The leader of the world’s largest Christian denomination has called upon Italians to oppose moves to grant a form of civil partnership to gay and lesbian couples.

The centre-left coalition government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi, elected in May, has promised some limited form of partnership legislation.

Speaking to a conference in Verona, the 79-year-old celibate Pontiff gave his views on the nature of love. He said the Church said “‘yes’ to authentic love, to the reality of man as he was created by God”.

He contrasted this with saying “‘no’ to weak and deviant forms of love.”

In a direct attempt to interfere with the political process in Italy, Benedict urged his audience to beware, “the risk of political and legislative decisions that contradict fundamental values and anthropological and ethical principles rooted in human nature.”

Benedict used a defence of the family as cover for his attack on gay people, saying: “the family based on matrimony, opposing the introduction of laws on other forms of unions which would only destabilise it and obscure its special character and its social role, which has no substitute”.

The Pontiff said the Church was not acting politically and merely wanted to help shape social policy in Italy.

Pope Benedict may have a fight on his hands. The broadly-based coalition government, which replaced the right-wing administration of bandana-wearing Silvio Berlusconi, is committed to some sort of legal recognition of gay and lesbian relationships.

Italian gay rights group Gayleft accused the Pope of having “offended the dignity of millions of Italian men and women.”