An interview with Dr. Helen Alvare, Communications Liaison Officer for Vatican Colloquium on the Complementarity of Man and Woman in Marriage
Just one verse each day.
What is the essence, beauty, and wisdom of marriage, as willed by the Creator? And how, in today’s world, may we come to perceive, esteem and promote the complementarity of man and woman in that unique and sacred union that lay at the very heart of life and civilization?
These and other questions will be taken up at an an international, interreligious colloquium being held this week in Vatican City. The colloquium is entitled The Complementarity of Man and Woman in Marriage.
The three-day conference, sponsored by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in cooperation with three other Vatican dicasteries, will feature presenters from 14 religious traditions and 23 countries. Each presenter will speak about how their tradition understands the relationship between man and woman in marriage.
Six professionally produced films will debut, featuring the perspectives and the testimony of women and men, young and old, lay and religious, single and married persons from across the globe.
Cardinal Gerhard Muller, Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, will offer opening remarks at the conference’s first morning session on Monday, November 17.
Pope Francis will then deliver an opening address to the conference speakers and some 350 participants.
Aleteia’s Rome correspondent Diane Montagna sat down with Dr. Helen Alvare, Communications Liaison Officer for the Conference, about the origins of the colloquium, its aims, and how the love between man and woman in marriage has a ripple effect that makes a positive difference in the world. Dr. Alvare is a Professor of Law at George Mason University, where she teaches Family Law, and Law and Religion. In the past she has informally assisted the Holy See at the United Nations on issues related to women and the family.
Dr. Alvare, how the did the Humanum conference come about? What was the inspiration for it?
The inspiration was the needs that families have all over the world. You probably know that various Vatican offices have conferences quite regularly. How do they arrive at the topic? They look around the world, as we read in the first lines of Gaudium et Spes, at “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age”. And they see that an extraordinarily fundamental thing in the world, the relationship between men and women in marriage, is in the Pope’s words, “in crisis.”
Because it is a worldwide problem, crossing countries and religions, they decided to have a worldwide conversation, and to have 14 religions and 23 countries speaking – and far more than that among the 350 participants – to try to get at the beauty of this relationship between the man and the woman, and how it forms part of the divine plan. Throughout the Church’s history, but most particularly through Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict, and Pope Francis, we have popes addressing the family as an icon of God, as a key to understanding the meaning of love and life, but people in their ordinary lives have not enough taken this in, been inspired, and taken hope from it.
Therefore we’re struggling to close that gap with what the synod Relatio said was new language that meets human beings where they are. You’re going to see that what these offices hoped for is present in these talks. There’s all kinds of language coming from people’s experience, from a variety of religions with their own insights, that are going to help everybody – academics, ordinary couples, young people – with words to grasp what is beautiful, and I would say doable, as well as what is divine about their relationships.
Why now? What is the importance of having this particular conference on the complementarity of man and woman now?
Well, you really could have had this conference, and made the case that it was necessary, any time in the last 50 or 60 years. For a long time now, people have taken for granted that men and women would always want to marry, that they would want to stay married, that they would welcome children. For decades now, we’ve had that assumption side by side with the failure of men and women to come together in marriage, the falling apart of marriage, the lack of welcome of children, not even associating children with marriage.
And because we took for granted for so long that everybody knew there was something compelling about the male-female relationship, permanently committed in marriage, there was actually too little discussion.
Now, you might respond, “People talk about men and women all the time.” They do so in a shallow sense: they talk about their sexual attraction, they talk about relationships falling apart. Yet there is very little conversation about the meaning, the essence of their union, what it means for their entire life, the lives of their children, the lives of their communities, and what it means in the divine plan.
Why did God create a two sexed humanity? Why did he make them attracted to one another in a one-flesh union? Why did God put creation there when he could have put it anywhere? It must mean something, and we want to get out language, concepts, and beautiful images in the films we’re presenting, that help people to grasp this in their ordinary lives.
Who is behind the conference? Who is its principal sponsor?
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is the principal sponsor. They are closely cooperating with the Pontifical Councils for the Family, for Interreligious Dialogue, and for Christian Unity. Officials from each of those Vatican offices will open the sessions and introduce the topics. Between them, they chose the speakers from around the world whom they believed would have a serious interest in contributing to the development of new language, of a new inspiration about the man and the woman in marriage.
Are the heads of these Vatican dicasteries presenting talks?
We have His Excellency Jean Laffitte, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Family, Cardinale Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, and Archbishop Augustine Di Noia and Cardinal Müller from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
How much do you expect the conference to change the way the world views marriage and its attempts to refine it?
In some discrete locations around the globe, in some publications, in some talks, this conversation about the greatness, the beauty, the meaning, the essence of the man and the woman’s relationship in marriage is happening. But the Holy See has a unique platform, and there is a reason why it is the Holy See gathering all of these religious traditions from all over the globe.
The Church’s respect for reason, it’s respect for other religious traditions, and its ability to welcome them to the table to have a conversation—and, let’s be frank, the marvelous appeal of Pope Francis, the Church’s leadership worldwide on the questions of marriage and sex and parenting, the depths of its intellect, and the millenia of its grappling all make it an ideal place and sponsor for this event.
While no one event can infuse the discussion about marriage with all the reason and facts and beauty that it deserves, this is going to make a very good start on thinking about it.
I’ve been a family scholar full-time as a professor for 15 years, and before that I worked in policy offices. I was a family law attorney, so I’ve been at this for 30 years. I read every day—sociology, psychology, theology, anthropology, law, obviously. I cannot remember seeing in one place contributions from the religious traditions like this. In 2003, the Rockefeller Foundation brought us to Como where they have a study center, and there I met with Jewish, Islamic, Catholic scholars—it was a gathering of the Abrahamic faiths—and we had five days of intense dialogue. I’ve had informal dialogue with other religions. But for the scale of religious diversity on this very particular topic, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it.
Add to that the sponsorship of four Vatican offices. This is, I think, a very important contribution, and I don’t think I’m overstating it.
How do you view the Humanum conference in light of the recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family and the upcoming Synod to be held in October 2015?
I would say a couple of things. First, the planning for this conference was begun a year ago, so obviously it couldn’t anticipate anything about the Synod. It turns out, very fortunately, that the Synod Relatio, in more than half of the paragraphs, invited the conversation we’re about to have. It referred to the man and the woman as the heart of the family. Well, this is where we’re beginning in this conversation.
We’re also going to be discussing what depends on them: the well-being of the children, the well-being of their communities. In particular, you’re going to see outstanding contributions from communities that are suffering the demise of marriage—the African American community in the United States. You’re also going to see, firsthand, people working with the poor in that community, able to explain exactly what happens.
The Synod invited a conversation about men and women. It said we needed to have the witness of people from all over the world telling their stories. The six films to be debuted have gone and collected witnesses from all over the world. The people who are speaking—single, married, lay, religious, scholar, non-scholar, young and old—are doing exactly that.
The Extraordinary Synod also asked for new language one could find that could speak to people in the modern situation in which they find themselves. And that, we have.
Are the films part of that new language? There’s an old saying, “Don’t tell me you love me, show me.” Are the films a way to show modern man the beauty of marriage, in a way that appeals to his modern sensibilities?
Absolutely. Beauty has been a touchstone particularly John Paul II, Benedict and Francis. They talk about a Church that wears a happy smile. They talk about bringing positive witnesses to attract rather than proselytizing. You’re going to see in the films ordinary married people, singles.
I’ll give you an example of the language that, when I saw it, went right to me, because again having read and written in this area for so many years, I could tell this was new.
We have a gorgeous couple that was interviewed in Nigeria. The woman was trying to explain why she thinks her marriage is important, why it should be important to anyone. And she said, “Listen, my marriage is my personal project but it is also my project for the world. Everything I do for my husband, what I do for my children, has ripples that make a positive difference in the world.”
And she said it so shortly and so sweetly that the tendency to see one’s marriage as a purely private matter was confronted. Your eyes will be opened by her.
Not to become too personal, but my mother’s funeral happened right before I came here to Rome. The people who came to the funeral talked not just about my mother, but about my two parents who have died in the last two years, and my sister who died a few years before that, who was severely disabled. My parents cared for her in a gorgeous witness.
What our family life, what my father’s love for my mother while he was dying, her love for him while she took care of him as he was dying, how he provided for her in the years before their deaths, how they both took care of my very disabled sister. Then what each of my sisters and brothers said when we got up at the funeral and spoke. The profound effect that the family had had. These are the letters and emails I’ve been getting since I came here to Rome.
What that African woman expressed in that film will touch people in a way that even the most beautifully written encyclical may not.
There’s another young man in the film. You know, we often say, “Young people are just not getting married at the rate their parents did. And why is this?” And he says in this film, “Don’t tell me marriage is the foundation. People my age say, ‘I’m the foundation. I’m building my life, I’m going to school, I’m making these accomplishments’.” And he says, “Then when I’m completely formed, I’ll reach out to someone who’s also formed and say, ‘I’ve got my act together; you’ve got your act together; let’s enjoy our life together now that we’re both formed’.”
Then, in the same film, you have these young girls on the way to a bar, and these young girls are saying, “You know, I really want to be part of somebody’s life before he thinks he’s made it and is looking for a woman who’s as accomplished as him. I want to build something with somebody. I want to help make him, and he can make me’.”
Out of the mouths of single people versus an academic diagnosis. They are on the way to a bar to meet people, telling you want they want. That’s new. That’s going to touch people in a way that a theoretical or even a theological [argument] in its best attempt will not.
Would you say, then, that the presentation is new but that the conversation ultimately goes back to the deepest desires of the human heart?
Exactly, and there’s the hope. That’s why, while we use the language of crisis, that’s never where we end. When Pope John Paul II used to talk, I think he said it in Evangelium Vitae—he said it in many places—he said the reason why we have no possibility of falling into despair, even on these issues that seem so neuralgic, is because we know we’re touching the human heart. He had absolute confidence. We know it from our reason, we know it from our faith. And so that’s why, when you hear something like this, it goes straight to your heart, because you’re a reasonable person living in the world.
Can people access the films and talks that will be presented in the Vatican at the conference this week?
Yes. They will be made available on the conference website, www.humanum.it. As soon as the videos of the presentations are ready, which will be within some hours of the live presentation, people will be able to click on the videos, under “Video” on the webpage. I believe we will also be making many of the texts of the presenters available, in 3-5 languages, on the Humanum website.