The Vatican held an interfaith conference this week on the promotion of the “traditional”—that is, non-LGBT or single-headed—family organized around the concept of “complementarity.”
Complementarity is one of those obscure theological concepts that nevertheless casts a long shadow over modern conservative religious thinking. It’s the idea that men and women’s differing and complementary biological roles play out in their respective roles in religion and society, which are separate, but supposedly equal, and divinely ordained.
Pope John Paul II was a big proponent of the concept of complementarity as a core principle of the family, most famously expounded upon in his 1995 Letter to Women, which extolled the “special genius” of women to serve as helpmates to men and society. Like many of the church’s more regressive ideas, however, complementarity has been embraced more enthusiastically by conservative Protestants, who use it to justify the idea that women should be submissive to men, than it is by Catholics themselves.
This Catholic/Conservative Christian confluence was on full display at the conference, organized by Cardinal Gerhard Muller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as, one might suspect, a counterbalance to all the talk of liberalizing influences under Francis. Participants included mega-Pastor Rick Warren, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput.
Other attendees, according to Jeremy Hooper of GLADD, included a who’s who anti-same sex marriage activists, including National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown and cofounder Maggie Gallagher, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, Princeton University natural law scholar and NOM co-founder Robert George, Alan Sears of the Alliance Defending Freedom, and the Manhattan Declaration’s Eric Teetsel.
Francis opened the conference with an address on Monday that echoed the main gathering’s theme: that only families based on complementarity are an expression of God’s plan and that “children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother.”
Despite the anti-same-sex marriage tone, Francis did walk back some of JPII’s more extreme interpretations of complementarity as biological destiny for women:
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…
But it quickly became clear who the conference’s main villain was for what Francis called a “crisis” in the family: the sexual revolution and what he called the “temporary” culture in which people are giving up on marriage in a search for temporal pleasures:
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.
The drumbeat grew louder on Wednesday with addresses by several notable luminaries of the Christian Right. Moore told the conference that the sexual revolution had “created a culture obsessed with sex” that “celebrates casual sexuality, cohabitation, no-fault divorce, family redefinition and abortion rights as part of a sexual revolution that can tear down old patriarchal systems.”
But like other proponents of complementarity, Moore suggested that new sexual freedoms are actually damaging to women because they allow men to take advantage of them:
The Sexual Revolution is not liberation at all, but simply the imposition of a different sort of patriarchy. The Sexual Revolution empowers men to pursue a Darwinian fantasy of the predatory alpha-male, rooted in the values of power, prestige, and personal pleasure … We see the wreckage of sexuality as self-expression all around us, and we will see more yet.
In his address, Warren called on the church to continue to provide leadership in the fight against same-sex marriage:
The church cannot be salt and light in a crumbling culture if it caves in to the sexual revolution and fails to provide a counter-culture witness. It is a myth that we must give up Biblical truth on sexuality and marriage in order to evangelize.
The women speakers weren’t much better. Sr. M. Prudence Allen, who was recently appointed to the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, went JPII old-school, claiming that gender and sex ideology were “cancerous” and founded on “deceptive methods” that “distort the true equal dignity and difference of women and men.”
Despite the halo of Pope Francis’ presence, which seems to have a Jedi-mind-trick-like effect on the media, who see only puppies and unicorns when he’s around, the conference, which clearly had his imprimatur, was largely about the promotion of straight-up Christian patriarchy. The logical extrapolation of the speakers’ assertions, that women’s sexual liberation has been their downfall and the ruination of the family, is that only women’s sexual re-subjugation (through limits on access to abortion, contraception and divorce, and the shaming of nonmarital sex) will save the “traditional” family from gay people. Or something like that.