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In the two years that he has occupied the throne of St Peter, Pope Francis has been an inspirational figure for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Following the conservative reigns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, he has been hailed for trying to make the church more open, inclusive and accountable. At a time of global economic uncertainty, his personal humility sets him apart from many world leaders. Yet a diplomatic impasse between France and the Vatican over the nomination of a gay French diplomat as envoy to the Holy See risks damaging his reputation.

In January, France announced that it would send Laurent Stefanini, the head of protocol for President François Hollande, to be its new ambassador to the Vatican. Mr Stefanini is well qualified for the post. He is a practising Catholic and served in the French embassy to the Holy See between 2001 and 2005. The Vatican normally approves such applications within six weeks of the request being made. Its failure to do so after three months has prompted growing speculation that it is dragging its feet because the nominee is homosexual.

To many Vatican watchers, this diplomatic stand-off is somewhat unexpected. In the past two years, Pope Francis has relaxed some of the church’s anathemas on matters of sexuality and faith, making conciliatory remarks about gays and atheists. A comment early on in his pontificate — “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” — struck an unusual new tone on homosexuality. The slowness in approving Mr Stefanini may reflect little more than the creakiness of the Vatican’s centuries-old bureaucracy. But further delay can only confirm that the Holy See is blocking the envoy on grounds of his sexuality. This would greatly damage both the pontiff and the Church.

The argument over Mr Stefanini must be set in context. In his comparatively short time as Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis has conducted a raft of reforms whose importance cannot be understated. He has overhauled the Vatican Curia, its central administration, and the Vatican Bank, which has long been suspected of money-laundering. He has made the Church’s tone on matters of faith more welcoming. Unsurprisingly, Pope Francis has not changed Catholic doctrine and this week reiterated his belief that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. But he has repeatedly stated that the Church should be more merciful and pastoral in the way it operates, placing less emphasis on the Catholic rule book.

This reform drive is now under sustained attack from traditionalists, hierarchs and reactionaries who will not roll over. A crucial battle will come later this year at the synod on the family where the Church is being asked to decide whether divorced couples who remarry should receive the sacrament. It is also uncertain whether the Pope’s declaration of zero tolerance of child sexual abuse by the clergy will be seriously implemented. The recent appointment in Chile of a bishop who is alleged to have covered up such abuse is a worrying indication that progress may be limited.

The stalling over Mr Stefanini may be a coded warning by Vatican conservatives that they are prepared to fight the Pope’s conciliatory stance on homosexuality — and much else. Alternatively, the incident may prove that there are limits to how far the enigmatic Pope Francis will go in liberalising Church teaching. What is not in doubt is that Mr Stefanini’s case is an important test. The Pope’s standing in the world will suffer if France’s choice is kept out of Rome.

Letters in response to this editorial:

Striving for gravitas, sliding into bathos / From Andrew D Roberts

Pope Francis may just be upholding Vatican policy / From Marc-Antoine Hamet

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