Vatican Marriage Conference Can Endanger the Good Will Pope Francis Has Built

Any good will from gay and lesbian people that was won because of the open discussions at the recent extraordinary synod on marriage and the family will evaporate quickly if events like the one announced yesterday become the order of the day. The Vatican revealed that a major interfaith conference on complementarity in marriage will take place there on November 17-19 of this year.  The meeting is sponsored by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Pontifical Council for the Family, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity are co-sponsors.

According to a Catholic News Service article on the America magazine website, the conference, entitled “Complementarity of Man and Woman,” will feature

“more than 30 speakers representing 23 countries and various Christian churches, as well as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Taoism and Sikhism.”

Pope Francis will give an opening address at the meeting, and we will need  to listen closely to his remarks to see how strongly he defends the church’s traditional view of marriage, the place of complementarity in marriage, and what he might say about same-gender couples.  His remarks in the past on this topic have refreshingly avoided the harsh rhetoric against marriage equality that his predecessors frequently employed.  Speaking at a conference focused on such a pointed topic as complementarity will mean that his rhetoric needs to be very sophisticated if he wants to maintain his otherwise welcoming overtures to lesbian and gay people.  If his praise for complementarity becomes exclusive, he endangers the good will he has built up with LGBT Catholics over the past year and a half.

Of course, in and of itself, a conference on finding ways to support heterosexual marriage is not a bad idea.  But focusing on complementarity, and holding it up as the only ideal for intimate relationships, places same-gender relationships in an inferior position. Moreover, complementarity has been widely criticized as a sexist idea since it reinforces traditional gender roles which put women in inferior positions.  Support heterosexual couples in their marital commitments:  Yes.  Support complementarity as a goal and requirement of marriage: No.’s Inés San Martín explained how “complementarity” is a loaded term in contemporary church discussions:

“Complementarity comes up frequently in Catholic circles as part of the intellectual basis for opposing same-sex marriage, on the grounds that the natural differences between men and women reflect the divine plan for marriage as a union between the two sexes. Given that many of the flash points at the synod revolved around homosexuality and marriage, the agenda for the looming conference seems destined to bring them back to the fore.

“Complementarity has also been invoked by recent popes to defend the Church’s ban on women priests, on the grounds that men and women play different but equally important roles in Catholicism.”

But what makes this conference particularly disappointing is that Vatican leaders have invited representatives from other faiths to come and present their views on marriage, yet the Catholic hierarchy has yet to have a public and serious discussion with members of their own church who have views on marriage which differ from the traditional heterosexual model.   A Religion News Service story on The National Catholic Reporter website described the background of some of those who are invited:

“. . . [T]he conference will include Muslim and Jewish representatives, as well as American leading evangelicals like megachurch pastor Rick Warren and Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore.Organizers say the new conference will show that while the Catholic hierarchy is split on how to address contemporary challenges to marriage and family life, the church can nonetheless seek common ground with religious leaders outside the Vatican. . . .

” ‘I am willing to go anywhere, when asked, to bear witness to what we as evangelical Protestants believe about marriage and the gospel, especially in times in which marriage is culturally imperiled,’ said Moore, who heads the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. . . .

“The conference will include Wael Farouq, a Muslim and president of the Tawasul Cultural Center in Cairo; Henry B. Eyring, an top-ranking apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; and Manmohan Singh of the World Sikh Council.”

The Catholic News Service story detailed more of the participants:

“. . . Mercy Sister Prudence Allen, former chair of the philosophy department at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, whom Pope Francis named to the International Theological Commission in September.

“Other notable speakers will include Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Great Britain, and Anglican Bishops N.T. Wright and Michael Nazir-Ali.” also mentioned two more participants: Jacqueline Cooke-Rivers, a doctoral fellow in African and African-American Studies at Harvard University, and Johann Christoph Arnold, a pastor with the Bruderhof Communities.

Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput, who will host the September 2015 World Meeting of Families, will also be a speaker.  After the synod, Chaput had commented on that meeting, stating: “I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was of confusion.”   Given his strong opposition to the synod’s more open discussions, it makes one wonder if this event will be used to repudiate any of the more positive messages that came out of  the bishops’ discussions last month.

Conference organizers say that the conference’s purpose is to

“examine and propose anew the beauty of the relationship between the man and the woman, in order to support and reinvigorate marriage and family life for the flourishing of human society.”

Helen Alvare, a Catholic commentator known for her conservative positions, is the spokesperson for the event, and she told that she sees the meeting is being very much in line with Pope Francis’ call for wide discussion:

“For Alvare, the exchange is an answer to Pope Francis’ call to ‘look, listen, face reality, [and] get people from around the world to tell us their situation.’

“ ‘I know I’m not seeing things,’ she said. ‘With his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium and his final speech at the synod, he’s telling us to open the dialogue. Solidarity between religions and cultures is possible.’ “

If Pope Francis truly wants to open the dialogue, he should host a Vatican meeting to listen to and interact with LGBT Catholics and other advocates of marriage equality to hear their points of view.  Hosting a conference for those who agree with the church’s traditional view of marriage is not something new and it is not something needed.  Vatican officials, and the world, have heard that position over and over and over.  Opening the dialogue would occur if the all points of view were heard.  And solidarity with conservative religious leaders is less important than solidarity with LGBT Catholics and their supporters, who have been asking for a dialogue with the Catholic hierarchy for decades now.

At the conclusion of the conference, participants will issue a “Declaration on Marriage.”  Key to this document will be how it describes and evaluates same-gender couples and marriage equality laws.  Even though the Vatican is not ready to recognize same-gender couples, they should still be able to find a way to support heterosexual couples without relying on devaluing lesbian/gay relationships, or promoting sexist notions of complementarity.

Pope Francis, known for outreach and reconciliation, may have his work cut out for himself after this conference is over.  His best option is to give equal time to at least Catholic advocates who are working to ensure that all couples and families that are based on loving relationships are recognized and blessed.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related article:

Christianity Today: Pope Francis Wants To Know What Rick Warren, Russell Moore, N. T. Wright Think about Marriage”





14 replies
  1. Lynne Miller
    Lynne Miller says:

    it should also be remembered that there is more than one area of complementarity. it should exist in personalities, likes and dislikes, ways of living and being. it is not just a genital thing.

  2. Friends
    Friends says:

    I agree with you about the risk here. The least Pope Francis could do would be to include Anglican-affiliated prelates from England and the United States, who have been very articulate in their support of same-sex civil marriage — while not demanding that the Church itself be willing unconditionally to sacramentalize civil marriages. The Anglican representatives named as participants come from the extreme conservative right-wing of the Anglican Communion. And Chaput’s participation is a particular atrocity. I wonder if Francis has been blindsided by some internal “advisors” who work with him on such logistical issues and initiatives. And I totally agree that the progressive Catholic press, and its top-drawer writers and commentators — such as Francis’ fellow Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese — ought to raise a hue and cry about the narrowness of the official presenters’ list.

  3. poolgirl2
    poolgirl2 says:

    This is an atrocity and a slap in the face for those who seek respect, dignity, and equality for all. The Vatican has already heard from these same types of voices, over and over again. The ability to celebrate a heterosexual marriage is not impacted or denigrated by accepting same-sex relationships. They are not mutually exclusive, but another opportunity to embrace all of God’s children. I find it difficult to understand that Pope Francis would support this type of ultra-conservative kangaroo court without a deeper purpose. At least, I hope all these “experts” on marriage and family are paying all of their own expenses. My donations to the Church have already dwindled as I have chosen more worthy and fair venues for my funds and time.

    Still praying for Pope Francis and equality and love for all.

    PAULA RUDDY says:

    Hi, Francis.  Alarming indeed.  Is someone preparing an in-depth analysis of the scientific data on gender?  What is complementarity when you consider the multiple factors that go into gender identity?   I think that data should start making the news in order to undermine the presumption that men are men and women are women in any monolithic way.  What do you think?  Paula

  5. Malcolm McPherson
    Malcolm McPherson says:

    It is indeed alarming that the conversation is framed in this way. Is anyone presenting empirical evidence on what makes a relationship work? The assumption that the effectiveness of relationships is entirely due to gender differences requires testing. It is an assumption by people who have been exposed to a limited range of relationships. Excluding people in same gender or gender queer relationships and then drawing conclusions on the basis of those who remain has little validity.

    • Friends
      Friends says:

      Those are “BANG ON” observations, Malcolm. I can’t imagine what might have possessed Pope Francis, if indeed he is willingly and consciously and deliberately agreeing to give a public forum to the most retrograde (and in some cases hateful) opinions in contemporary theological discourse. We can only hope that he has a “Jesuit Trick” up his sleeve: i.e., perhaps to allow these far-right-wing reactionary elements to have their say — but then ultimately to coax everyone back to the primacy of Caritas. In the immortal words of St. Paul, in Second Corinthians: “Now, Faith Hope and Love, these three abide: but the greatest of these is Love!” Everything about his Papacy so far has pointed us in the clear direction of the primacy of love. I have no idea what he’s up to, in giving a public voice to those who, like Archbishop Okoh, seem to espouse the primacy of hate. Fr. Tom Reese: are you reading this blog? PLEASE write a public response — which hopefully your fellow Jesuit, Pope Francis, may discover, and ponder seriously,

  6. J. Martindale
    J. Martindale says:

    It would be best if the Pope clearly accepted secular marriage as separate and distict from sacramental matrimony. If he left to Caesar what was Caesar’s, he could avoid unnecessary confrontations with supporters of marriage equality. The social and human benefits of same sex marriage cannot be denied. There are practical financial and social benefits accrued which do nothing to affect the lives of heterosexual married couples nor the sanctity of Catholic matrimony. Such unions benefit society by bringing stability to the lives of same sex couples and their families. By taking this approach, too, the Pope could extinguish much of the discord that it now engenders in families with gay and lesbian members.

  7. tgflux
    tgflux says:

    “it’s worth noting that the participants include Nicholas Okoh, the Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria”

    Okoh?! ARREST him for conspiracy to violate human rights! (Nazir-Ali is barely any better—Muslims may want to arrest him, too—and N.T. Wright is still inexcusably homophobic)

    As an Anglican/Episcopalian (and queer), I’m offended that THESE are the ones thought appropriate to represent Anglicans at this marriage conference [Okoh isn’t even in communion w/ the Anglican Communion as a whole anyway, nor is (anymore, I believe) Nazir-Ali]. Where is the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby? Where is Presiding Bishop (of the Episcopal Church) Katharine Jefferts Schori? Where is (retired) Bishop Gene Robinson?

    • poolgirl2
      poolgirl2 says:

      Thus entire fiasco seems very poorly thought out and it seems impossible that Pope Francis approved or supported it. I am praying that there ix more to it than we are aware of and many lessons will be learned from it that will prompt equality and support from these bigots and hypocrites. God does work mysterious ways.

  8. Andrew
    Andrew says:

    What do you expect? That with everything Pope Francis has been saying will automatically lead to a change in teaching? And has anyone actually read some of what Francis said when he was a Cardinal? He has not once retracted anything he has said. If you expect Francis to be the great hope in a change of approach, absolutely. But to change teaching! Don’t. He did in fact speak firmly on complementarity and what marriage is. And read what reprsentatives from many other faiths have said too, this view in marriage is NOT uniquely Catholic.

    Quote St Paul….and quote him in what he says about marriage etc as well.

    And this Conference has been months, maybe years in the planning, predating Francis’ election. And what do you say to Gays who abide by church teaching?

    • Malcolm McPherson
      Malcolm McPherson says:

      Andrew, you are quite true to say that the Catholic view of marriage is not uniquely Catholic. Homophobia (or, more accurately, heterosexism) is not the exclusive preserve of the Catholic Church just as racism is not exclusively an issue for white people. LGBTI people are a small proportion of the population and will always be seen as ‘different’. That does not mean that we should be considered to be ‘disordered’. There are left-handed people I know who were forced to write with their right hand at school. Schools now accept left-handedness simply as different, a normal if uncommon variation, and not a problem to be corrected.


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