Posted December 4, 2014
How do we understand the crisis of marriage and the family?
Grace on the Margins
National Catholic Reporter
The Vatican hosted an interfaith colloquium, "Humanum: The Complementarity of
Man and Woman," last month that attracted considerable media attention, largely
because it featured a number of prominent religious conservatives: Rick Warren,
Tony Perkins, Russell Moore, N.T. Wright, Archbishop Charles Chaput, and Rabbi
Lord Jonathan Sacks, among others.
The colloquium presentations, video series , and final document, "A New
Affirmation on Marriage ," celebrate procreative, heterosexual marriage as
the foundation of church and society, "a base from which to build a family 
and from there a community." They warn, too, that marriage is under attack .
In his opening address to the conference , Pope Francis said:
We know that 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.
Liberal critics have focused on what Francis' involvement in the colloquium
means for LGBT people and marriage equality, and they have asked how we should
understand the apparent contradiction between Francis' recent defense of
complementarianism and his famous line: "Who am I to judge?" In many cases, they
conclude that Francis is affirming official teaching on gender, marriage, and
family to appease conservatives.
Nick Squires at the Telegraph , for example, writes, "Pope Francis appeared
to bow to pressure from Catholic conservatives on Monday when he delivered a
robust affirmation of the importance of the traditional family."
Adam Withnall of the Independent , too, interprets the pope's remarks as "a
shift towards placating conservatives in the Church from a Pope who once asked
'who am I to judge gay people' and whom Elton John described as 'my hero.' "
And Jay Michaelson of the Daily Beast  is careful to emphasize that even
Francis' most positive comments about gay people have marked only shifts in
tone, not changes in doctrine. But he, too, seems to read Francis' words, and
the colloquium itself, as evidence that the pope must answer to "powerful
conservative forces within the Catholic Church and beyond it."
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, disagrees. In his
Bondings 2.0 blog post "Pope's Comments on Marriage Raise Questions About His
LGBT Outreach ," DeBernardo writes, "I think what we are seeing is what Pope
Francis has been doing for a long time: defending traditional doctrine, but
avoiding angering those who oppose it."
There is another sense in which Francis is doing what he has been doing for a
long time. While Francis' controversial remarks at the colloquium are more
pointed than his usual rhetoric regarding gays, they are typical of his rhetoric
regarding women. Let's consider a short timeline of examples:
Read in the context of his history of comments about women, Francis' colloquium
address starts to seem less surprising. It starts to seem less like a concession
to conservatives than a sincere affirmation of patriarchal gender roles.
- In July 2013, during his now famous "Who am I to judge?" interview , Francis
said that "the door is closed" to women's ordination.
- In June 2014, Francis deflected a question about misogyny  in the church by
joking that, "woman was taken from a rib." When pressed on the issue of women's
exclusion from institutional leadership, he added, "Priests often end up under
the sway of their housekeepers."
- In October 2014, Francis held the first meeting of the synod  on marriage
and family. The synod reiterated official opposition to birth control,
celebrated the witness of couples who practice natural family planning, and
closed with the beatification of Pope Paul VI.
- And last month, Francis addressed the Humanum colloquium, where he spoke
passionately  about the "decline of the marriage culture," the "crisis in the
family," the "beauty of complementarity of man and woman in marriage," and a
child's "right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother."
So why haven't more critics of the colloquium highlighted Francis' history of
conservative rhetoric about women? Maureen Fiedler's blog titled
"Complementarity of the Sexes: A Trap " is one of the few responses that
treat sexism as a primary concern. Others have mentioned sexism, yes, but they
have mostly mentioned it in passing and treated it as secondary to homophobia.
That has limited these analyses, because sexism is not a subset or offshoot of
homophobia. Complementarianism is not just an alibi for anti-gay prejudice. In
official teaching, beliefs about women's subordinate status, natural capacities
for martyrdom, and procreative responsibilities are logically and historically
prior to beliefs about homosexuality or marriage equality.
That doesn't mean questions about women are somehow "more important" than
questions about LGBT people in the church. It means that if we really want to
understand the pope's attitudes on marriage, family, gender, sexuality, and
authority, his history of sexism offers a more useful starting point for
discussion than his history of relatively pastoral remarks on gay Catholics.
If we took sexism as a starting point for understanding the colloquium, Francis'
papacy, or Catholic theology and ecclesiology more broadly, how else would our
analyses have to change? What would those changes mean for how we focus our
work, and where we put our hopes, for church justice?
[Kelly Stewart earned her Master of Arts in Religion at Yale Divinity School,
where she studied feminist and queer theory and Catholic sexual and reproductive
ethics. She is a former Loretto Volunteer.]
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