On the eve of the Synod on the Family, where questions of same-sex marriage will arise, a high-profile cardinal has said that "homosexual unions" are a problem not just for the Catholic Church, but for all of humanity.
In an interview with Italian daily La Repubblica, African cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, called such relationships "retrogressive for culture and civilisation".
“No non-western culture is moving in the direction of approving homosexual unions. No one in African culture looks on this with approval because this is a union that is not open to life,” he said.
“Homosexual unions are completely against God’s plan, which was to create man and woman who complement one another perfectly. And the family and the future of society comes from this [hetrosexual] union. A homosexual union has no future, it does not create life . . .”
Cardinal Sarah's comments echo those of the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who in May called the resounding Yes victory in the Irish same sex-marriage referendum "a disaster for humanity". The question of the church's pastoral approach to gay people, which prompted bitter divisions at last year's first Synod on the Family, seems sure to figure again over the next three weeks of synod debate.
The comments came on a day when US media reported that, during his visit to the US last week, Pope Francis had a private meeting with Kim Davis, the Rowan County clerk who chose to go to jail last month rather than issue marriage licences to same-sex couples.
Speaking to the conservative Catholic group Liberty Counsel, Ms Davis said that she met the pope in the Vatican nunciature in Washington last Thursday, the day he was in the US capital to address Congress. She said that the pope had thanked her for her "courage" and had told her to "stay strong".
The Vatican will neither confirm nor deny the meeting, but that is normal Holy See practice for a so-called private meeting. On the papal flight back from the US on Monday, the pope was asked about “those individuals, including government officials, who say they cannot in good conscience . . . discharge their duties as government officials, for example in issuing marriage licences to same-sex couples”.
Without naming Ms Davis, the pope told reporters that Catholics had the right to conscientious objection, adding: “Yes, I can say that conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right . . . Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure . . . ”.
During that same press conference, Pope Francis sparked a huge row concerning the mayor of Rome, Ignazio Marino, who was present at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. In an unprecedented reprimand, the pontiff vehemently denied he had invited the mayor to the US, adding that the mayor had travelled of his own volition.
Many commentators believe that the papal put-down owes itself to the fact that last May, Mr Marino instituted Rome’s first ever same-sex civil unions.