ROME — Less than a month after the end of a turbulent Synod of Bishops on the Family, Pope Francis will head back to the Vatican’s synod hall on Nov. 17 to revisit the controversies raised by that summit from the perspective of how men and women relate to one another.
The key idea of the three-day meeting is “complementarity,” meaning that men and women have distinct roles which complement one another in the family, in married life, and in the Church itself.
Complementarity comes up frequently in Catholic circles as part of the intellectual basis for opposing same-sex marriage, on the grounds that the natural differences between men and women reflect the divine plan for marriage as a union between the two sexes. Given that many of the flash points at the synod revolved around homosexuality and marriage, the agenda for the looming conference seems destined to bring them back to the fore.
Complementarity has also been invoked by recent popes to defend the Church’s ban on women priests, on the grounds that men and women play different but equally important roles in Catholicism.
Francis is scheduled to offer the opening remarks for a three-day interreligious colloquium sponsored by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and two Pontifical Councils: Interreligious Dialogue and the Family.
American law professor Helen Alvare, spokeswoman for the event and a former anti-abortion advocate for US bishops, defined the conference as an attempt to show the fullness of the male-female relationship.
“We want to help [people] understand that there’s beauty to be preserved, and that they can rely on us, the Catholics, the Orthodox, the Anglicans, the Buddhists, the Mormons, or the Mennonites to preserve that beauty,” Alvare said.
Members of 14 different religions will share their views on the issue.
From the Catholic Church, the lineup includes Cardinals Gerhard Müller of Germany, the Vatican’s doctrinal czar; Kurt Koch of Switzerland, its chief ecumenical official, and Jean-Louis Tauran of France, who heads the Vatican’s outreach to other religions.
Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput, organizer of the World Meeting of Families that will take place next September, is also set to make a presentation. Francis is expected to visit Philadelphia for the occasion.
As part of the conference, six short films on the family will be introduced. Their aim is to highlight several of the voices that were present at the synod through the questionnaire Pope Francis sent out to all the dioceses of the world in 2013.
Alvare told Crux that the movies, soon to be available at the website Humanum, portray the insight and practical wisdom of those different voices and religions.
“You see very few experts,” she said, “but you see the young girl from Argentina that goes to a bar looking for a husband, a young married couple from Paris or a family from Nigeria.”
Other leaders expected to speak are Rick D. Warren, senior pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.; Manmohan Singh, secretary general of the World Sikh Council; Jacqueline Cooke-Rivers, a doctoral fellow in African and African-American Studies at Harvard University, and Johann Christoph Arnold, a pastor with the Bruderhof Communities.
For Alvare, the exchange is an answer to Pope Francis’ call to “look, listen, face reality, [and] get people from around the world to tell us their situation.”
“I know I’m not seeing things,” she said. “With his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium and his final speech at the synod, he’s telling us to open the dialogue. Solidarity between religions and cultures is possible.”
When questioned about the fact that most of the participants come from what many would consider a “conservative spectrum,” Alvare said those sponsoring the conference don’t think about American categories of politically conservative or liberal.
According to Alvare, they invited speakers who have a deep concern for remembering the billions of people who are struggling with the male-female relationship question.
“It’s gotten pretty diffuse,” she said, “as if this issue wasn’t terribly important, when it’s actually the real problem in the institution of family.”
“So maybe it turns out that when you start knocking on doors, asking who’s working on this, you end up with people who look to those who use this political categories, I think, incorrectly, as conservative,” she said. “But those doing the groundwork don’t see their work on this regard in this particular way. Their work crosses across all political labels.”