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. —Pope Francis
VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis declared Monday that the institutions of marriage and family are in crisis and that "children have a right to grow up in a family with a mother and a father."
The pope opened a major, three-day interfaith Vatican conference by saying "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 pope addressed as his “brothers and sisters" some 350 religious leaders, scholars and thought leaders attending Humanum: An International Interreligious Colloquium on the Complementarity of Man and Woman.
His 20-minute speech kicked off a day of presentations by Jewish, Buddhist, Anabaptist representatives at Synod Hall at the Vatican. The day also included the premieres of new short films on marriage and a panel of scholars that included a BYU professor.
Pope Francis personally greeted many of those who will present at the three-day conference. President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sat on the front row of Synod Hall for the pope's address. As Pope Francis moved deliberately from presenter to presenter, he warmly greeted President Eyring, marking the first meeting between an LDS general authority and the pope at the Vatican.
President Eyring will speak to the conference Tuesday afternoon.
Pope Francis also made news by confirming that he will travel to Philadelphia in September 2015 for the World Meeting of Families, an event sponsored by the Catholic Church every three years to improve understanding of the family. The 2015 meeting will specifically explore the impact of the family on society.
The pope insisted a man and a woman are essential to strong, stable marriages and families.
"We know that today marriage and the family are in crisis," he said. "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."
That's why, he said, "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."
He called on young people to be "true revolutionaries seeking true and everlasting love" because society needs a man and a woman to join together and form a family. "They must go against the common pattern of our culture that emphasizes the temporary.”
In the context of the conference theme, how a man and a woman complement each other in marriage, Pope Francis called complementarity one of "the dynamic harmonies at the heart of all Creation" and said the sexual difference between man and woman is at the heart of marriage.
Comparing our physical and our social environments, Pope Francis said, “We have been slower in our Catholic culture to recognize that our social environments are at risk. It is therefore essential to foster a new human ecology and make it progress.”
Witnesses to marriage
Participants were clearly energized by the pope’s address, and there was noticeable excitement, particularly among the American Catholics in attendance, at the news the pope would visit America next year.
After the pope left the hall, the conference settled into a mix of 30-minute substantive presentations, followed by a series of 15-minute “witnesses.”
These “witnesses,“ referred to by some as “testimonies,” were intended to be more personal attestations by various faith leaders regarding what they felt was the truth of marriage. The tone of most of the presentations, however, was quite philosophical.
The three presentations on the first day were delivered by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth; Dr. Janne Haaland Matláry, former secretary of state of Norway; and Rev. Jean Lafitte, secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Family.
Among those acting as witnesses on the first day were a Muslim professor, an Argentine family activist, an Anabaptist pastor, a Jain theologian, a Buddhist teacher and an Anglican archbishop from Africa.
Another major feature of the conference was the premier presentation of films related to conference themes. The first, “The Destiny of Humanity: On the Meaning of Marriage,” explores how concepts of natural law and ancient wisdom traditions attempt to capture the complementarity of male-female relationships. The second, “The Cradle of Life and Love: A Mother and Father for the World’s Children,” examines sex-differentiated roles of parents in the lives of children.
Both are available on YouTube. Four more videos will be released before the end of the conference.
Finally, a panel of scholars, including BYU family law professor Lynn Wardle, concluded the day.
Wardle discussed the consequences of society’s retreat from marriage and emphasized that governments “cannot adequately substitute for family caregiving. The disintegration of marriage impairs family caregiving and threatens to overwhelm the capacity of state resources to provide substitute caregiving.”
The day was punctuated by breaks for coffee, refreshment and lunch. During these interludes, many English-speaking participants expressed admiration for the powerful and passionate intellectual framing of the issues provided by Rabbi Sacks earlier in the day.
Sacks is a gifted orator. He speaks the King’s English with a resonant Oxbridge accent and the intuitive cadence of a fine dramatist.
Sacks rallied the gathering in defense of male-female marriage by deftly synthesizing insights and aphorisms from evolutionary biology, cultural anthropology, political theory, religious history, biblical exegesis and theology.
“For any society, the family is the crucible of its future, and for the sake of our children’s future, we must be its defenders,” he said.
He equated the ideals of monogamy and monotheism and laid out their role in protecting the equal dignity and spiritual growth of individuals.
Lest his defense of marriage be misconstrued as anti-gay, in his address, and in a press conference between sessions, Sacks forcefully condemned the persecution and mistreatment of gays, lesbians and transgendered people.
“But our compassion for those who choose to live differently,” he said, “should not inhibit us from being advocates for the single most humanizing institution in history.”
“The family," he continued, "man, woman, and child, is not one lifestyle choice among many. It is the best means we have yet discovered for nurturing future generations and enabling children to grow in a matrix of stability and love.
Traditional marriage and family, Sacks said, “is where we learn the delicate choreography of relationship and how to handle the inevitable conflicts within any human group. It is where we first take the risk of giving and receiving love. It is where one generation passes on its values to the next, ensuring the continuity of a civilization.”
“The most striking thing to me,” Patrick Fagan, director of the Marriage and Religion Institute in Washington, D.C., told the Deseret News, “is the convergence across all religions — not just Christian denominations — that God is most revealed in that complementarity of male and female coming together and completing each other, having to get outside of themselves in order to become whole and in doing that they are actually loving, which is fulfilling God’s way, and that way God’s way is made known.”
“And this idea is universal across all these religions," Fagan continued, "Buddhism, Muslim, Christian, Jewish and a number of the other religions we don’t hear so much of. It is amazing! This universality, that I thought was confined to within the Judeo-Christian tradition and scripture, is present and known to all peoples. That to me was amazing.”
As the last participants filed out of Synod Hall, Rev. Eugene Rivers III and his wife, Dr. Jacqueline Cooke-Rivers, a sociologist who will witness at the colloquium on Tuesday, expressed to the Deseret News their enthusiasm and admiration for the miracle of this week’s gathering.
As they walked together, hand in hand, from the lighted vestibule of the hall and into the dark evening drizzle, anyone who had been at the colloquium would have been reminded of the closing words to Rabbi Sacks’ speech about Adam and Eve leaving Eden.
“At that moment, as they were about to face the world as we know it, a place of darkness, Adam gave his wife the first gift of love, a personal name. And at that moment, God responded to them both in love, and made them garments to clothe their nakedness, or as Rabbi Meir put it, 'garments of light.'
“And so it has been ever since,” Sacks concluded, “that when a man and woman turn to one another in a bond of faithfulness, God robes them in garments of light, and we come as close as we will ever get to God himself, bringing new life into being, turning the prose of biology into the poetry of the human spirit, redeeming the darkness of the world by the radiance of love.”