ROME—A Spanish cardinal is under fire for issuing warnings about a “gay empire” and denouncing the perils of “gender theory” in a recent homily, with pro-LGBT associations threatening to sue him for being homophobic.

Spain, generally considered one of the world’s most gay-friendly nations, has had anti-discrimination laws including penalties for “hate speech” since 1996.

Defenders of Cardinal Antonio Cañizares of Valencia, however, are quoting Pope Francis’ latest document on the family, which also defends traditional marriage and criticizes gender theory, with the unspoken implication apparently being that if the Spanish prelate is “homophobic,” then so is the pope.

Cañizares, who formerly served as the Vatican’s top official for Catholic liturgy, delivered a homily on May 13 at the local Catholic University, for the closing Mass of the school year at the John Paul II Institute, dedicated to the family.

In his remarks, titled “In defense and support of the family,” Cañizares said “the future of society is played out” in the family, and, because of that, it’s become a target.

“On the one hand, it’s the most valued, at least in the polls and even among young people, social institution, but it’s shaken to its foundations by serious, clear or subtle, threats,” he said.

“The family is haunted today, in our culture, by an endless threat of serious difficulties, and this is not hidden from anyone,” Cañizares continued.

“There we have legislation contrary to the family, the action of political and social forces, with added movements and actions of the gay empire, of ideas such as radical feminism, or the most insidious of all, gender theory.”

“Gender theory” is a somewhat obscure term, but in Catholic parlance it’s 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.

Some gender theorists say that people should be able to identify as male, female, in-between, neither or both, and discourage the stereotypical gender-based divisions, such as dolls for girls and trucks for boys.

Pope Francis is among its critics.

“Gender theory is an error of the human mind that leads to so much confusion,” he said in March 2015, when visiting the southern Italian city of Naples. Later in that speech he said “the family is under attack” because of it.

Soon after Cañizares’ remarks, several pro-LGTB and feminist organizations, such as Lambda, the LGBT collective of Valencia, the Collective for the Sexual-Affective Diversity and the Association of Families with Transsexual Minors announced they were going to file an official complaint with the “Office of Hate Crimes.”

Technically, they intend to charge Cañizares with “apologia,” a term in Spanish law for encouraging or defending a criminal act.

Seeing the reaction, Cañizares decided to publish the homily in full, with an accompanying note asking, “Is it homophobic to defend the family?”

He also requested “objective” lawyers and jurists to look at its content and decide if what he said is in fact “against the law” or homophobic.

In his letter, the cardinal says that the “censorship and condemnation” he received in some media, and the attacks from organizations and politicians, made him recall “stages of our past history” during which homilies and preachers were “censored and condemned.”

Cañizares was referring to Francisco Franco regime, which despite recognizing Catholicism as the official religion, prohibited seditious sermons and other actions deemed to be offensive to the government or the military or damaging to the unity of Spain. Priests accused of these offences would find themselves before a “Tribunal de Orden Público” (Tribunal of Public Order) and charged with heavy fines.

On Sunday the cardinal, former head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, was at it again, asking Catholics to disobey laws they believe to be unfair, based on the “most insidious and destructive ideology of humanity in all its history, which is gender ideology, which global powers try to impose upon us through more or less covert innocuous legislations, which mustn’t be obeyed.”

In his homily for the feast of Corpus Christi, Cañizares also said that Christians are called to “commit ourselves to witness the presence of God in the world. Do not be afraid to talk about God or to show signs of your faith with your head up high.”

He then said that “the public space is not neutral,” something which he argued was made evident by the fact that “in many places one hears disqualifications and attacks on the Christian faith and the Church; constant attacks and harassment by some to religious freedom.”

These groups, he said, would like to see the faith and the Church “confined strictly to the private space.”

At the end of his message, he stressed that the “culture of the Eucharist promotes a culture of dialogue, which in it finds strength and nourishment.”

Therefore, “it is a mistake to think that any public reference to faith will somehow undermine the genuine autonomy of the State [or] of civil institutions, or that it can even encourage attitudes of intolerance.”

However, Cañizares recognized, “there have been errors in history, even among believers… but this is not because of our Christian roots – which are and will always be Eucharistic – but because of the incoherence of Christians with their own roots, the Eucharist. “

As the controversy has mounted, Bishop Esteban Escudero, an auxiliary of Valencia, released a statement supporting the cardinal, saying that in his May 13 homily Cañizares was “defending the family amidst the challenges the pope talks about.”

Escudero quotes Francis’ recent document Amoris Laetitia, on love in the family, released earlier in the year.

In it, the pontiff writes: “Yet another challenge is posed by the various forms of an ideology of gender that denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family.”

Valencia is currently debating what local media describe as a “transsexuality law,” that would allow underage children to have their sexes surgically changed without their parents’ approval, with the government paying for the treatments.

The projected bill also makes it mandatory for schools to teach that “gender is fluid,” and that if she wants to “a girl can have a penis.”

If they refuse, the schools will lose all public funding, and could be fined 45,000 euros for each case raised.

Those opposing the new education bill do so saying it violates the parents’ fundamental rights to educate their children, and that it goes against schools’ religious identities.

Pope Francis has also lambasted what he believes to be an “indoctrination of children” on several occasions, such as April 2015, when he said that eradicating male and female identities does nothing to solve the problem of unfair or disrespectful treatment based on people’s gender.

Going back to April 2014, while addressing members of the International Catholic Child Bureau, Francis called for support of parents’ rights to decide the moral and religious education of their children.

“I would like to express my rejection of any kind of educational experimentation on children. We cannot experiment on children and young people. They are not lab specimens!” the pope said.

“A little over a week ago a great teacher said to me… ‘At times with these projects — referring to actual educational projects — one doesn’t know whether the child is going to school or to a re-education camp’,” he said.