Vatican’s colloquium on marriage focuses on universal right, complementarity, anthropology, and strategy

The just concluded Humanum conference featured addresses from Pope Francis and the former Chief Rabbi of the UK, and was attended by 350 interreligious leaders.

Pope Francis set a very strong tone for the intense three-day Vatican colloquium Complementarity of Man and Woman in Marriage, held November 17-19 in the same hall of last month’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family, where the Holy Father played the role of listener. During his ten-minute address to open the Humanum conference on Monday, the Holy Father told the group of 350 interreligious leaders that children have a “right to grow up in a family, with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for a child’s development and emotional maturity.”

Before the international audience invited by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in cooperation with the Pontifical Councils for the Family, Interreligious Dialogue, and Promoting Christian Unity, Francis insisted that leaders concerned about children and the long-term health of civil society must “promote the fundamental pillars that govern a nation…The family is the foundation of co-existence and a remedy against social fragmentation.”

“The contribution of marriage to society is ‘indispensable’; … it ‘transcends the feelings and momentary needs of the couple’,” he said citing his papal exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. “And that is why I am grateful to you for your colloquium’s emphasis on the benefits that marriage can provide to children, the spouses themselves, and to society.”

“In these days, as you embark on a reflection on the beauty of complementarity between man and woman in marriage, I urge you to lift up yet another truth about marriage: that permanent commitment to solidarity, fidelity and fruitful love responds to the deepest longings of the human heart.”

“I urge you to bear in mind especially the young people, who represent our future. Commit yourselves, so that our youth do not give themselves over to the poisonous environment of the temporary, but rather be revolutionaries with the courage to seek true and lasting love, going against the common pattern.”

Finally, the Holy Father asked the audience—composed of theologians, social scientists, psychologists, marriage counselors, family lawyers, media experts, ministers, and pastors from 14 different faith traditions and 23 countries—to unite in an unbiased and non-partisan spirit: “Do not fall into the trap of being swayed by political notion[s]. Family is an anthropological fact—a socially and culturally related fact.”

“We can’t think of conservative or progressive notions. Family is a family. It can’t be qualified by ideological notions.”

Roots of complementarity: Creation, “given-ness,” and completion

Focusing on the fundamental human right of a child to be reared by both a mother and a father, Francis said “complementarity” is a term rich in meaning regarding the natural, interwoven and necessary roles husbands and wives play in shaping happy and healthy households. They “work together for the good of the whole; everyone’s gifts can work together for the benefit of each.” Francis said that to reflect upon complementarity “is nothing less than to ponder the dynamic harmonies at the heart of all Creation.”

During the colloquium, the education film series Humanum was premiered to enrich ongoing discussion about the anthropological mystery of sexual complementarity in marriage.

Peter Kreeft, a Boston College professor of philosophy and prolific author, appeared in the first segment and said we have “two sets of words which are not the same: ‘male and female’; ‘masculine and feminine.’”

“Male and female are biological. They require a body, they require genetics,” he said. “Masculine and feminine are cosmological.”

“Every society in the history of the world has seen that the yin and the yang, the masculine and feminine, are not limited to humans, or even just to animals. Every language I know of—except English—has masculine and feminine nouns. The sun is always ‘he’, the moon is always ‘she’.”

Kreeft explained we must not reduce the beauty and mystery of gender in language “to a projection of our sexuality onto the universe.”

“The God who invented human sexuality also invented the universe. The two [masculine and feminine] fit. It is a much happier philosophy. We fit the nature of things.”

Speaking after Kreeft’s video appearance was the opening morning’s keynote speaker, Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. Rabbi Sacks said the complementarity of the two genders is understood best when we reflect that contemporary culture teaches us that we are either “nothing” or that we are “everything”.

In Judaism, he said, we learn “we are half.”

“We [must] open ourselves to another if we are to become whole,” he said.

This classical human anthropology was articulated by one of the expert conferees, Dr. Samuel Gregg, research director of the Michigan-based Acton Institute.

Gregg said that at the core of the anthropology shared by most of the interfaith participants is the belief that what is “given” to us in the natural order is an order created by God. It is an anthropology that leads to an understanding of human beings based upon objective truth.

“The ultimate difference here is between two anthropologies. The anthropology articulated by so many participants, especially Jews and Christians, views human persons as ‘given’ in terms of who we are. Our identity and the whole question of sex is given, and we know it through Revelation and natural law,” he said.

“On the other side is the position that human identity is essentially ‘plastic’: that our anthropology is plastic in the sense that we determine who we are based upon one’s feelings and a will that denies or ignores the insights of not just Revelation but also natural reason.

Gregg said that this latter standpoint not only relativizes the significance of our physicality and the complementary of man and woman but also our “given-ness” as either male or female, “a given-ness rooted in the very order of creation which is outlined so profoundly in the Hebrew Scriptures and confirmed by Christ Himself.”

Finally, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and principal host of the colloquium, tied all the anthropological discourse together, saying it is perfectly naturally that “each one of us feels needy and lacking in completion.”

“This fact, indelible in human nature, reveals our radical dependence: we do not complete ourselves from our own selves, we are not totally self-sufficient.”

Staying committed: A crisis of union, eternity, and hope

“We know that today marriage and the family are in crisis,” Francis said. “We now live in a culture of the temporary, in which more and more people are simply giving up on marriage as a public commitment,” the pope said.

Indeed, the challenge today is to “win back” a shared understanding not only of what marriage is by definition, but what it can be in actual practice as a life-long vow made between a man and a woman for the sake of procreation and raising loving and responsible children.

Echoing the Holy Father, the president of Cairo’s Tawasul Cultural Center, Wael Forrouq, said we have effectively allowed an “ephemeral” culture to take root in the last half-century, where human relations are seen as “passing and transient”. He wondered what we could do to shift the human culture, in both the East and West, back to a sense of the eternal.

Argentinian scholar and executive director of Grupo Sólido, Ignacio Ibarzabal, speaking on the same opening panel as Forrouq, shared his and Francis’ contempt of the throw-away culture—“the culture of the temporary”—as evidenced in fragmented relationships, which he said is a source of “so much unnecessary suffering” and common despair.

Ibarzabal noted that part of this fragmentation is to blame for how so many things other than parents are raising children today—from the public school systems to the internet, where they build short-term, fleeting relationships and conversations on social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp.

Ibarzabal labeled this the “crisis of union”, which has spawned a generation of youth that lives without the hope of developing lasting, intimate relationships.

He recounted how this was brought to light in sociological studies of 15-year-old girls near Buenos Aires, the Pope’s former archdiocese.

In the responses to his questionnaire, Ibarzabal said 100 percent of the young females responded “yes” to the question whether they wanted “a love that lasts a lifetime”. Yet, when asked a second follow-up question as to whether they actually believed life-long love exists, 80 percent of them said ‘no’, claiming it was impossible. Their responses astounded him, he said, being representative of a population segment that is normally the most “romantic and utopian”, one full of dreams of what is possible.

We have to change the paradigm of despair, he said, to one of hope based on an active witness of “solid love, stable relationships.”

Families as a source tension, but also growth: Rethinking marriage contracts

Speakers from all faiths and professions at the Vatican colloquium stood united linking social ills such as adolescent crime, suicide, out-of-wedlock births, depression, and a host of psychological-psychosomatic disorders to the devastating long-term effects divorce has had on the human social fabric.

Marital breakdown is not just about secular culture and sexual revoution; it is ultimately owed to our sinful, fallen, and often self-serving nature. This is consistent with human anthropology of imperfection. Therefore, as Francis said, it is natural that marriages and families “give rise to tensions: between egoism and altruism, reason and passion, immediate desires and long-range goals.”

“But families also provide frameworks for resolving such tensions. This is important.”

Panelists commented upon how radically divorce law had changed in the last 40 to 50 years, effectively making the three traditional A’s of divorce litigation—adultery, abuse, abandonment—irrelevant. Since the introduction of the now-commonplace no-fault divorce legislation, these three main reasons to argue in favor of dissolving marriages—at least in civil cases—are relics of the legal past.

Many present at the colloquium, in casual conversation, waxed nostalgic about a bygone era of stable homes and robust families—the proverbial “Happy Days” of post-war baby boom prior to the relaxing of divorce laws.

Dr. Ryan T. Anderson, a conferee at the Vatican colloquium and co-author with Princeton’s Robert P. George and Sherif Girgis of What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, is a fervent proponent of the benefits of lasting marriage to civil society, but said we should be careful not to frame the conversation by saying we were “better off in the pre-no-fault divorce” period of our history.

“I wouldn’t want to phrase it that way… To a certain extent there was a problem that no-fault divorce attempted to address. And it was a real problem. Unfortunately the solution that we got in terms of no-fault divorce wasn’t the right solution.”

“So I wouldn’t want to say we want to go back to pre-no-fault divorce [period]. We want to go forward to something different.”

One of the legitimate complaints of the previous system of divorce proceedings, Anderson said, “was that it was very adversarial; in fact it was very hard to get a divorce when you needed to get a divorce, because you actually had to produce evidence that your spouse was abusing you and sometimes the courts would be biased.”

“The downside is that rather than going to a system in which evidentiary standards would be better, we entered a system that does not require evidence at all, because there was no longer a requirement of fault at all, and that it was a unilateral system that didn’t even require the other party to agree to the dissolvement.”

“And what that did in terms of shaping people’s understanding of what marriage is that it need not aspire to be permanent.”

Dr. Anderson said that he thought Tuesday’s opening speaker, Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir’Ali, former Anglican bishop of Rochester, did well to catch the audience’s attention by saying today one can “get out of marriage more easily than you get out of a mortgage.”

“We treat your mortgage contract [with] an expectation of thirty years. And [yet] we don’t have anything like that any longer for marriage,” Anderson said.

Anderson spoke positively of a new direction toward covenant marriage in which “there would actually be from the get-go certain procedures [as to what to do] if a marriage hits a rocky point.”

He said it might be formulated in way in which couples essentially agree “here’s how we are going to covenant ourselves to handle that [issue]…We will go to marriage counseling. We will have a waiting period before a divorce—a whole set of steps, and only for these reasons may we get divorced.”

“I think that Louisiana is the only state that has instituted this. So I do not know what the empirical results are, but I think those sorts of ideas are a positive direction.”

“The law would now be teaching that marriage is a serious relationship; [that] getting out of marriage shouldn’t be something you do without serious reasons, [and] with a serious procedure.”

Building royal households

The abandonment of the traditional religious culture of family and marriage—a monogamous, covenantal relationship of one man and one woman for the procreative purpose of raising children, according to the Pope—is a “revolution in manners and morals.” It has “often flown the flag of freedom, but in fact it has brought spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.”

“The family provides the principal place where we can aspire to greatness as we strive to realize our full capacity for virtue and charity,” Francis said.

If there were an unofficial co-captain at the conference, it was Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who once again was leading the way intellectually, spiritually, and empirically in this area.

Sacks has painfully witnessed his own Great Britain rapidly lose ground to secularist ideologies of sexuality and marriage, where 42 percent of marriages end in divorce and co-habitation has proved not to be a viable alternative, finishing after two years on average.

“In Britain today more than a million children will grow up with no contact whatsoever with their fathers. This is creating a divide within societies the like of which has not been seen since Disraeli spoke of ‘two nations’ a century and a half ago.”

Rabbi Sacks warned that the current ruling class stands to gain from such confusion. Sexual promiscuity and radical ideas of marriage, like polygamy and polyamorous relationships, “multiply the chances of the king or the powerful [seats] being handed on to the next generation.”

“From monogamy, the rich and powerful lose,” he said, “And the poor and powerless gain.”

“The turn toward monogamy goes against the grain of normal social change,” Sacks explains. “It is a real triumph for the equal dignity of all [in which] every bride and every groom are royalty, every home a palace when furnished with love.”

Time to play offense

One of final keynotes was delivered by the Evangelical pastor and author, Rick Warren, senior pastor of Saddleback Church in southern California.

He quipped there was “a danger in being the twenty-eighth speaker”, implying that all that he had wanted to say on the level of theology, philosophy, and spirituality had already been said better and before him by others.

“What’s left to say?”

Warren said he re-wrote his remarks and decided to close with some practical advice to the leaders present on how they could play good offense, to suggest “an action plan” on how to win the war on marriage and family.

“We cannot not do something,” he insisted.

“Sadly today we all know marriage is [being] dishonored. It is dismissed as an archaic man-made tradition; it is denounced as an enemy of women; it is discouraged as a career-limiting choice; it is demeaned in movies and television, and it is delayed out of fear that it will limit one’s personal freedom.”

Warren said instead of being honored, marriage is ridiculed, rejected, resented, and redefined.

“What are we going to do about this?” he said. “The Church cannot cower in silence. The stakes are too high.”

Above all, Warren said, we must courageously commit to “affirm the authority of God’s Word.”

“Truth is still truth, no matter how many people doubt it,” he said. “I may deny the law of gravity, but that does not change gravity. We don’t break the law, the law breaks us.” Remember, he said, “We have the owner’s manual on marriage.”

He then explained why it was important to publicly recognize and celebrate healthy marriages.

“It is not enough to defend marriage, we have to celebrate it. We have to be a proponent of what’s right, not just an opponent of what’s wrong. We have to offer an appealing alternative to the empty promises of the world.”

Warren referred to the example of testimonies of couples he uses in his church and the annual marriage vow renewal service at Saddleback. “People need more [to] see a sermon” than to “hear a sermon” he said, since couples are inspired more “by example than be exhortation.”

Next, he said we need to “continually point out the benefits of marriages” and convince others with supporting data. Warren said we need to point out that children raised with both a mother and a father grow up healthier, happier, and stronger. They are less likely to fail in school, abuse drugs, and do jail time, and experience less distress, depression, and suicidal tendencies.

“They are also less likely to perpetuate these problems in the next generation.”

He said we must point out that the dissolution of marriage disproportionately hurts the poor. “A single mother with a child has never been a viable economic unit; … And children who grow up without their mothers and fathers are more likely to live their entire lives in poverty.”

“Men who marry and stay married have fewer illnesses…and live longer than single men; they earn more, amass more net worth than single men with similar education.”

Finally, Warren said we need to engage every single media outlet that is available to promote marriage.

“Whichever side tells the best stories wins.” We need more of these [Humanum] videos, more TV shows, more movies that portray joyful, committed marriages.”

“We have to use media to question the cultural lies…because they are not being questioned.”

In conclusion, Warren outlined six purposes of marriage: to eliminate loneliness, for the proper expression of human sexuality, the multiplication of the human race, the protection and instruction of children, the perfection of our character, and for reflecting our union with Christ.

One of the most important purposes is “to make you holy, not just happy.” Marriage is “the laboratory for learning how to love…the school of self-sacrifice. It is the university for learning unselfishness, the life-long course of becoming like Christ.”

“The number-one tool God uses to shape you is your spouse.”

The reciprocal love and sanctifying roles between complementary spouses is the deepest meaning of marriage, he said. “This is the strongest reason why marriage can only be between a man and a woman.”

“There is no other relationship, including the parent-child relationship, that can picture this intimate union. To redefine marriage would destroy the picture God intends to portray.”

“We cannot cave in on this issue. It is a picture of Christ in His Church.”

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About Michael Severance 12 Articles
Michael Severance is a former Vatican correspondent and currently manages operations for the Acton Institute’s academic outreach in Rome.

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