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Alessandra Tarantino, Associated Press
Pope Francis waves as he leaves after his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2014.
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. —Catherine Pakaluk

VATICAN CITY — As international faith leaders wound up a three-day interfaith conference on marriage at the Vatican last week, 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,” the Deseret News 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 last Monday 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, who provided support to 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 percent of children were born outside of marriage, set to become a majority of children in 2016. Fewer people are marrying and 42 percent 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.

Optimism

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.”

“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."

“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.’”

“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, sponsored by the Catholic Church. 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.

Another opportunity for interfaith dialogue about the family, according to Stan Swim, is next year’s meeting of the World Congress of Families IX that Salt Lake City will host Oct. 27-30, 2015.

Swim is administrator of World Congress of Families IX organizing committee.

“The World Congress of Families is interfaith from the ground up," he said. "It is not organized by any one particular church. In fact at our planning meeting a couple of weeks ago we had 80 people from 23 countries and churches of all sorts represented. So World Congress of Families is, from soup to nuts, interfaith.”

The World Congress of Families, a program of the Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, calls itself “a practical effort to lead the international pro-family movement and build greater understanding and encourage new networks and initiatives among natural family advocates at the national and international levels.”

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 percent of single-parent households.”

Following his speech, Sacks told the Deseret News 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 in to 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 doesn’t 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

Princeton professor Robert George, known affectionately by colleagues as Robby, told the Deseret News 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 told the Deseret News, “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, N.J., that explores the moral foundations of society.

“I encouraged Robby to write to Cardinal Müller and suggest the idea to him."

Cardinal Gerhard Müller is the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, one of the leading bodies 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 percent out-of-wedlock births to more than 70 percent 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.”

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com