In points he’s made before in other settings, Pope Francis on Friday criticized what he called the “ideological colonization of the family,” language that many took as a reference to gay marriage, and also defended a previous pope who upheld the Church’s ban on contraception.
“The family is threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage, by relativism, by the culture of the ephemeral, by a lack of openness to life,” Francis said.
A Vatican spokesman confirmed Friday evening that, at least in part, the pope had gay marriage in mind.
The remarks came in a session Francis held with more than 1,000 families in a downtown Manila arena, amid the pontiff’s Jan. 12-19 trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines.
The pope also issued a strong defense of Pope Paul VI’s controversial 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which upheld the Church’s traditional ban on birth control.
“He had the strength to defend openness to life at a time when many people were worried about population growth,” Francis said.
To be sure, the pontiff also asked priests hearing confessions to be “very generous” in individual cases, meaning that they should show compassion to couples using birth control, but he left no doubt that the broad Catholic rule isn’t about to change.
The pope has said before that marriage is between a man and a woman, and has also defended Paul VI and his position on contraception on multiple occasions — including beatifying Pope Paul last October, the last step before sainthood.
In November 2014, for instance, Francis defended the traditional concept of marriage to a three-day Vatican conference.
The man/woman nature of marriage, he said, is “an anthropological fact … that cannot be qualified based on ideological notions or concepts important only at one time in history.”
The comments also came less than a week after a speech to diplomats at the Vatican in which Francis criticized “legislation which benefits various forms of cohabitation rather than adequately supporting the family for the welfare of society as a whole,” saying that such legislation had contributed to a widespread sense of the family as “disposable.”
On contraception and Paul VI, Francis said in a November 2014 interview with an Italian newspaper that his predecessor’s “genius was prophetic.”
“He had the courage to stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise a ‘brake’ on the culture, to oppose [both] present and future neo-Malthusianism,” he said.
Nonetheless, the fact that Francis chose to repeat those two points here, in a country that recently went through a national debate over a “Reproductive Health” law guaranteeing universal access to contraception despite strong Catholic opposition, is noteworthy.
The comments take on additional significance ahead of a summit of Catholic bishops scheduled for October on issues pertaining to family life, where issues such as marriage and contraception are expected to arise.
During a similar summit last October, called a “Synod of Bishops,” there was robust debate between progressive bishops determined to adopt a more positive language on gays, people living together outside of marriage, and the divorced, and more conservative prelates determined to uphold tradition.
There was a widespread assumption at the time that Francis was backing the progressive side in that argument, leading to speculation in some conservative Catholic circles that the pontiff had stacked the deck to favor certain outcomes.
In light of the pope’s comments in the Philippines, those conclusions may have to be rethought.