Sunday, December 28, 2014

Humanum: Pope Francis on Marriage and Family

To read an introduction to the Humanum conference, 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 conference began with an address from Pope Francis on the importance of marriage and family.

The media has devoted much attention to Pope Francis' reformist leanings, the most recent of which was a scathing Christmas address to the Curia. To be fair, Pope Francis has carried out financial reforms in a church renown for corruption, which have included appointing a new president for the Vatican Bank and replacing the board of Vatican City's Financial Information Authority.

The Pope's sensitive comments about gays have given observers hope that the Catholic Church is evolving on LGBTQ issues. In 2013, Pope Francis shocked the world when he told the media, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?". Earlier this month, Pope Francis spoke about how the church in Buenos Aires helped parents support their gay and lesbian children, the Independent reports. Also, Pope Francis recently demoted Cardinal Raymond Burke, a vocal anti-gay Vatican figure, according to MSNBC.

However, Pope Francis' Humanum address suggests that little has changed in terms of the Vatican's positions on LGBTQ issues, marriage, and family. For all his inclusive-sounding sound bites, Pope Francis endorses a heteronormative vision of marriage with no room for same-sex couples.

The Catholic Herald published a transcript of Pope Francis' opening address to Humanum. Pope Francis waxed poetic about "the complementarity of man and woman" as the basis for moral living.
"It is fitting that you have gathered here in this international colloquium to explore the complementarity of man and woman. This complementarity is a root of marriage and family. For the family grounded in marriage is the first school where we learn to appreciate our own and others’ gifts, and where we begin to acquire the arts of cooperative living. For most of us, the family provides the principal place where we can aspire to greatness as we strive to realize our full capacity for virtue and charity. At the same time, as we know, 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."
Pope Francis quickly explained that "complementarity" did not refer to rigid roles, as American complementarians have understood the term. This puzzled me, as "complementarity" implies that men and women do fit into essential, corresponding roles across cultures. Where does individuality fit here, amidst these gender roles? Where do LGBTQ people, asexuals, singles, and celibates fit into this paradigm?
"When we speak of complementarity between man and woman in this context, 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. Complementarity will take many forms as each man and woman brings his or her distinctive contributions to their marriage and to the formation of their children — his or her personal richness, personal charisma."
The tone of the address quickly took on a right-wing flavor. Pope Francis lamented that marriage and the family are allegedly in a state of "crisis", with more and more people choosing not to marry.
"We know that today marriage and the family are in crisis. 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. This revolution in manners and morals 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."
More and more, the address resembled the exhortations of American right-wing figures. The Pope associated the alleged decline of marriage with poverty, and that children have a right to both a father and a mother. (Does any of this sound familiar?)
"Evidence is mounting that the decline of the marriage culture is associated with increased poverty and a host of other social ills, disproportionately affecting women, children and the elderly. It is always they who suffer the most in this crisis ... The family is the foundation of co-existence and a remedy against social fragmentation. Children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s development and emotional maturity."
The haunting similarities continued. Near the end of his address, Pope Francis claimed that heterosexual marriage was an "anthropological fact", and that believers must not be "swayed by political notion" regarding the nature of marriage. The fact that marriage (including same-sex marriage) has taken many forms across time and cultures escapes him. Furthermore, same-sex marriage is not about trivial "political notions", but equal rights.
"Do not fall into the trap of being swayed by political notion. Family is an anthropological fact – a socially and culturally related fact. We cannot qualify it based on ideological notions or concepts important only at one time in history. We can’t think of conservative or progressive notions. Family is a family. It can’t be qualified by ideological notions. Family is per se. It is a strength per se."
Pope Francis' address falls flat for several reason. First, Pope Francis' glorification of heterosexual marriage ignores the ugly realities of some marriages. While some unions are happy and healthy, others are plagued by domestic abuse, infidelity, and an absence of trust. Marriage can be good for people whose relationships are healthy and whose temperaments are suited for married life, but marriage is not a universal good per se.

Second, Pope Francis speaks highly of heterosexual marriage and families, lauding their contributions to society. Does he have the same appreciation for LGBTQ and non-married persons? LGBTQ people, singles, and divorced people make important contributions to society, and I worry that such rhetoric devalues their contributions in its lionization of married heterosexuals. Similarly, as he glorifies of heterosexual families, does Pope Francis have the same appreciation for single parents, childless couples, and childfree people? Isn't it ironic that a celibate cleric is extolling the virtues of marriage and family?

Pope Francis' address, in essence, was about affirming heterosexual marriage as normative for all people, complete with gender roles ("complementarity") and childbearing. There is little room for individuality in this normative vision. For all of Pope Francis' LGBTQ-friendly sound bites, his Humanum address shows that his worldview is decidedly conservative and heteronormative. As Jeremy Hooper writes at Good As You, "At the end of the day, he is still at "culture war" against my marriage. My home. My family."

To read additional commentary, visit the following links.

The New Civil Rights Movement: At Marriage Meeting With U.S. Anti-Gay Leaders, Pope Decries 'Spiritual Devastation' Of New Morality

Political Research Associates: A Manhattan Declaration Reunion in Rome: Conservative Catholic-Protestant Alliance Strengthens

Good As You: At least three NOM personalities at Vatican Humanum conference


  1. Well said, its all sound bites. The biggest problem is the media focuses on the sound bites and not all the corrections that come out of the Vatican saying the "Pope actually did not mean that".

    1. Christian -- The Vatican won't be joining the 21st century any time soon. Even progressive-sounding but empty sound-bites do make them nervous.


All comments are subject to moderation. Threatening, violent, or bigoted comments will not be published.