France’s government has named a respected diplomat who is said to be gay as the country’s new ambassador to UNESCO, more than a year after he was nominated to become the ambassador to the Vatican — a job he never started, because the Vatican withheld its approval.
Laurent Stefanini was confirmed Wednesday by France’s council of ministers as the country’s top diplomat at the Paris-based U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
In January 2015, France submitted Stefanini’s nomination as ambassador to the Holy See. A French official said last June that the government was awaiting a response shortly via Vatican diplomatic channels, since international law requires that a host government give its consent before an ambassadorial appointment becomes official.
One month later, in February 2015, French media reported that Stefanini, who is described as a practicing Catholic, is also gay. The appointment thus became politically charged, and the Vatican never responded to the French request for approval.
At one stage, French President François Hollande vowed not to make another pick if the Vatican declined to accept Stefanini, making Wednesday’s decision tantamount to a diplomatic reversal of form.
Pope Francis met Stefanini in a private session on April 17, 2015, and although neither Stefanini nor the Vatican disclosed details of their conversation, it was widely believed Francis wanted a chance to explain personally why the appointment could not be confirmed.
Many observers believed at the time that the issue for Pope Francis was not so much Stefanini’s sexual orientation, but rather that media discussion appeared to be reading his appointment, and the Vatican’s reaction to it, as a political statement about gay marriage.
This was not the first time France and the Vatican found themselves in a standoff over the naming of an envoy. In 2007, conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy tapped Jean-Loup Kuhn-Delforge for the role, who’s openly gay. In that case the Vatican declined to respond to the request for approval for a year, leaving the job vacant.
The French news outlet Figaro reported Thursday the most likely candidate to become France’s new ambassador to the Holy See is Philippe Zeller, 63, a former envoy to Canada after having served in Morocco, Hungary, Indonesia and East Timor.
Zeller is also a married father of two and the grandfather of a toddler son.
On background, Vatican officials say they generally approve choices of new ambassadors without respect to their political line or personal lives, with the lone exception of a Catholic nominee whose personal situation, such as their marital state, stands in contradiction with Church teaching.
That position is not so much a moral judgment about the individual, Vatican officials say, but rather to prevent nominations from being used to bring pressure to bear for changes in Church teaching or for other political ends.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.