The Vatican said Francis told priests and seminarians at a church in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi that the “war” is not “being waged with weapons but with ideas.” He reiterated his opposition to marriage rights for same-sex couples during a press conference with reporters as he flew back to Rome from Georgia and neighboring Azerbaijan.
“Marriage is the image of God, man and woman become one flesh,” said Francis, according to the Vatican. “If this is destroyed, the image of God is soiled or disfigured.”
Francis told the priests and seminarians with whom he met in Georgia that “gender theory” is the biggest threat to marriage.
The Vatican said Francis reiterated to reporters after he left the country that “gender theory . . . goes against nature.” He added he “accompanied people with homosexual tendencies or practices” when he was a priest and bishop in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires.
“I have accompanied them and brought them closer to the Lord,” Francis told reporters, according to the Vatican. “Some cannot, but I have accompanied them and never abandoned anyone. This must be done.”
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, a group of LGBT Catholics, criticized Francis.
“Pope Francis sets up a false dichotomy in pitting people’s basic human right to be who they are against marriage,” said Duddy-Burke on Monday in a statement.
“We know marriage to be a sacred and beautiful thing,” she added. “We believe marriage, and all of society, will be strengthened when people are no longer pressured to bring false selves into a marriage, and can make this profound commitment honestly. Too many lives have been ruined by gay people trying to live in heterosexual marriages, or by people being forced to live in a gender that is not authentic for them.”
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Maryland-based group that ministers to LGBT Catholics, said in a statement that Francis’ use of “gender theory” and other phrases in discussions around marriage deflects “from examining the deeper causes of marital strife and deterioration.” DeBernardo nevertheless applauded Francis for telling reporters after leaving Georgia and Azerbaijan that the church should use a pastoral approach towards LGBT Catholics.
“This model is one that should be adopted by bishops, priests, and pastoral ministers around the globe,” said DeBernardo.
DeBernardo and others have welcomed the Vatican’s more moderate tone on marriage rights for same-sex couples and other LGBT-specific issues since Francis became pope in 2013.
A transgender man from Spain who said his fellow parishioners rejected him after he underwent sex-reassignment surgery had a private audience with Francis in 2015. The Vatican announced in July that Francis accepted the resignation of Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez, an anti-LGBT cardinal in the Dominican Republic who has repeatedly used anti-gay slurs to describe the openly gay U.S. ambassador to the country.
Francis earlier this year said the church should “ask forgiveness” from gay people, but the Vatican’s position on marriage rights for same-sex couples and other LGBT-specific issues has not changed under his papacy.
Francis last month expressed his support for opponents of marriage and adoption rights for same-sex couples in Mexico. Francis told a group of Polish bishops in August that it is “terrible” for children to learn they can “choose their gender.”
“When Pope Francis made his now famous ‘who am I to judge’ remarks, LGBTQ people of faith were hopeful of real change in the Roman Catholic Church,” said Rev. Rodney McKenzie, Jr., of the National LGBTQ Task Force on Monday in a statement. “Now millions of people are deeply hurt by what Pope Francis has said about transgender and gender non-conforming people, which reveals a profound lack of knowledge and empathy.”
“We urge the pontiff to educate himself about the realities of transgender people’s lives and to welcome and affirm transgender and gender non-conforming people rather than reject and dehumanize them,” he added.