Saturday, December 27, 2014

Humanum: An Introduction

Now that my flu is slowly subsiding and my blog backlog has been whittled down, I can finally devote attention to last month's Humanum conference! 

To read about Pope Francis' opening address at Humanum, click here. To read about Russell Moore's talk, click here. To read about Rick Warren's talk, click here. To read about Theresa Okafor's commentary, click here.

Humanum: The Complementarity of Man and Woman conference convened in Vatican City on November 17-19. Sponsored by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the gathering brought together religious leaders from around the world to discuss marriage and family life, specifically "the beauty of the relationship between the man and the woman". Among the speakers at Humanum were Southern Baptist Convention ERLC president Russell Moore, Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren, and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia.

Several videos glorifying heterosexual marriage and childbearing were screened at Humanum, including Marriage, Culture and Civil Society, The Destiny of Humanity: On the Meaning of Marriage, and The Cradle of Life and Love: A Mother and Father for the World’s Children. Controversy erupted over whether or not discredited researcher Mark Regnerus helped create these videos.

The conference emphasized the centrality of heterosexual marriage, leaving little room for non-nuclear, non-heterosexual couples and families. The Humanum affirmation exalted heterosexual marriage as the foundation of society, stressing that heterosexual marriage "is not ours to alter".
"For marriage is no mere symbol of achievement, but the very foundation—a base from which to build a family and from there a community. For on earth marriage binds us across the ages in the flesh, across families in the flesh, and across the fearful and wonderful divide of man and woman, in the flesh. This is not ours to alter. It is ours, however, to encourage and celebrate."

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Humanum and its heteronormative messages are only the most recent reminder of how the Catholic Church really sees LGBTQ people. The conference came on the tail of a controversy surrounding a Vatican statement on gays. Back in October, the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops convened at the Vatican to discuss family issues in the Catholic Church. The Synod released a document stating that gays have "gifts and talents to offer the Christian community", reports Religion News Service. While the document did not condone same-sex marriage, it observed that gays have a place in the faith community. "Are we capable of providing for these people, guaranteeing ... them ... a place of fellowship in our communities?", the document asks.

Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin called the document "a light in the darkness". TWO Care's Wayne Besen was less enthusiastic, but acknowledged that the document was "an improvement over the status quo". Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, was hopeful that the document would pave the way for future changes in the Catholic Church. "This call to dialogue has been absent in church discussions of sexuality for way too long," De Bernardo said in a statement published by Windy City Times. "It presents the hope that future changes that are even more welcoming and accepting of lesbian and gay people and their families can develop down the road."

Anti-gay outrage quickly followed. Shortly thereafter, the General Secretariat of the Synod released a declaration calling the statement a mere "working document" in response to observers assigning "a value has been attributed to the document that does not correspond to its nature". On October 14th, the Synod released a statement stressing that, "In relation to homosexuals, moreover, the need for welcome was highlighted, but with the just produced, so that the impression of a positive evaluation of such a tendency on the part of the Church is not created." So much for extending a tiny tidbit of kindness to gays! Humanum, with its glorification of heterosexual marriage, reminds us that the Catholic Church has little love for same-sex couples.

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The Humanum conference tells us several things about the current state of the Catholic Church. First, Humanum elevates heterosexual couples with children to an exalted status. Such families are glorified as the foundation of society and the fertile soil from which the next generation grows. What about the contributions of other people who participate in society? Non-nuclear families, singles, divorced people, LGBTQ persons, and childless and childfree people make contributions to society as well, but their gifts feel downplayed amidst the Humanum rhetoric. Don't get me started on the irony of celibate clergy and monastics defining marriage and family for others!

Second, the presence of American evangelical leaders highlights the continuing relationship between the Catholic Church and conservative Protestants. On issues of reproductive rights, sexuality, and family, right-wing Protestants have long collaborated with conservative Catholics.

Third, for all of Pope Francis' progressive-sounding statements and good PR, his Humanum address reveals his retrograde views on gender, marriage, and family. As I'll discuss in an upcoming post, Pope Francis' rhetoric sounds suspiciously similar to that of anti-LGBTQ activists: men and women as "complementary", the family in "crisis", heterosexual families as an anthropological "fact" and the foundation of society, children's right to a father and mother, etc. The Vatican's attitudes toward sexuality, marriage, and family haven't changed much, if Pope Francis' address is any indication.

For Humanum's participants, are marriage and family institutions, or idols? Can they offer strategies for supporting all families, or are they content to lionize families that fit a certain mold? Is Humanum about fostering healthy marriages and families, or about glorifying a paradigm?

In upcoming posts, I'll discuss the personalities and speeches at Humanum more in depth. To read additional commentary, visit the following links.

Wonkette: Vatican Throws Festival Of Homophobia

Think Progress: Vatican Humanum Conference Erases LGBT People With Trite Gender Norms

GLAAD: Humanum at the Vatican: Courting inequality at expense of goodwill


  1. "Humanum elevates heterosexual couples with children to an exalted status. Such families are glorified as the foundation of society and the fertile soil from which the next generation grows. What about the contributions of other people who participate in society?"

    Not to mention the countless examples of abuse and dysfunction in many heterosexual relationship. When will the Catholic Church and other bigots start focusing on good people who make wonderful contributions to their communities without obsessing about private sexual conduct between consenting adults?

    "Don't get me started on the irony of celibate clergy and monastics defining marriage and family for others!"

    I think you should get started on that right now, Ahab. Or perhaps some sheepish reporter somewhere will do some serious reporting on the issue … Wanna make a contribution? : )

    1. Agi Taters -- That sounds like fun. Intrepid sheep reporter Ramm Stein (brownie points if you get the heavy metal reference) is on it!

  2. Intrepid sheep reporter Ramm Stein

    Ein zweibeiner auf allen Vieren?

    Seriously, I don't know why all this surprises anyone. Did liberals really think that a change of leadership was going to mean far-reaching changes in the Catholic Church's taboo system? Some of Francis's shifts of emphasis and less harsh rhetoric have been welcome, but a lot of liberals are vastly over-interpreting them.

    I think many atheists are still rather timid and have been stung by criticisms that we're too vociferously opposed to religion, which leads to a search for manifestations of religion they can praise to show that they're not being "dogmatic". And if you look hard enough for something, you'll find it, whether it's there or not.

    Francis has not established an unequivocal policy of handing over molesting priests to the secular authorities instead of dealing with them internally. He hasn't even hinted at any change in the taboos on contraception and abortion, nor on homosexuality, merely hinted at a little less self-righteous condemnation of those who continue to "sin". Such "concessions" drip with the same bizarre mirror-universe condescension as "forgiving" Galileo.

    But since these sops to modernity have won Francis such praise, he'll keep throwing them out occasionally, while the meat of the matter -- affirmed by events like Humanum -- remains what it has always been.

    1. Infidel -- Stein ran off to report on another story before I could ask him about it. He muttered something about "Hier kommt die Sonne" on his way out this morning.

      It's becoming increasingly clear to me that Pope Francis' sound-bites are window dressing -- that is, PR meant to cast the Catholic Church in a more positive light. As you explained above, however, nothing has really changed behind the scenes.


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