An Italian cardinal has criticised other church leaders for opposing the legal recognition of same-sex partnerships.

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini told Italian pilgrims in Bethlehem yesterday that, “The Church does not give orders.”

His statement is seen by many as a clear rebuke to the Pope’s stance in the current Italian same-sex union row.

The retired cardinal was speaking at the basilica of the Nativity, celebrating mass with 1,300 visitors from Milan.

Cardinal Martini, 80, also believes that the Catholic church should actively try to make Catholic beliefs attractive to the secular community.

He said: “It is necessary to listen to others, and when speaking to use terms that they understand,” according to cwnews.com.

Martini has long been an outspoken advocate of more liberal views within the Catholic church, and has contradicted the church’s views on issues such as stem cell research, abortion and condom use.

Earlier this week the Pope said that politicians have a moral duty to vote against gay marriage or partnership legislation.

In a 140-page document covering a range of moral issues, Pope Benedict has reiterated his hard-line attitude towards gay people.

The Apostolic Exhortation, published on Tuesday, calls on all Catholics to uphold what the Pontiff refers to as fundamental values.

“Catholic politicians and legislators, conscious of their grave responsibility before society, must feel particularly bound, on the basis of a properly formed conscience, to introduce laws inspired by values grounded in human nature,” he wrote, according to Reuters.

The Pope said it was up to individual bishops whether to deny the sacrament of communion to politicians who defy the church’s teaching.

Cardinal Martini was once considered a leading candiate for the Papacy.

When he stepped down as Archbishop of Milan in 2005, after 22 years in the job, he was described by Vatican watchers as “The man who should have been Pope.”