Pope Francis supported heterosexual complementarity in a speech on Sunday given to 25,000 people gathered in St. Peter’s Square for a pastoral conference for the Diocese of Rome.
Though he did not mention lesbian and gay couples, the timing of the speech seemed significant to some since it came a day after tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of the Eternal City to celebrate LGBT Pride and to call for marriage equality in Italy.
Religion News Service captured significant quotes from the papal talk:
“. . . [T]he pope said the differences between men and women are fundamental and ‘an integral part of being human.’
“The pontiff likened a long-lasting marriage to a good wine, in which a husband and wife make the most of their gender differences.
“ ‘They’re not scared of the differences!’ the pope said. ‘What great richness this diversity is, a diversity which becomes complementary, but also reciprocal. It binds them, one to the other.’
“Heterosexual marriages not only ensured couples’ happiness, the pontiff said, but were deemed essential for good parenting.
“ ‘Children mature seeing their father and mother like this; their identity matures being confronted with the love their father and mother have, confronted with this difference,’ Francis said.”
It has become part of Francis’ rhetorical style not to criticize lesbian and gay couples directly, but to indirectly cast judgement on them by effusively praising heterosexual complementarity. Yet, his remarks cast aspersions on more than lesbian and gay couples. In praising heterosexual complementarity as the preferred norm for marriage and child-rearing, he is also sending harmful messages to those in heterosexual marriages where abuse occurs, as well as to single-parent families.
Francis’ remark that gender differences are “an integral part of being human” ignores the fact that decades of scientific and social scientific research has shown that what people consider “natural” gender differences are actually the result of cultural biases and stereotypes.
I don’t know of anyone who is “scared” of gender differences, as the pope seems to imply, but I know many people who rightly fear that rigid adherence to constricting gender roles suppresses and represses individual talents, thoughts, and emotions. Of all the problems plaguing contemporary marriages and families, complementarity is definitely not one of them. Most happy heterosexual couples that I know are happy because they equally and mutually integrate their lives together, not because they feel they need the other partner to “complete” them. They are bound together by liberating love to be the best each one can be.
Too often, complementarity has been used to keep one partner dominant and one submissive; one rational and one emotional; one the bread-winner and one the homemaker. Can you guess which roles go with which gender?
Indeed, one of the great gifts that lesbian and gay couples give to their heterosexual friends and family is the witness to the fact that marital and familial relationships do not need to be based on restrictive conformity to specific gender roles. The lesbian and gay couple shows that one partner does not have to be weak, while the other is strong, or assertive while the other is passive. Each can live out their full and complex natures in whatever way God has called them.
Francis’ comments that children need to see a difference between two parents is not based in empirical evidence–the place where all good theologizing should begin. Secure, affirming, and unconditional love, not the number or gender of the parents, are what children need most to be raised in a healthy manner.
Gay Star News reported that Rome’s LGBT Pride March on June 13th sent a strong message to Italy’s politicians that marriage equality should be legalized nationally, following Ireland’s recent example. The article stated:
“After Ireland’s referendum which allowed same-sex marriage, Italian lawmakers who support marriage equality have reportedly spoken out in favor of swift passage of the proposed legislation to allow civil unions.
” ‘Ireland is giving us a lesson in civility,’ gay Italian politician Nichi Vendola, president of the Apulia region.”
And although an Italian court in February said gay and lesbian couples should not have marriage rights, the fact that a recent poll shows 85% of the Italian population favors civil unions (though not marriage) may be what is motivating politicians to respond favorably, as Gay Star News reported:
“The Lower House of Parliament earlier in the week on Wednesday approved a motion same-sex civil unions which was promoted by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD).”
Clearly, the pope is going to have to confront the reality of marriage equality as the movement now moves in earnest to Italy. Offering to meet with a married gay activist in Paraguay this summer is a good first step, but he will have to take many more bold steps to catch up with not just the rest of the world, but, more importantly, the Catholic population.
While it is somewhat noble of Pope Francis not to directly criticize lesbian and gay couples as his predecessors did and as some of his brother bishops continue to do, he has to also learn that messages promoting complementarity are not pastorally or intellectually effective for the modern world.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry