Pope Francis is onto something in his recent linking of the crisis of faith to the crisis in the alliance of the man and the woman and the radical task this link implies. This insight is as old as Genesis; but, as usual, Francis brings old truths to life in new and straightforward ways.
A few weeks ago at a papal audience, employing the classically Catholic method of “faith illuminating reason,” Pope Francis meditated on Gn 1:27: “God created man in his own image...male and female he created them.” Francis opined: “I wonder if the crisis of collective trust in God...is not also connected to the crisis of the alliance between man and woman. In fact, the biblical account...tells us that the communion with God is reflected in the communion of the human couple and the loss of trust in the heavenly Father generates division and conflict between man and woman.”
He then assigned to the church, and “all believers, and first of all believing families...to rediscover the beauty of the creative design that also inscribes the image of God in the alliance between man and woman.”
Pope Francis issued a similar call to representatives of more than 14 faith traditions: at a Vatican conference last November on the complementarity of man and woman in marriage: “Commit yourselves, so that our youth do not give themselves over to the poisonous environment of the temporary, but rather be revolutionaries with the courage to seek true and lasting love, going against the common pattern.”
We know that in the United States a declining number of Americans tell pollsters that they practice their Catholic faith. Rates of marriage are declining generally in the population as well as within the Catholic Church. Sociological literature also reveals a significant amount of “gender distrust” between men and women, a greater willingness to use cohabitation to “test” relationships and high numbers of single-parent families.
This generation also has a front row seat to the ceaselessly repeated claims that there is nothing uniquely important or special about the alliance of the man and the woman; nothing special about their lovemaking overflowing into the creation of new life; and nothing special about that new son or daughter retaining a connection with his or her mother and father. These claims, of course, are the very foundation of arguments on behalf of divorce laws deaf to the existence of minor children, a lively U.S. marketplace for eggs, sperm and wombs and same-sex marriage.
In the past, the notion that both male and female image God has been put to use mostly in service of women’s equality. It has been a great foundation—one of the most solid—for the advancement of the human rights of women.
Currently, however, Francis is stressing how the alliance between the man and the woman images God in an irreplaceable way, such that this must inspire efforts to strengthen this same alliance. This is a radical “ask,” considering that the intrinsic and unique values of this alliance have probably never been cast in more doubt by genuinely powerful public and private institutions. In fact, it is a moment when governments might act to impede or even punish churches’ and individuals’ religious witness to the unique good of the alliance between men and women.
For a long time, I have been wondering what it would take to get Catholics to think more concretely about how to act out our conviction that marriage provides a glimpse of God and his way of love. Our teaching proposes this dynamic repeatedly, but what does it look like? Francis suggested an answer (in the same audience referred to above): more listening between men and women, more understanding and more love—all open to God’s action, and assisted, not undermined, by intellectual firepower.
Each element of Francis’ solution is briefly stated. Yet each is a giant “ask.” I’m just thrilled that Francis has set the table and hopeful it will inspire a generation of couples and scholars.
Maybe we had to be driven to the point where the value of marriage between man and woman was discounted or denied and our right to support it jeopardized before we came to grips with this basic but also deeply spiritual commission. No matter why, the moment is upon us.