Pope Benedict XVI, offering his first detailed critique of gay unions since his elevation to the pontificate six weeks ago, yesterday described same-sex marriages as ''pseudo-matrimony."
In a speech to a conference on families held by the Diocese of Rome, Benedict made clear in strong language that he intends to pursue the hard-line defense of traditional Catholic teachings that made him controversial in his role as Pope John Paul II's chief enforcer of church doctrine.
''The various forms of the dissolution of matrimony today, like free unions, trial marriages and going up to pseudo-matrimonies by people of the same sex, are rather expressions of an anarchic freedom that wrongly passes for true freedom of man," he said, speaking at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome.
The pope also criticized divorce and artificial contraception in his speech, in which he referred to ''banalization of the human body" and said ''the greatest expression of freedom is not the search for pleasure," according to the Reuters news agency.
Benedict made his remarks at a time when same-sex marriage has become a hotly contested public policy issue in Western societies. Same-sex marriage was legalized in Massachusetts last year, although the Legislature is still deciding whether to put on the ballot a measure banning gay marriage, and same-sex unions are legal in Vermont and Connecticut. Same-sex marriage is legal in Belgium, the Netherlands, and parts of Canada, and Spain has been moving toward legalization.
But the development has sparked resistance, especially in the United States, where many states have passed laws or constitutional amendments prohibiting same-sex marriage. Most recently, the California Legislature defeated a measure legalizing same-sex marriage.
Before he became pope, Benedict -- then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- was the primary explainer of Pope John Paul II's oft-stated opposition to same-sex marriage. In 2003, Ratzinger wrote an important Vatican document outlining the church's opposition to same-sex marriage; the document became controversial because of its assertion that ''Allowing children to be adopted by persons living in such unions would actually mean doing violence to these children, in the sense that their condition of dependency would be used to place them in an environment that is not conducive to their full human development."
Benedict's opposition to homosexuality is longstanding. In 1986, Ratzinger signed another doctrinal document declaring that ''It is only in the marital relationship that the use of the sexual faculty can be morally good. A person engaging in homosexual behavior therefore acts immorally."
''This does not mean that homosexual persons are not often generous and giving of themselves," he wrote then, ''but when they engage in homosexual activity they confirm within themselves a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent."
Benedict has spoken frequently about his concern that there is no absolute sense of right and wrong in modern society. On April 18, before the conclave at which he was elected pope, he warned that ''We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires."
Since his election, the pope has spoken only a few times about political matters; last week he declared his support for an effort by the Italian bishops to persuade voters to boycott a referendum that would overturn a law restricting fertility treatments.
Scholars said Benedict's remarks yesterday were unsurprising, but serve as a reminder that the direct language and doctrinal orthodoxy for which he has been known are not likely to change.
''This is blunt, but it's intentional," said Chester Gillis, chairman of the theology department at Georgetown University. ''He's not a man who speaks idly or without preparation. He wants a sharp demarcation between Christian values and what contemporary culture might condone -- there's a sharp line and he wants to make that clear."
Gillis said Benedict's remarks fit in, not only with his critique of homosexual relationships, but also with his expressed concerns about contemporary culture, which he views as overly secular.
''This is confirming what everybody knew about this pope," Gillis said.
A former student of Benedict said the pope's description of same-sex marriages as an expression of ''anarchic freedom" refers to a contemporary philosophy that ''we can do whatever we wish." Benedict believes instead in a form of human freedom that is limited by God's will, according to the scholar, the Rev. Joseph Fessio.
''This is not a surprise -- you'll find this statement in the catechism of the Catholic Church and everywhere you look for it in the whole 2,000-year history of the church," said Fessio, who founded Ignatius Press, which has published Benedict's works in the United States.
But gay rights advocates criticized the pope's remarks, as expected as they might have been.
''The comments by Pope Benedict XVI on gay civil marriage. . . sadly reflect what many had feared would be the continued language of hatred and disrespect that has come from the Vatican for many years towards gays and lesbians," said Charles Martel, a Catholic layman who serves on the board of the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry, a Massachusetts organization. ''The pope is creating a dangerous climate of inciting hatred towards gays and lesbians, and needs to be held accountable in attempting to encourage civil societies to perpetuate this prejudice."
And in Washington, Joe Solmonese, an Attleboro native who serves as president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy organization, said in a statement, ''It is unfortunate that the pope would choose so early in his pontificate to sweepingly condemn so many faithful Catholics. There is a long biblical tradition of showing love and compassion for all. It is from that tradition that so many fair-minded Catholics want to see their pope speaking."
Michael Paulson can be reached at email@example.com.