VATICAN CITY – The pope pressed his opposition to gay marriage Friday, denouncing what he described as people eschewing their God-given gender identities to suit their sexual choices — and destroying the very “essence of the human creature” in the process.

Benedict XVI made the comments in his annual Christmas address to the Vatican bureaucracy, one of his most important speeches of the year. He dedicated it this year to promoting traditional family values in the face of gains by same-sex marriage proponents in the U.S. and Europe and efforts to legalize gay marriage in places like France and Britain.

In his remarks, Benedict quoted the chief rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, in saying the campaign for granting gays the right to marry and adopt children was an “attack” on the traditional family made up of a father, mother and children.

“People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given to them by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being,” he said. “They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves.

It was the second time in a week that Benedict has taken on the question of gay marriage, which is dividing France, and which scored big electoral wins in the U.S. last month. In his recently released annual peace message, Benedict said gay marriage, like abortion and euthanasia, was a threat to world peace.

The Vatican went on a similar anti-gay marriage media blitz last month after three U.S. states approved gay marriage by popular vote.

After the peace message was released last week, gay activists staged a small protest in St. Peter’s Square. On Friday, gay activists sharply criticized the pope’s take on gender theory and insisted that where gay marriage has been legalized, families are no worse off.

Italy’s main gay rights group Arcigay called the pope’s comments “absurd, dangerous and totally out of synch with reality.”

A coalition of four U.S. Catholic organizations representing gay, lesbian and transgender people said the pope had an “outmoded” view of what it means to be man and woman.