ROME — Pope Francis, who’s on record in favor of greater roles for women in both church and society, on Wednesday blasted what he called “gender theory,” saying that the elimination of differences between men and women is the problem rather the solution.

The pontiff said that women and men should complement one another based on their distinctive traits, rather than competing with one another. He also said that society has a responsibility to do more in favor of women, recognizing the weight and authority of the female voice.

“As we all know, sexual difference is present in many forms of life, in the long ladder of the living,” the pope said, “but only man and woman carry within them the image and likeness of God.”

The pontiff’s remarks came during his weekly audience in front of thousands gathered in Rome’s St. Peter’s Square.

“Gender theory” is a bit of Vatican shorthand used to describe the ideas of scientists and cultural critics who regard differences between men and women as socially constructed rather than given in nature.

Francis wondered aloud whether such hypotheses aren’t “an expression of frustration and resignation … that aims to erase sexual difference as a result of our inability to confront a problem.”

If men and women are to resolve difficulties in their relationship, the pope said, they need to talk to each other more, listen to one another, get to know each other better, and love each other more.

Francis also spoke about two issues that he said “need to be immediately addressed.”

  • The role of women in society and the Church. Francis said there’s still much to be done to strengthen the reciprocity between men and women. “Women must not only be listened to, but also given real weight and authority,” Francis told the crowd, without adding any concrete details about what such empowerment would look like in practice.

    He added that society hasn’t yet understood what the female mind is capable of giving. Women see things differently than men in a way that complements a man’s way of thinking, he said.

  • “Man and woman created in the image of God.” Francis asserted there’s a “crisis in the collective trust in God.” That crisis, the pope said, “harms us greatly, makes us sick from resignation, disbelief and cynicism,” and “is linked to the crisis of the alliance between man and woman.”

At the end of the audience, the pontiff greeted the husband and daughter of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani woman who’s been convicted of blasphemy against the prophet Mohammed in 2010 and sentenced to hanging.

“I pray for Asia Bibi and for all the persecuted Christians in Pakistan, [and] for all the Christians that are suffering,” the pope said.