While signaling his openness to welcome transgender people, Pope Francis is receiving criticism for continuing to affirm his strong opposition to teaching gender identity in schools, something he has described as "wickedness."

The pontiff has been credited for leading the Roman Catholic Church toward a more inclusive approach to the LGBT Catholic community. He reaffirmed his stance on Sunday during a press conference on a flight back to Rome from a short trip to Georgia and Azerbaijan.

“Life is life and things must be taken as they come,” he said. “Sin is sin. And tendencies or hormonal imbalances have many problems and we must be careful not to say that everything is the same. Let's go party. No, that no, but in every case I accept it, I accompany it, I study it, I discern it and I integrate it.”

Pope Francis Pope Francis gestures as he speaks to journalists on his flight back to Rome following a visit in Georgia and Azerbaijan, Oct. 2, 2016. Photo: Reuters

However, he hastily requested that the journalists in attendance not interpret his words as "the Pope sanctifies transsexuals." 

"One thing is that a person has this tendency, this condition and even changes their sex, but it's another thing to teach this in line in schools in order to change the mentality," he said. "This is what I call 'ideological colonization.'"

Pope Francis was recounting an interaction with a French man, who said his son had revealed that he wanted to be a girl after being taught gender theory at school. "This is against natural things," Pope Francis said. "Wickedness, which today is done in the indoctrination of gender theory."

The pope’s comments come amid heated debate in the United States over the rights of transgender individuals to use public restrooms that match their gender identity. Earlier this year, North Carolina enacted a law prohibiting people from using public bathrooms that do not match their biological sex. The law has been widely condemned as transphobic.

Pope Francis’ latest comments have been met with a sharp rebuke from Dignity USA, an LGBT Catholic group.

"It’s very disheartening," executive director Marianne Duddy-Burke told International Business Times in a phone interview. "On the one hand, he calls for good pastoral care and accompaniment of LGBT people, while at the same time making such misinformed and hurtful statements about gender identity. It makes it impossible for gay people and trans people to trust that the church understands us and is willing to listen to our stories and provide appropriate care."

Another LGBT Catholic group based in the U.S., New Ways Ministry, similarly criticized the pope’s statements on gender identity.

"The pope’s remarks reveal that he thinks children are being encouraged to choose their genders in a frivolous way," read a statement from executive director Francis DeBernardo. "That simply is not the case."

Duddy-Burke said the pope’s words carry with them a danger for members of the LGBT community, in the U.S. and particularly in places where there are strong anti-LGBT laws.

"The pope’s remarks have a global impact," she added. "I’m gravely concerned that people will use the Pope’s remarks to justify violence against members of our community, particularly those who are most vulnerable."