holy See on the issue.

Withholding approval would not be unprecedented. In 2007, the Holy See did not give diplomatic approval to the appointment of Jean Loup Khun-Delforge as French ambassador.  Khun-Delforge, who was openly gay, was cohabiting with his partner and in support of civil unions.

Stephane Le Foll, a spokesperson for the French Presidency, confirmed that "there was a meeting between the Pope and Stefanini," and that "nothing has changed: France has proposed a candidate, and at the moment we are waiting for the Vatican response."

Waiting for the final decision, a Vatican source said to the French newspaper 'La Croix' that "the Vatican message to France is: follow the procedures." Such procedures imply silence while the review process of a proposed ambassador is ongoing.