By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
PARIS (Reuters)- France's top Catholic prelate criticized the Socialist government on Thursday for forging ahead with plans to legalize same-sex marriage when the country faced more urgent economic concerns.
Paris Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois spoke as the Church's main charity agency issued a report showing more and more women in France falling below the poverty line in the past decade and fewer poor people succeeding in rising above it.
Vingt-Trois, a leading critic of the marriage reform, said left-wing attacks on the Church for opposing it showed some supporters did not want a real debate about the fundamental changes he said it would bring about in French society.
"We regret that the government's choice focuses public attention so much on an issue that's actually secondary," Vingt-Trois told the closing session of a conference of French bishops in the southwestern pilgrimage town of Lourdes.
"The priority concerns plaguing our fellow citizens (are) the consequences of the economic and financial crisis - factory closings, rising unemployment, growing insecurity of the poorest families," he said.
The cardinal also defended his call last week for Catholics to mobilize against the reform, which the National Assembly will begin examining in January and vote on by mid-2013.
Gay activists and some left-wing politicians have hit back at his comments, branding them shocking and fundamentalist. Some have asked whether religious leaders should speak out about political issues in a secular republic.
When the draft law was presented in cabinet, Socialist President Francois Hollande said it represented "progress not only for a few, but for the whole society," a spokeswoman said.
That was a clear response to a speech by Vingt-Trois last week in which he said gay marriage was "a fraud" favoring a tiny minority rather than all French citizens.
"These reactions, which are more varied than we expected, show the problems people have when they ask real questions about the pertinence or urgency of this plan," he said in Lourdes.
He rejected accusations of homophobia, saying, "Denouncing the fraud of same-sex marriage does not prevent us from understanding the need homosexuals feel for recognition, a need this supposed marriage will not satisfy."
The opposition campaign has dominated the public debate in recent weeks, prompting a dip in voter support to around 60 percent for gay marriage and around 50 percent for gay adoption.
If the law is passed, France, a traditionally Catholic society where churchgoers are now a minority single-digit percentage of the population, would become the 12th country in the world to allow same-sex marriage.
France legalized gender-neutral civil unions in 1999 and almost as many are contracted now as traditional marriages. But only 4 percent of those are among same-sex couples.
Secours Catholique, the French branch of the international Catholic charity Caritas, said in its report that 14 percent of the French lived in poverty, which it defined as about 950 euros ($1,200) a month for an individual or 2,000 euros for a couple with two children.
Two-thirds of them were unemployed now compared to 58 percent a decade ago. Women now made up 57 percent of those in poverty compared to 50 percent ten years ago.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)