Rome — We stood, as for a head of state, and Pope Francis was ushered into the very room in the Vatican in which the bishops held the famous synod on the family this October. With his warm smile and a quiet “Buongiorno,” he opened the historic Interreligious Colloquium on the Complementarity of Man and Woman this Monday in Rome.
For the Vatican it was a truly unusual event, with people from every part of the globe and nearly every major faith tradition — Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Jains, Mormons and Muslims, not to mention Sikhs, Hindus, and Buddhists, pouring into Rome to share their faith traditions’ insights into the meaning of this thing called sex.
Pope Francis, as he is wont to do, grabbed the headlines, not only clearly affirming “children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother,” but naming so clearly the larger crisis we face:
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.#,,,#It is always they who suffer the most in this crisis.
There is a crisis in the human ecological environment, he told us, in both the spiritual and the material foundations of the family. But he also urged each of us “to lift up yet another truth about marriage: that permanent commitment to solidarity, fidelity, and fruitful love responds to the deepest longings of the human heart.”
About the next generation he said, “It is important that they do not give themselves over to the poisonous mentality of the temporary, but rather be revolutionaries with the courage to seek true and lasting love, going against the common pattern. This must be done.”
Something happened at this colloquium, something I would not say was talked about, so much as on display, something deeply foundational and mostly missing in modern discourse on the family, including (perhaps especially) much rational Catholic discourse — something that cannot be explained but only experienced by the hungry human heart.
The closest words we have are so mocked and ridiculed as to be reduced in their capacity to carry the meaning: purity? chastity?
There is something men and women can be together but only when we recognize our difference as deeply precious and meaningful, for in it lies the capacity of the lover and the beloved to influence one another. I mean in particular the special power of women for men to symbolize and therefore incarnate, a world outside that which every teenage boy enters adult life experiencing: the deep power of lust. Can sexual desire ever be something other than this relentless urge to use, to possess, to enjoy, to discard, to delight in degradation that is so evident all around us?
I heard an echo of it in what prominent evangelicals were trying to put into words:
Rick Warren pointed out that Paul explained it this way: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her — to make her holy . . . and to present her as beautiful bride to himself, a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or blemish, but holy and pure.”
We all felt it deeply in the speaking of an extraordinary woman: the brilliant, gracious, beautiful, and powerful Jacqueline Rivers (including her courageously firm but polite rebuke to those bishops and other religious leaders who failed to police the sexual predators in our midst.).
Christianity will rise or fall on whether or not we can recover this sense, in the midst of our own increasing fallenness, of a transcendent possibility. A culture that can produce a Jacqueline Rivers is worth fighting for and sacrificing for, and refusing to give up on.
We all felt it in the powerful video series on marriage crafted by an incredibly talented young team of Catholic filmmakers. (You will be able to see them yourself on www.Humanum.it.) Something of deep and transcendent possibility, built into the structure of the cosmos, which may be suppressed, but is not going to go away. Family ideologies of Right or Left, Pope Francis reassured us, won’t erase the facts, the family per se.
But for me, this thing rang out most clearly in the words of a member of the First Presidency of the LDS church, Henry B. Eyring. The meeting of President Eyring and Pope Francis was in itself historic. The Mormons are the one major American faith tradition (with the possible exception of the modern Orthodox Jews), who are successfully combining living in the “real world” with creating a distinctive, effective family culture. And they have built this extraordinary achievement, President Eyring was trying to remind us, not primarily on the head but on the human heart.
“I am an eyewitness of the power of the union of a man and a woman in marriage to produce happiness for one another and for their family. The evidence I offer is personal, yet I trust my recital may trigger in your memories what you have seen that would point to a general truth beyond the experience of one couple and one family,” he began.
He was living as a single man, a doctoral student at Harvard, his research was going well, he had his local church, he played tennis often, life was good. One day in a grove of trees in New Hampshire, “I saw in the crowd a young woman. I had never seen her before, but the feeling came over me that she was the best person I had ever seen. That evening she walked into our church meeting in Cambridge. Another thought came to my mind with great power: ‘If I could only be with her, I could become every good thing I ever wanted to be.’ I said to the man sitting next to me, ‘Do you see that girl? I would give anything to marry her.’”
A year later they were married in a temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:
The promise included that whatever descendants we might have would be bound to us forever if we lived worthy of that happiness. We were promised that after this life, we could continue to enjoy whatever loving family sociality we could create in life.
“My wife and I believed those promises, and we wanted that happiness. So we acted to make it possible through the great variety of circumstances of life. There was sickness and health, struggle and some prosperity, the births of six children, and eventually the births of 31 grandchildren, and on the day I arrived I was told we had the first great grandchild. Yet with all the changes, there have been consistencies since that wedding day more than 52 years ago.
There was a catch in his voice, and I wondered about it, the hidden story behind the almost tears as he said, “Most remarkable to me has been the fulfillment of the hope I felt the day I met my wife. I have become a better person as I have loved and lived with her.”
At that moment I knew: This is what I want for my sons, that they find the woman who will make them want, and give them the power to be, a better man. This is also the kind of woman I want to be.
At the end of this extraordinary three days Archbishop Chaput took the microphone to invite us to the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. “I’ve been a bishop for 26 years, a priest for more than 40 years, and this was the most interesting colloquium I’ve been to in my life,” he said.
The conference ended not with a statement but with a promise: A movie will be made to express our deepest affirmations. Jacqueline Rivers and Reverend Gene Rivers read from the script for the story, the story of our lives:
For on earth marriage binds us across the ages in the flesh, across families in the flesh, and across the fearful and wonderful divide of man and woman, in the flesh. This is not ours to alter,” it reads. “It is ours, however, to encourage and celebrate. . . . This we affirm.
After that, we all stood and applauded for what seemed like ten minutes, reluctant to leave, reluctant to have it end, which of course it should not, because now our task is to find new ways to go forth and carry on the great human story of the generations.
— Maggie Gallagher is a senior fellow at the American Principles Project. She blogs at MaggieGallagher.com.