ROME – In one of his strongest defenses of traditional Catholic teaching on relations between the sexes to date, Pope Francis on Thursday insisted that modern assaults on the notion of intrinsic biological differences between men and women threaten both human dignity and the development of persons and societies.

However, in typical Francis fashion, the pontiff combined his endorsement of tradition with what is often considered a more progressive cause, insisting that among the threats to life looming in the 21st century is a continuing inability to acknowledge and promote the full equality of women.

The pope’s remarks came as he was addressing the general assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life, his first such speech since he appointed Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia to head the body. The theme of the meeting is “Accompany life: New responsibilities in the technological era,” which Francis described as challenging yet necessary.

His remarks on male/female differences are likely to garner especially strong support from pro-life forces in the Catholic Church, some of which recently have expressed concerns about the new direction set by Francis for the Academy for Life, which they have perceived as moving away from its traditionally strong focus on the pro-life message.

From the beginning of his papacy, Francis has often criticized so-called “gender theory” which treats the differences between the sexes as elective and socially constructed rather than biologically determined. While that has been a recurrent theme, the pope’s rhetoric on Thursday was especially sharp.

According to the pontiff, the “recently introduced hypothesis” of promoting dignity of the human person by radically neutralizing the sexual differences between men and women is “not fair.”

Instead of contrasting the negative interpretation of sexual differences, Francis argued, this hypothesis attempts to “de-facto cancel these differences,” proposing practices that make them irrelevant for the “development of the person and human relations.

“Yet the utopia of ‘neutral’ removes at the same time both the human dignity of the diverse sexual constitution, and the personal quality of the generative transmission of life,” he said.

While discussion of gender theory can seem abstract, it has direct consequences for a number of hot-button issues, especially in Western cultures today, including same-sex marriage and transgender rights.

In effect, the pope’s message amounted to a strong re-affirmation of the traditional Catholic position that differences between men and women are rooted in nature and ultimately reflect the plan of God for human life.

“The biologic and psychological manipulation of sexual difference, which biomedical technology allows one to see as open to free choice – which it’s not! – is thus likely to dismantle the source of energy that nourishes the alliance of man and woman and makes it creative and fruitful,” Francis said.

In many parts of the world, Francis said, men, women and children experience with “bitterness and pain” the promises of the renewed technocratic materialism, because, instead of the promised well-being that would allegedly automatically follow the growth of markets, what has grown are the terrains of “poverty and conflict, of throwaway and abandonment, of resentment and desperation.”

An authentic scientific and technological progress, he added, should inspire more humane politics.

The world, he said, needs Catholic faithful who are “creative and proactive, humble and courageous,” determined to fix the fracture between generations. This fracture, Francis told those present, “interrupts the transmission of life.”

According to the pope, “a new beginning must be written in the ethos of peoples,” and it can be achieved through a renewed culture of identity and difference. In addition, he said, the “forms of subordination that have sadly marked the history of women,” have to be eradicated.

The issue of the dignity of women, according to Francis, is not only in the sphere of “equal opportunities or reciprocal recognition.” The real issue, he said, is that of a “shared understanding between men and women about the meaning of life.”

Men and women, he said, are called not only to talk to each other about love, but “with love.” They must talk and become allies, because “neither of the two, nor man alone nor woman alone,” are capable of guaranteeing that human co-existence is done in the light of the “love of God for every creature.”

Together, men and women “were created, in their blessed difference; together they have sinned, for their presumption to replace God; together, with the grace of Christ, they return to God’s presence, to honor the care of the world and the history that He has entrusted to them. ”

Members of the Pontifical Academy for Life are meeting in Rome Oct. 5-7.