'Humanum' conference explores divine plan for male-female complementarity

One of the most unusual and creative conferences ever held at the Vatican last week brought together delegates from many faiths to affirm the uniqueness of male-female complementarity and marriage in the divine plan.

Organized by four Vatican bodies — the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) plus the councils for the family, Christian unity and interreligious dialogue — and opened by Pope Francis on Nov. 17, the three-day colloquium, under the title “Humanum: The Complementarity of Man and Woman,” brought together 300 delegates in the Vatican’s synod hall. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, who is hosting the World Meeting of Families in September next year, described it afterward as the most interesting colloquium he has ever attended.

Interreligious dialogue

Delegates heard from a huge range of scholars and leaders from across the globe’s religious landscape, including the CDF president, Cardinal Gerhard Müller; the former chief rabbi to the UK, Jonathan Sacks; the pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, Rick Warren; as well as Anglican bishops, Muslim scholars, African-American Pentecostals, a Mormon leader, and representatives of Buddhist, Jain, Taoist and Hindu traditions. Speakers rejected the idea that the divine design of male-female bonding was in some way to denigrate other kinds of relationships, arguing that all faiths and cultures contained the notion of maleness and femaleness as twin aspects of nature and the divine, and that, in reflecting this design, conjugal marriage was more than a mere partnership.

But in many ways the star of the show was a series of short movies that were shown between the talks. Filmed in the space of just a few months in Nigeria, Lebanon, Mexico, Argentina, France, Scotland, and the United States, the videos explored the universal power and beauty of male-female bonding across cultures and social classes, and featured both experts and ordinary people — some in poor parts of the world — expressing this idea of marriage as reflective of divine architecture. Using spectacular imagery and a dazzling array of Hollywood techniques, the movies showed how maleness and femaleness runs through the DNA of nature, which is at its most creative when the two binary elements meet and are fused. One of those involved in the production told Our Sunday Visitor that the purpose of the videos was to show complementarity as being “not about cultural elites proclaiming the rigid form of marriage” but “rediscovering an ancient ecological wisdom which has spanned through all of time and history.” He said the movies “reveal this modern cave painting that shows who we are.”

A new ecology

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In his remarks, Pope Francis described marriage as “a unique, natural, fundamental and beautiful good.” Shutterstock

This ecological theme — captured in the Humanum symbol and even in the jute bags given out to participants — was expressed right from the start, in Pope Francis’s brief address. He said family and marriage had collapsed in many parts of the world under pressure from what he called the “throwaway culture,” adding that “people are simply giving up on marriage as a public commitment.” This “revolution in manners and morals has often flown the flag of freedom,” he went on, “but in fact it has brought spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.” This in turn had led to “an ecological crisis, for social environments, like natural environments, need protection.” Although the human race has woken up to the need to protect nature, “we have been slower to recognize that our fragile social environments are under threat as well,” Pope Francis said, adding that it was “essential to foster a new human ecology.” Like much of the natural world, complementarity, he said, was “not just a good thing but it is also beautiful."

Describing marriage as “a unique, natural, fundamental and beautiful good for persons, communities, and whole societies,” he said children had a right to grow up with a father and a mother. He warned against seeing complementarity as a static notion about gender roles — “let us not confuse that term with the simplistic idea that all the roles and relations of the two sexes are fixed in a single, static pattern” — and against the politicization of marriage, which was “an anthropological fact” with its own “force” that should not be considered “conservative” or “progressive.”

The capacity to integrate

After Pope Francis — who concluded his address by confirming that he will attend the Philadelphia meeting — the standout speech was by Lord Jonathan Sacks, for many years the chief rabbi to the UK. In a dazzling feat of oratory that brought delegates clapping to their feet, he told the story of marriage in seven great episodes, beginning with what archaeologists believe was the first act of copulation, by fish in Scotland 385 million years ago, through the arrival of human beings and their sharing in divine dignity and equality, and ending with the collapse of the institution of marriage in the West in recent times. He argued that the unique power of marriage was its capacity to integrate.

“Seldom has any institution woven together so many different drives and desires, roles and responsibilities,” said Lord Sacks. Yet “almost everything that marriage once brought together has now been split apart. Sex has been divorced from love, love from commitment, marriage from having children, and having children from responsibility for their care.”

The result has been a catastrophic new social divide, “the like of which has not been seen since Disraeli,” between those born to married parents and those born outside marriage. The first stood a vastly higher chance of being happy, balanced, successful and fruitful than the increasing number — almost half in the UK — born outside wedlock.

Same-sex marriage

The question of same-sex marriage was addressed indirectly in a number of speeches. Lord Sacks said that “those who choose to live differently should not inhibit us from being advocates for the single most humanizing institution in history.” The former Anglican bishop of Rochester in the UK, Michael Nazir-Ali, said that while other kinds of relationship may be deserving of state recognition, “you can’t enhance other kinds of relationship by calling them marriage.” Echoing a common theme from October’s extraordinary synod in Rome, he said the collapse of commitment — it is now easier, he said, to get out of a marriage than a mortgage — meant that churches and other civil society bodies needed to make a massive new effort to prepare people for matrimony. In another blockbuster speech, Pastor Rick Warren said gender and marriage were God’s idea — sex was created for marriage, for creation of life, for connection — and that honoring and celebrating marriage was its best defense.

New language

The spokeswoman for Humanum, Virginia-based law professor Helen Alvaré, told OSV that its purpose was to find a new language for talking about marriage.

“We were so accustomed to the common vision that men and women would seek out and find each other, it didn’t need language,” she said adding: “We need to figure out what God was saying when he made his image in two sexes, drew them to one another in a one-flesh union and put procreation there.”

She said the plan was for the videos to be turned into a parish program, and shown in schools and movie theatres as part of marriage preparation, adding that the stories they tell “combine the dose of beauty and reality that a couple really needs.

The organizers, who have formed a trust to develop the materials produced by the conference, hope that the relationships born from it can be used to forge a global movement for marriage that provides an education in conjugal love. The political battle to defend marriage founded on complementarity may be lost. But as one of the evangelical speakers, the Baptist Russell D. Moore, told the delegates: “On the other side of our culture wars, there’s a sexual counterrevolution waiting to be born.”

Austen Ivereigh is a British Catholic journalist, commentator, director of Catholic Voices, and author of the biography of Pope Francis, “The Great Reformer,” (Henry Holt, $30).