ROME – A northern Italian town became a battlefield in the culture wars this weekend during a three-day international congress on traditional family values. While populist leaders and conservative Catholics defended the event from the inside, progressive and liberal factions tagged the meeting as “medieval.”

The Vatican took a step back, with high-ranking officials deciding not to formally attend the event.

“We agree on the substance but not on the methodology,” said the Vatican Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, after an event marking the 150th anniversary of the Vatican-owned Bambino Gesu children’s hospital last week.

The Catholic Church agrees with the traditional family values based on the marriage between a man and woman and founded on the respect for human life from conception to natural death on display at the World Congress of Families that took place in Verona, Italy, March 29-31.

What the Vatican doesn’t agree with is the rhetoric and approach that the congress promoted. Religious sisters could be seen on local television calling homosexuality an “abomination” and a “sin against God.” Bishops condemned abortion with strong language, and life-sized puppets of fetuses were handed out to attendees.

The bishop of Verona Giuseppe Zenti attended the event along with many other Catholic bishops from other parts of the world, including Archbishop-Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco and papal critics Cardinal Raymond Burke and Cardinal Walter Brandmüller.

Organizers included pro-life and conservative factions not only from Italy, but also Russia and the United States. Brian Brown, president of the International Organization for the Family and close friend of U.S. President Donald Trump, attended the event.

“We are in favor of a positive vision of the family,” he told local media, “understood as the union between a man and a woman in marriage.”

“Let’s get up, let’s fight for the family, we are here to tell you that you are not alone!” Brown added.

Individual bishops and clergy were present at the event, but the Vatican kept its distance.

“I didn’t address it,” said Pope Francis during his flight back from Rabat, Morocco, March 31. “I heard the words of the Secretary of State: They seemed to me to be just and balanced words.”

The message seems to be clear: The Vatican under Francis will not engage in the polarized debates that have entrenched disagreements on life and family over the past decade.

In a new interview that aired Sunday with the Spanish news outlet La Sexta, the pope said that  homosexual tendencies “are not a sin,” in response to a question about his now famous line “Who am I to judge?”

“If you have a tendency to anger, it’s not a sin. Now, if you are angry and hurt people, the sin is there,” Francis said. “Sin is acting, of thought, word and deed, with freedom,” Francis said.

In the same interview, the pope also suggested that if parents see “strange things” in their children as they are developing, they should seek the help of a professional psychiatrist.

The Bishop Giovanni d’Ercole of Ascoli Piceno also called the congress a “missed opportunity,” which could have otherwise served to promote dialogue and reflections on the topics of life and family in a country that sees the ranks of the elderly grow and with nativity rates in rapid decline.

The bishop praised Parolin’s statement and underlined that the event was “lay-organized” and that “the Church did well to keep out of it” given the events that occurred.

The head of the Italian bishops’ conference, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, asked April 1 that the opposing protests on family issues at the World Families Congress in Verona end their disputes and work for dialogue.

“Without betraying principles, since the family is not a menu from which you can choose what you want, let’s try to craft thinking on the family for this period of time,” he said. “Those who are sincerely willing to take this step, the condition for a better society, will always find us at their side.”

The Italian Minister of the Interior and president of the right-wing populist party Northern League, Matteo Salvini, attended, despite criticism by other members of his governing coalition.

“I am here to support with a smile a day of festivities, the right to be a mother, to be a father and to be grandparents,” he said in his keynote speech. “The need for Italy to bring children into the world.”

While manifesting his support for the congress, Salvini said that he has no intention to “remove rights” that already exist in Italy, such as abortion, civil marriages and divorce.

“I look ahead, not behind. What exists is not up for debate,” he said, adding that he is “opposed to the barbaric practice of surrogate mothers, where women are used as ATM machines.”

Several LGBT and feminist groups met to protest the congress outside its entrance in the center of Verona and a pro-life march took place at the closing of the event, making the city a contested ground by the several factions.

“Feminists speak of the rights of women and they pretend not to see what the first only and real danger to women is,” Salvini said. “It’s not the congress for the family but Islamic extremism where women are worth less than nothing.”

The minister also expressed his opposition to “gender theory where no distinction exists, and it’s something I will fight for as long as I live because the good God made us different.”