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Pope Francis is back in the headlines Wednesday, after reportedly using an offensive Italian term for homosexuality for the second time in recent weeks.

Pope Francis attends a consistory for the creation of 21 new cardinals in St. Peter’s Square on Sept. 30, 2023. © Mazur/

 According to multiple reports, the pope used the word frociaggine, often translated as “faggotry” while speaking to some 200 Italian priests, just weeks after he reportedly used the term in a closed-door meeting with bishops.

The pope used the word to describe a climate and culture around the Roman curia and to reiterate the Church’s discipline that men with a deep seated homosexual orientation should not be admitted to seminary for formation to the priesthood.

According to media reports, Francis relayed a conversation with a curial monsignor who allegedly told him he was worried about “the gay culture inside [the Vatican].” Francis recounted that he told the priest “Yes, there is an atmosphere of faggotry. It’s true, you find it in the Vatican.”

It is the second time in recent weeks the pope has used the term, provoking criticism for its pejorative connotations. 

The pontiff previously used the word in a meeting with Italian bishops, saying there was too much “faggotry” in seminaries, and urging the episcopate not to admit men with homosexual tendencies for formation.

The Vatican press office issued a qualified apology on the pope’s behalf after his first usage, expressing his apologies to anyone who was offended by the word. 

But his repetition of the phrase looks set to prompt a fresh round of criticism.


Many have seen Francis’ vulgarity as a sign against his otherwise long-established reputation for inclusivity, and his encouragement of more dedicated and sensitive pastoral care for gay Catholics. 

Other observers have sought to downplay or dismiss the pope’s profanity, arguing variously that it is excusable in a man of his age, accidental given that Italian isn’t his first language, or even evidence of his “earthiness” and personal simplicity.

Francis’ choice of language has also, though, amplified discussion of his broader point. 

Some commentators have noted — critically or approvingly — that the pope’s point has been to reinforce the discipline codified in 2005 by Benedict XVI, that men with “deep-seated” homosexual tendencies should not be admitted for seminary formation. 

Others have juxtaposed that with his much-quoted response during a 2013 press conference in which he famously said “who am I to judge” when asked about gay clergy. 

But in his more recent remarks, the pope was not primarily making a point about seminary formation, as such, but about a climate and culture among some clerics which he views as pervasive— at least in some places — disordered, and harmful. 

That issue is a subject the pope has often addressed publicly, noting the existence of “gay lobbies” in the Church several times over his decade in office. 

Indeed, Francis’ famous line “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” was actually made in response to a specific question about reports related to a Vatican priest accused in the Italian press of having an affair with a Swiss guard.

Francis’ point, as made at the time, was not a comment on the discipline barring men with homosexual tendencies from admission to seminaries or the place of gay people in the Church, but rather about his unwillingness to judge a priest whom he considered to be innocent of an accusation, whom he believed to be attempting to conform his life to the Gospel and strictures of the clerical state.

At the same time, Francis also spoke about the problem of a “gay lobby” in the curia, which he had previously identified as a problem. After accusations of homophobia, Francis clarified that he was “against all lobbies, not just gay ones."

“Being gay is a tendency. The problem is the lobby,” said Francis. “The lobby is unacceptable, the gay one, the political one, the Masonic one.” 

He made substantially the same point in both the recent meetings in which he used the offensive term frociaggine. But most observers would agree that the pope’s choice of language was senselessly inflammatory, offensive, and ill-advised — and that it substantially detracted from the point we wished to make. 

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But the difference in public reaction to his various references to “gay lobbies” and “faggotry” raises an interesting and awkward question: Is there any phrasing or terminology that would have both conveyed Francis’ point and not been received as offensive? 

Francis’ contextualizing of his concern in 2013 — that of an illicit subculture of any kind and distinct from people who experience same-sex attraction per se — led to the issue largely passing out of public discussion, in favor of broad universalization of “who am I to judge.” 

But in his meetings with Italian bishops and priests in recent weeks, Francis was not highlighting a general problem with subcultures within the priesthood, but a specific one. While choosing a different word to describe it would have lessened public criticism, and less obviously lent itself to accusations of bigotry, it’s unlikely saying “gayness” would have escaped criticism.

That some parts of the Church, including the Vatican, have — as the pope reported discussing with the monsignor — a problematic sexually active subculture is to a degree known, and proven to be potentially harmful to the Church, even if it is difficult to quantify. 

In 2021, The Pillar met for nearly two hours with the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin to present reports on the use of location based hookup apps within restricted sections of the Vatican.

Several dozen devices were found to be used to access apps designed to facilitate sexual encounters in areas of the city state off limits to tourists and pilgrims.  

Subcultures of sexually active clerics present numerous problems for the Church, as Pope Francis has himself indicated several times, regardless of whether the sexual activity involves women or men. 

At an individual level, such subcultures can provide communities of mutually reinforcing sinful behavior, endangering a cleric’s efforts to conform his life to the Gospel, which Francis has indicated should be the aim of every Catholic.

At an institutional level, they can also form cliques for “lobbying” and mutual advancement, and facilitate a general tolerance of illicit action — be it sexual, financial, administrative — and clerics living what Francis has called “double lives.” 

And, in places like the Holy See, they can even create institutional risks, leaving individuals open to blackmail or data breach vulnerability.

That is, as The Pillar discussed extensively with Cardinal Parolin in 2021, a difficult and sensitive issue to broach, and if the risks and problems are apparent, the same cannot be said for any effective solutions.

As The Pillar discovered after its meeting with Parolin, at which the cardinal initially offered to supply a lengthy written statement outlining his concerns and proposed response, but subsequently declined to do so, it is also not a conversation most senior figures in the Church are willing to have in public.

In that sense, Pope Francis’ apparent desire to highlight a problem he believes to be obvious and pervasive could be argued to be a sign of strong leadership. By contrast, his consistent choice of inflammatory language might only make it harder for him to make headway.

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