Pope Francis Accused of Using Homophobic Slur in Private Discussion on Gay Priests

Pope Francis waves to the faithful as he arrives in St. Peter's Square for his weekly audience  on May 22, 2024 in Vatican City, Vatican.

Pope Francis has stirred controversy over his alleged use of a homophobic slur while reiterating his opposition to gay people becoming priests during a private discussion on the matter with bishops last week.

“There is already too much faggotry” in seminaries, Francis has been quoted as saying, using an Italian word that roughly translates to “faggotry.”

The remark, said to have been made during a closed-door meeting last Monday, was first reported by Italian news and gossip site and then affirmed by Italian newspapers and , which each cited unnamed firsthand sources. Official record of the event has not been released, and the Vatican Press Office did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.

Corriere reported that the remark was received with incredulous laughter by the bishops in attendance and that, given the 87-year-old Argentinian pontiff’s native language is Spanish, “it was evident that the Pope was not aware of how offensive the word is in Italian.”

Catholic magazine similarly reported that Francis’ use of “frociaggine” was a “gaffe” rather than an intentional slur, “given the pope’s ‘Who am I to judge?’ attitude toward gay priests.”

Francis was named after uttering those landmark five words that seemed at the time to herald a new era of acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQ people by the Catholic Church. Late last year, Francis for priests to bless same-sex couples, and in February, he said he saw “” in those who criticized that decision.

But when it comes to gay people joining the priesthood, Francis has continued to back the , approved by his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, that “the Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practise homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture.’”

In 2018, during a similar closed-door meeting with Italian bishops, Francis warned that applicants to the priesthood should be vetted carefully and that anyone suspected of being homosexual should be rejected. “If in doubt, better not let them enter,” he was quoted as saying.

According to Corriere, an assembly of bishops last November approved a potential reform, which yet required the pontiff’s approval to be implemented, that would distinguish between “simple homosexual orientation” and “deeply rooted tendencies”—and would permit the admission of people in the former category to seminaries so long as they could commit, like all seminarians, to a life of strict celibacy.

When asked about this hypothetical approach, Francis reportedly “responded in a firmly negative way,” according to la Repubblica, which noted that he also emphasized respect is still owed to every person regardless of their sexual orientation.

Francis explained, la Repubblica reported, as translated by America, “it is necessary to put down markers, and prevent the risk that the gay person who chooses the priesthood could later end up living a double-life, continuing to practice homosexuality, while at the same time suffering from this dissimulation,” before he made what seemed to be meant as a “joke” about the “faggotry” that already exists in Italian seminaries.