Paper claims pope rejected gay French diplomat as ambassador to Holy See

Pope Francis met France’s nominated ambassador to the Holy See, who is gay, and told him that the Vatican would not accept his appointment, a French newspaper has claimed.

In a meeting over the weekend, the pontiff allegedly cited his displeasure with a controversial 2013 gay marriage law in France as part of his reason for the decision, according to the report in satirical title Le Canard Enchâiné.

Pope Francis also allegedly said he did not appreciate the manner in which France had tried to put pressure on the Vatican by nominating a man – 55-year-old Laurent Stéfanini – who French officials knew would be controversial given the church’s views on homosexuality. The Vatican declined to comment to the Guardian about the veracity of the report or whether a meeting took place.

The church’s apparent objection to Stéfanini, a practising Catholic, has been known for weeks, ever since press reports first indicated that the Vatican was dragging its feet on the nomination because of his sexual orientation.

The refusal by the Holy See to formally accept Stéfanini’s credentials was seen as an indirect way of forcing France to pick another ambassador and avoid making a public statement on the issue.

But the French media report on Wednesday indicated that Pope Francis has personally become involved in the diplomatic row. According to the report, Stéfanini had a “very discreet” 15-minute audience with the pontiff over the weekend, who said his objection to the French appointment was “nothing personal”.

In their discussion, the pope allegedly raised objections to France’s same-sex marriage law, which was introduced in May 2013 despite nationwide protests. The pontiff was also reported to have said that he did not appreciate the French government’s methods and accused them of trying to force his hand. Last Wednesday, three days before Stéfanini’s meeting with Francis, the French president, François Hollande, had let it be known he was sticking by his first choice for the job. Usually, a country would not put a nominee forward to the Holy See if it knew following informal talks that the nominee might not be seen as acceptable.

Since the row erupted, the Elysée palace has insisted that “Laurent Stefanini is the only candidate nominated by the Republic and the council of ministers”. His nomination also has the support of the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois.

The issue has flared up at a sensitive time for the popular Argentinian pontiff. The suggestion that Pope Francis would deny an unmarried gay man – who in Italian press reports has repeatedly been referred to as private in his personal life – the chance to serve as France’s highest diplomat to the Vatican seemed to contradict a statement he made early in his young papacy, when he said “who am I to judge?” after he was asked about the existence of a “gay lobby” within the Vatican.

The controversy over his apparent opposition to Stéfanini coupled with simmering tensions over another issue – his appointment in January of Bishop Juan Barros in Chile – have emerged as the first serious challenges for the pontiff, who has been seen as a force for change within the church. Barros was already a bishop in Chile but his appointment to the small southern Chilean diocese of Orsono has put a spotlight on accusations that he was aware of sexual abuse of by his mentor, a paedophile priest who was later found guilty of abuse by the Vatican. Barros has denied the allegations.

Teresa Berger, professor of liturgical studies at Yale University’s divinity school, said both controversies touched on church governance issues in which the pope has “opened some windows”: his stated “zero tolerance” of sexual abuse by priests, and greater openness to the LGBT community.

“Will Pope Francis’s ecclesial decisions always exactly mirror his refreshing openness on so many previously hardened positions? Probably not,” she told the Guardian. “Will some be disappointed? Probably yes.”

Berger added that the controversies would tarnish his reputation as a reformer, but only for those who had “too naïve a view of the pope’s power in the church, in the 21st century”.

She pointed to the recent abrupt end of an investigation into American nuns by the Vatican as proof that there was still reason to have some faith in Pope Francis as an agent of change. “[He is] quite able to cut through thorny issues of governance in favour of his deeper commitments. So I remain hopeful,” she said.

Stéfanini has been described in the French media as a “brilliant” diplomat. He is a graduate of France’s elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration. He knows the Vatican well, having been first councillor to the French embassy there between 2001 and 2005, and has served as an adviser to the French foreign affairs ministry. He has been head of protocol for former centre-right president Nicolas Sarkozy and the socialist Hollande.

A French government spokesman confirmed the meeting had taken place but dismissed the report in Le Canard Enchâiné. “Nothing has changed: France has proposed a candidate and for the time being we are waiting for the Vatican’s reply after the usual discussions and review of his candidacy,” Stephane Le Foll told reporters.