A group of nearly 50 influential conservative Christian activists are urging Pope Francis and Catholic bishops to “protect marriage,” insisting that the church leaders reiterate a traditional understanding of sexuality and gender roles at an upcoming meeting on family issues at the Vatican.
Pope Francis made headlines last year when he announced plans to convene an “extraordinary synod”, or a gathering of the pope and selected Cardinals, to discuss the “Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization” in October 2014. Catholic leaders are expected to discuss a number of “family issues” when the synod meets next week, and a group of conservative “marriage activists” — who decry cohabitation, divorce, same-sex marriage, “nonmarital childbearing,” and pornography — are pressuring the pope to stick to an older definition of family. Earlier this week, a group of calling itself “Commitment To Marriage” published an online letter signed by almost 50 prominent activists urging synod participants to work to end the “marriage crisis.”
“This Synod is an opportunity to express timeless truths about marriage,” the letter read. “Men and women need desperately to hear the truth about why they should get married in the first place. And, once married, why Christ and the Church desire that they should remain faithful to each other throughout their lives on this earth. That, when marriage gets tough (as it does for most couples), the Church will be a source of support, not just for individual spouses, but for the marriage itself.”
Lamenting the decline of the traditional nuclear family, signers of the letter also offered recommendations for how the pope could end the global “marriage crisis.” Suggestions included creating a “Pontifical Council on the Family” to conduct research on the “role of pornography and ‘no fault’ divorce in the marriage crisis,” training priests to “showcase in their homilies the spiritual and social value of marriage,” and bolstering efforts within the Catholic church to help “restore legal provisions that protect marriage as a conjugal union of one man and one woman.”
The signers of the letter are a veritable who’s-who of Catholic “marriage activists,” people who advocate for conservative concepts of marriage, sexuality, and gender roles. Signatories include Robert P. George, Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and former chairman of the National Organization for Marriage; Mark Regnerus, sociology professor at University of Texas at Austin and author of deeply controversial report on same-sex parenting; Alan Sears, President of the right-wing legal group Alliance Defending Freedom; Ryan T. Anderson of The Heritage Foundation, who infamously sparred with gay marriage advocates and Piers Morgan on CNN; Mary Ann Glendon, Harvard Law School professor and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican; and Crystalina and Jason Evert, founders of the Chastity Project, an effort “focused solely on promoting purity.”
The letter also included non-Catholic signers such as megachurch pastor Rick Warren, a Protestant Christian and head of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, and Alan J. Hawkins, a Mormon Professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Their involvement — as well as the release of the letter itself — exposes a growing sense of uncertainty among many Christian conservatives regarding Francis’ views on family issues. Indeed, even as religious conservatives push for the Vatican to stick to its older policies and positions, religious progressives have reason for hope: Although the first Argentinian pope hasn’t taken any formal steps to change church doctrine, Francis has gained global popularity in part for shifting the Vatican’s focus away from culture war battles, saying the church is too “obsessed” with the issues such as abortion and responding to a question about homosexuality by saying “Who am I to judge?” He has also expressed open ambivalence on the concept of priestly celibacy, and when Francis officiated the marriages of 20 couples at St. Peter’s Basilica in September, there was widespread speculation that the couples were meant to represent a broader understanding of family: a few of the pairs were already living together, some were getting married for the second time, and one of the brides already had a child.
Another hint of potential changes emerged when the Vatican released a 75-page working paper in June to prepare for the synod. According to the Daily Mail, the paper was meant to synthesize the results of a global survey of Catholics and Catholic leaders about family issues, and noted that “a vast majority” of responders believed that “the moral evaluation of the different methods of birth control is commonly perceived today as an intrusion in the intimate life of the couple and an encroachment on the autonomy of conscience.”
The synod is scheduled to begin this coming Sunday, meeting from October 5-19.