Vatican City Pope John Paul II bitterly denounced the gay pride festival in Rome as offensive to Christians and said Sunday that homosexual acts are "contrary to natural law."
The pontiff spoke from his balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square the day after tens of thousands of people took part in an international gay pride parade in Rome. The parade capped a weeklong festival the Vatican had tried to get canceled.
John Paul expressed what he called "bitterness for the insult" of having the festival "during the grand Jubilee of the year 2000 and for the offense to Christian values in a city that is so dear to the heart of Catholics all over the world."
The Roman Catholic church is celebrating a Holy Year that has attracted millions of pilgrims to Rome.
One of Italy's leading gay activists, Franco Grillini, was swift to respond to the pope's words, which state TV called a "sentence without appeal."
"The true offense is homophobia and anti-gay prejudice fed by the Vatican hierarchy," Grillini said in a statement.
Sunday was the day dedicated to prison inmates, and John Paul visited the capital's oldest prison. He celebrated Mass for incarcerated murderers, thieves, rapists and drug dealers, offering them his personal blessing.
Later, speaking to the faithful gathered in St. Peter's Square, the pontiff condemned the gay pride parade and reminded his listeners of church teachings: "Homosexual acts are against nature's laws," he said.
"The church cannot silence the truth, because this ... would not help discern what is good from what is evil," John Paul added.
At the same time, he said homosexuals should not be the victims of discrimination. Gays should be treated with "respect, compassion, delicacy" because homosexuality is a "disorder," he said.
The Vatican's staunch opposition to World Pride 2000 opened a Pandora's box of anti-gay feelings in Italy, much of it from the political right. But it also put gay rights issues on Italy's public agenda for the first time, mobilizing the gay community and winning it support and sympathy both at home and abroad.
World Pride organizers said they chose Rome for the festival in hopes of opening a dialogue with the church. Instead it highlighted tensions between the two and between Italy's secular and Catholic establishments.
The respected daily Corriere della Sera, in a front-page editorial Sunday, asked why the Vatican hadn't dedicated a Jubilee day to gays, as it has to so many other groups.
"It would have been proof of a real ecumenism and rich generosity in this year of pardon," the paper said.
The Rome daily La Repubblica, meanwhile, reminded readers Sunday that the church has not resolved the problems of pedophilia and homosexuality in the clergy.
The paper's veteran Vatican watcher, Marco Politi, wrote that a report on pedophilia among American priests prepared in April by the pope's guardians of orthodoxy, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, was sealed as a "pontifical secret."