The conference logo — a watercolor design showing the complementarity of man and woman.

Rev. Eugene Rivers.

As international faith leaders wound up a 3-day, November 17-19 interfaith conference on marriage at the Vatican, Rev. Eugene Rivers, a Pentecostal minister and a leader of the black Church in America said, somewhat plaintively, “We’ve been in church for three days, right? And now you need to make a commitment to do something, right? And to move from discussion/debate/­ rhetoric to action.”

So what action might be next?

To understand what could emerge from the Vatican-convened event formally titled Humanum: An Interreligious Colloquium on the Complementarity of Man and Woman, we spoke with several conference organizers, presenters and observers.

All left with optimism. Some left with specific plans for future interfaith cooperation on marriage. Others had hope the event might influence policy and the media. And a few cultivated ideas for a global interreligious movement supporting traditional marriage.

The colloquium, opened November 17 by Pope Francis, explored a theological concept well-articulated by the late Pope John Paul II called “complementarity.”

Professor Helen Alvaré of George Mason University in Virginia (USA), who helped organize the colloquium, explained complementarity as an exploration of the “natural beauty and the greatness open to the relationship between a man and a woman, two people equal in dignity, but also significantly different.”

But Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, verbalized what all at the conference understood: that “we are facing a widespread breakdown of marriage.” Noting how the trends are nearly identical in the United States, Sacks explained that “in Britain in 2012, 47.5% of children were born outside of marriage, set to become a majority of children in 2016. Fewer people are marrying, and 42% of marriages are ending in divorce.”

And although rarely addressed directly in any of the formal presentations, the legalization of same-sex marriage — the direct opposite of marriage based on sexual complementarity — has swept across the Western world with unanticipated rapidity.


Nonetheless, Sacks stated that “when different religions across many countries speak about the same thing, it kind of comes back in quadraphonic sound. It’s not just one religion, one preacher — but suddenly a great number of people are talking about marriage, about how we need to put it back together again.”

Pastor Rick Warren.

“I’m very optimistic,” expressed Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church. “You could see speakers from all kinds of different worldviews saying, ‘This is common knowledge, marriage is between a man and a woman.’”

“I feel a spring in my step,” said Sister Prudence Allen, a philosopher and member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission. “Of all the different people who were commenting on their own tradition it just felt that there was a common vision, even though we were from different faiths — Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Mormon — it was amazing.”

“It was a whole lot of fun,” said Catherine Pakaluk, who has a doctorate in economics from Harvard and teaches at Ave Maria University. “It was like a lot of good friends getting together, but I didn’t know most of the people before I got there.”

Interfaith Cooperation

So when will faith and thought leaders gather again? One focal point could be the Eighth World Meeting of Families to be held in Philadelphia in September 2015. The Pope announced his own participation at the World Meeting of Families at the end of his speech to Humanum.

And although the World Meeting of Families is decidedly Catholic, the Most Rev. Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia, reinforced to the Humanum participants that the event is open to all faiths, and that 24 presenters will come from Jewish, Muslim, Protestant and Latter-day Saint faith traditions.

Policy and Media

Rabbi Sacks, in an impassioned speech during the conference, blamed a host of social ills for what he called the collapse of marriage.

Among them, “a sharp increase among young people of eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse and attempted suicides” and “a new form of poverty concentrated among single-parent families, and of these the main burden is borne by women, who in 2011 headed 92% of single-parent households.”

Following his speech, Sacks said that “one of the things that’s really difficult throughout the West is that even talking about marriage and the family has become so politically incorrect.”

But Sacks went on to say that he believed the Vatican colloquium “will have impact beyond the faith community. A lot of politicians are beginning to realize you can’t cure issues of poverty and social breakdown without bringing back marriage. You can pour all the money into it you like, and you still end up with broken lives. And I think the fact that all the faiths have come out in support of traditional marriage may empower politicians in a way that they haven’t felt empowered until now.”

Warren expressed that one of the lessons coming out of the conference was that “the best defense of marriage is actually to celebrate it. What we need is more testimonies, more models, more examples.”

To that end, Warren argued that one step going forward had to include “better use of the media. We’re being out-marketed by people who are opposed to marriage.”

Sister Allen concurred. “In television or films, there are so many people promoting what I would call a monad view of life — where you are just yourself and you have a series of relations with others for as long as it works, and when it does not then something else is picked up.”

To that end, conference participants were quite taken by a series of six films created just for the conference, celebrating different facets of the complementarity of the sexes in courtship, marriage, parenting and society.

“The videos — they were fantastic! We need more of those,” Warren said.

“I think the goal (of the videos),” said Allen, “is that they would be distributed around the world, and that they would be things that would be seen by young people who may be wavering and not really having confidence anymore in the basic call to marry one man one woman and have a family life, and they could come away with the sense of the beauty and the confidence and the fact that it is worth it.”

Although he didn’t offer specifics on how to accomplish it, Warren opined, “We need more movies, we need more shows, we need more YouTube, more visual stories that celebrate marriage. Whoever tells the best stories wins.”

Global interfaith movement

Professor Robert George.

Princeton professor Robert George, known affectionately by colleagues as Robby, said he would consider it “especially successful if (the colloquium) created the energy from which emerges an international and interfaith movement to protect the basic understanding of marriage as a conjugal partnership.”

Rivers said, “I came here completely confident that an event such as this can be the basis for a global mobilization.”

The high ambition for the gathering shared by George and Rivers is relevant, in part, because of their role in helping it come to life.

As Luis Tellez tells it, “Eugene Rivers told Robby George a number of times that he thought a meeting in Rome (because Pope Francis has the power of convening) would be a very good way to move us forward — especially at a critical juncture where many of us are giving up.”

“So Robby thought about it and we spoke,” said Tellez, president of the Witherspoon Institute, an independent research institute located in Princeton, New Jersey, that explores the moral foundations of society.

“I encouraged Robby to write to Cardinal Müller and suggest the idea to him,” he said.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller is the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the leading doctrinal office within the Vatican. “And then we were told [by Müller], ‘Yes, we would like to do this.’”

Racial Justice

Rivers sees the issue of protecting the traditional family in terms of global racial justice and sides unapologetically with the thesis of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who 50 years ago argued, according to Rivers, that “as the nuclear family goes, so go the fortunes of the poor… that if you don’t address the family, stuff simply gets worse.”

Rivers recites grim statistics, how 50 years after the Moy­nihan report “we went from 25% out-of-wedlock births to more than 70% out-of-wedlock births (in the black community).

“And that is a disgrace and a crime, intellectually and politically, because no one had the courage to stand with Moynihan, who simply got crucified because he was the messenger.

“What happens now,” continued Rivers, with the cadence of a powerful sermon, “is that the revisionist conceptions of family are now the leading form of cultural imperialism for the global south. So imperialism in 2015 is North Atlantic elites force-feeding their experimental approaches to human sexuality and family and imposing it upon the very poor. And that is a declaration of war against the poor in the south. And part of the mobilization here is to build a movement that will resist the imperial imposition of a set of secular assumptions that are completely destructive.

“And, in fact, on the part of those who are victims and casualties, the revisionist conceptions now function as weapons of total war against the black poor.”

The question, of course, is what is genuinely possible.

Standing in the shadow of the Pantheon — perhaps the best preserved continuously used structure from Roman antiquity — Pakaluk sums up the experience and its potential.

“The colloquium should be reason for hope.

“But the challenge for people of faith is to combine a sober assessment of where we are, because we can’t make progress without a realistic assessment of where we are, but then the confidence of hope in knowing that, in the end, Christ is the victor and that we will win this.

“Cultures ebb and flow, societies ebb and flow — we may well be at a low point — and if not at a low point, we know we have friends with whom to weather the storms.”

Pope Francis: “Children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother”

Francis at the conference with Cardinal Mueller, who sponsored it.

The Complete Text of the Pope’s Address

Dear Brothers and Sisters, I warmly greet you. I thank Cardinal Mueller for his words with which he introduced our meeting. I would like to begin by sharing with you a reflection on the title of your colloquium.

You must admit that “complementarity” does not roll lightly off the tongue! Yet it is a word into which many meanings are compressed. It refers to situations where one of two things adds to, completes, or fulfills a lack in the other.

Yet complementarity is more than this. Christians find its deepest meaning in the first Letter to the Corinthians where St. Paul tells us that the Spirit has endowed each of us with different gifts so that, just as the human body’s members work together for the good of the whole, everyone’s gifts can work together for the benefit of each (cf. 1 Cor. 12). To reflect upon “complementarity” is nothing less than to ponder the dynamic harmonies at the heart of all creation. This is a big word, harmony. All complementarities were made by our Creator, so the Author of harmony achieves this harmony.

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. This is important.

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. Complementarity becomes a great wealth. It is not just a good thing but it is also beautiful.

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.

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 crisis in the family has produced an ecological crisis, for social environments, like natural environments, need protection. And although the human race has come to understand the need to address conditions that menace our natural environments, we have been slower to recognize that our fragile social environments are under threat as well, slower in our culture, and also in our Catholic Church. It is therefore essential that we foster a new human ecology.

It is necessary first to promote the fundamental pillars that govern a nation: its non-material goods. 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.

That is why I stressed in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium that the contribution of marriage to society is “indispensable”; that it “transcends the feelings and momentary needs of the couple.” (n. 66) 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.

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.

I pray that your colloquium will be an inspiration to all who seek to support and strengthen the union of man and woman in marriage as a unique, natural, fundamental and beautiful good for persons, communities, and whole societies.

I wish to confirm according to the wishes of the Lord, that in September of 2015, I will go to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families. Thank you for your prayers with which you accompany my service to the Church. Bless you from my heart.

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