This week, the world witnessed a highly unusual religious event. There was minimal coverage of the event by the liberal press (or, depending on the paper, no coverage at all) both in the US and the UK, so if you blinked you may not have noticed.
The Vatican hosted an international, interfaith conference to ‘examine’, ‘propose anew’, and ‘witness’ the importance of traditional marriage. Entitled ‘The Complementarity of Man and Woman: An International Colloquium’, the gathering included prominent religious leaders and scholars from nearly two dozen countries and many different traditions, including Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Taoist.
Former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom Jonathan Sacks addressed the conference, as did leading evangelical pastors from the US, such as Rick Warren and Russell Moore. President Henry Erying, one of the highest leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also spoke; this is the first time a Mormon leader has been in official attendance at a Vatican conference.
Pope Francis opened the proceedings on Monday, asserting that ‘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.’
The purpose of the conference was bold. It was, frankly, to reassert that God has ordained marriage to be between a man and a woman, and that this union is at the very heart of our purpose as human beings. A man and a woman ‘are not just two people. He is for her, and she for him; it is inscribed in their bodies. Their union will bring life that binds and mingles families, encourages faith to flourish, and brings humankind and the world’s diverse cultures to flower again.’
And yet, as the conference organizers argued, ‘it is hard now to speak of such obvious and beautiful things’. The redefinition of marriage to include gay marriage has led to Western society becoming increasingly hostile to the self-evident idea of the natural complementarity of men and women.
Jonathan Sacks spoke of the necessity to champion traditional marriage in the face of this redefinition. Certainly, we should have ‘compassion for those who choose to live differently’, but this compassion ‘should not inhibit us from being advocates for the single most humanising institution in history’. Indeed, ‘the family, 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.’
Yet, redefining marriage is not the only threat to traditional marriage. For too long, marriage has been under attack by the Left as an oppressive institution, particularly for women. The result has been the development of government policies which do nothing to support or incentivise marriage. Fewer people are getting married, and therefore more children are born out of wedlock. The result, paradoxically, is that ‘the collapse of marriage has created a new form of poverty concentrated among single parent families, and of these, the main burden is born by women’. Rejecting marriage as outdated or inherently oppressive has done nothing for women; indeed, it has only put them in a weaker position.
It was wonderful this week to see a conference devoted specifically to discussions and ‘witnesses’ regarding the importance and necessity of traditional marriage. But what was even more wonderful was to see so many leaders and members from different faiths come together in a common, and very urgent, cause. For too long, especially in the US, different denominations have often regarded each other with suspicion. This week heralded an historic moment when our similarities triumphed over our differences, enabling us to send a strong signal to the world that God is not dead, and neither is marriage. Humbly, yet boldly, we declared that we will not be silenced.
We live in a world that is increasingly hostile to religion, and particularly to religious traditions which posit a distinction between what God commands and what man may want. Many people see religion as they see politics: you should make your voice heard and get the change that you want. And so there is ever-increasing pressure (often from non-religious people) on various religions to alter their respective doctrines on marriage in the face of cultural changes.
Yet, the message from this conference was that across these many different religions, the doctrine on marriage cannot change: ‘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 is ours, however, to encourage and celebrate.’