Pope Francis denounced how new technologies are making it easier for people to change their genders, saying this "utopia of the neutral" jeopardizes the creation of new life.
Francis made the comments Thursday to the Pontifical Academy for Life, the Vatican's bioethics advisory board, taking up his criticism of so-called gender theory and the idea that people can choose their sex.
Such advances in "biomedical technology," he said, "risk dismantling the source of energy that fuels the alliance between men and women and renders them fertile."
The academy under the previous two popes represented the leading, hard-line voice of the Catholic Church on sexual ethics, morality and culture war issues such as abortion and euthanasia. Francis has revamped it to broaden its scope to better reflect his holistic view of human life in concert with creation.
But Francis kept to the church's hard line against gender theory in his first meeting with the new members on Thursday, lashing out at how today's exaltation of individual choice extends to one's gender thanks to technological advances.
"Rather than contrast negative interpretations of sexual differences ... they want to cancel these differences out altogether, proposing techniques and practices that render them irrelevant for human development and relations," he said.
In response, LGBTQ Catholic groups urged Francis to become better educated on gender identity. Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, an LGBTQ-affirming Catholic advocacy organization, said Francis has catching up to do on transgender issues.
"In his comments about gender identity, Francis has shown that he does not really understand the biology or the psychology of gender identity," DeBernardo told NBC News. "He and others in the Vatican really need to educate themselves about new scientific developments in the area of gender before making any statements about technologies that help people transition."
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity USA, an organization that focuses on LGBTQ rights within the Catholic Church, echoed DeBernardo.
"I think Pope Francis doesn't understand how his comments increase the vulnerability of transgender people to many forms of discrimination," Duddy-Burke said. "We know from history that people are going to live their truth with or without technological solutions, and for those who are able to take advantage of technologies to confirm their true identities should be embraced as a blessing."
Francis has in the past spoken out against transgender people, once comparing gender transitions to nuclear weapons.
"Let's think of the nuclear arms, of the possibility to annihilate in a few instants a very high number of human beings," Francis told the National Catholic Reporter in 2015. "Let's think also of genetic manipulation, of the manipulation of life, or of the gender theory, that does not recognize the order of creation."
Austen Hartke, creator of the YouTube series "Transgender and Christian," attempted to explain Francis' comparison: "He was saying nuclear weapons don't promote life, and messing with a bi-gender view of humanity was something that was destructive."
"The main gist is gender-conforming surgeries for people are life-saving for trans folks," Hartke said. "They do provide life in a definite and distinct way. [Francis] just isn't familiar with how these things work. I hope the more trans people he meets, his views change a bit."
Many LGBTQ people of faith consider Francis more progressive than previous popes but still consider comments like the one he made Thursday to be signs that he has room to grow on issues pertaining to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community. For many LGBTQ Catholics, disappointment, not outright scorn, was the common sentiment.
"We've had an active transgender support caucus at Dignity USA since the early '70s," Duddy-Bruke said. "In recent months, I've met three families with transgender kids under 10 who are dealing with how to incorporate them into Catholic life. This is an issue the Church needs to learn how to deal with effectively, and this can best be done by listening to the experiences of transgender people rather than coming at it through a dogmatic stance, which it appears the Pope has done today."
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