ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE—In another wide-raging papal press conference on his way back to Rome after a trip abroad, this time from Georgia and Azerbaijan, Pope Francis on Sunday once again blasted “the indoctrination of gender theory,” answered a question about the “difficult choice” American Catholics face in the upcoming election, and discussed new cardinals and future papal trips.

Gender theory

Francis distinguished the Church’s pastoral accompaniment of homosexual persons, which he encourages, from what he described as the “indoctrination of gender theory.”

“First of all, I’ve accompanied in my life as a priest, a bishop, and even as pope, people with homosexual tendencies or even homosexual practices, I’ve led them closer to the Lord,” the pope said, after a journalist asked him about how to accompany a person who fought for years with his [or her] sexuality, who feels there’s a biological problem, that his [or her] physical body doesn’t correspond with what he or she considers to be their sexual identity.

Some people, Francis said, “can’t” get closer to the Lord, but the pope said he’s never abandoned them, because people must be accompanied “as Jesus accompanies.”

“When a person who has this condition gets in front of Jesus, Jesus won’t say ‘leave because you’re homosexual,” the pope said. (In Italian, the word “condition” means “situation,” without any negative connotation.)

On Saturday in Georgia, Francis described gender theory as a “global war against the family.”

Asked about that remark, Francis shared the experience of talking with a French man, who, like his wife, was Catholic. The man told the pope about asking his 10-year old son what he wanted to be when he grew up, and the child answering “a woman.”

“The dad remembered that in the schoolbooks they taught gender theory. And this is against natural things,” the pope said, before distinguishing between people who have “this tendency, option and even change sex,” from “teaching in school about this, to change mentalities.”

“This is what I call ideological colonization,” Francis said.

The pope also spoke about having received a letter from a Spanish person who was born a girl but, as a child, felt like a man. This person told Francis that he had told his mother he wanted to have his sex reassigned, but the mother asked him to wait until after her death.

Eventually, the person had a sex-reorientation surgery, and went to the local bishop, who, Francis said, could perhaps have been seen as “wasting time to accompany this man.”

“He who was a she, but is a he,” Francis said, referring to the trans person accompanied by the bishop, actually wrote to the pope last year, saying that it’d be a great consolation for him to visit the pope with his wife.

He also spoke about two priests, an older one who was welcoming of the trans person and a younger one who wasn’t, who’d shout to him “You’ll go to hell,” while the 80-year old priest offered to hear the trans person’s confession so he could receive Communion.

“Life is life, things have to be accepted as they come. Sin is sin,” the pope said. “Tendencies, hormonal imbalance, have and cause so many problems… we must be attentive. Not to say that it’s all the same, but in each case, welcome, accompany, study, discern and integrate. This is what Jesus would do today.”

Before moving on to the next question, Francis added: “Please don’t say that the pope will sanctify trans [transgender people], because I read the headlines in the newspapers.”

“I want to be clear, this is a problem of morals. It’s a problem. It’s a human problem that has to be resolved as it can, always with God’s mercy,” he said.

Francis has spoken about gender theory many times before. On Saturday, during a meeting with religious men and women in Georgia, he called it “the great enemy of marriage.”

U.S. elections

On the U.S. elections, no candidates were named in the question put to the pope. Instead, Francis was asked about what a faithful Catholic should do when there’s a candidate who diverts from some aspects of Church teaching, and another who’s made statements vilifying immigrants and religious minorities.

“You’re asking me a question where you describe a difficult choice,” Francis said. “Because according to you, there are difficulties in one and the other. I never say anything on political campaigns. The people are sovereign.”

He did however, give some generic advice: “Study well the proposals, pray, and choose in conscience.”

Francis then said he wanted to respond in a hypothetical way, talking about a case in a country where there are three or four candidates and none satisfies everyone. That means, he said, the political life of that country might be “too politicized” but it doesn’t have “political culture.”

One of the jobs of the Church and the university, he continued, is to teach about political culture, because, he said, there are countries in Latin America where people claim to belong to one party or the other, but at an emotional level, “without clear thought about the bases, the proposals.”

A war against marriage

During the same gathering with religious on Saturday where he spoke about gender theory, Francis also said that when people divorce, they make God “dirty.” A journalist asked him if this strong position wasn’t in contradiction with the idea of having a more welcoming attitude towards divorced people, something he asked in his document on the family Amoris Laetitia.

Francis insisted on there being a global war against marriage, which comes in the form of a culture or philosophy which says “do this, when you tire, do that.”

“Marriage is in God’s image, man and woman, one flesh,” the pontiff said. “When this is destroyed, the image of God is sullied or disfigured.”

Francis then went on to say that Amoris Laetitia talks about wounded families, and in those cases, mercy is needed, because “weakness or sin don’t have the last word. Mercy has the last word.”

The pope also advised the faithful to read and re-read Amoris Laetitia in full, not only chapter eight [which deals with families in difficult situations, such as divorced and civilly remarried Catholics].

He once again reiterated the four criteria for pastoral care of wounded families: “Welcoming,” “accompanying,” “discerning” in each case, and “integrating.”

Future trips, new cardinals and his candidacy for the Nobel Peace Prize

As is usually the case, one of the questions to the pope was on possible future trips. Francis confirmed a visit to Fatima, in Portugal, to mark the 100th anniversary of the apparitions of the Virgin, saying that to this point, it’s a one-day trip on May 13.

He also said he wants to go to Bangladesh and India next year, and also make a trip to Africa, to countries still unconfirmed. These will depend on the time of the year when he can make the trip, to accommodate weather conditions, and also of situations of current ongoing conflicts.

Italian journalists asked the pope about when he’s planning to create new cardinals, and what will be the selection criteria.

Francis said he’s still pondering a “long” list of names from which only 13 can be chosen, since in theory, there can’t be more than 120 cardinal electors under the age of 80 in a future conclave that would eventually replace him. (Of course, popes can and have dispensed from that limit over the years.)

Regarding the criteria for new cardinals, he said it’ll be the same “as the last two times,” meaning trying to have a college of cardinals that is representative of the global church and not only of Europe. Among the cardinals he’s created, there are several countries that got one for the first time, such as Vietnam.

He refused to give a date for a consistory, saying only that it’d be “soon,” either before the end of the year or early 2017.

The Spanish-speaking journalists asked the pope about who would be his candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, to be awarded on Oct. 8. He deflected, saying it’d be “too hard to choose among so many people working for peace.”

Yet, asking to set the Nobel aside, Francis said he’d like to see the international community recognizing the children, the ill, the elderly, and the civilians who’ve died because of bombardments.

“I believe that this is a sin,” he said. “It’s a sin against Jesus Christ because the flesh of those defenseless children, sick and elderly is the flesh of Christ.”

Jesus, the pope added, has already said that those who make peace are blessed. On the victims of war something has to be said, he added, because the tragedies such as the bombing of a children’s hospital, where 30 or 40 die, “is the tragedy of our days.”

The pontiff appeared to be referring to the recent bombing of a pediatric hospital in Aleppo, Syria, amid the current bombing campaign led by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies. Of the 22 hospitals in Aleppo before the war began, only five are currently still operational.