Pope Francis, Still Complicating The Culture Wars

Last month the Vatican hosted a colloquium on “The Complementarity of Man and Woman,” during which Pope Francis asserted, to the joy of both conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics, that “Children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother.” Brandon Ambrosino unpacks the nuances that make the line anything but a simplistic defense of traditional marriage:

As many theologians and commentators are pointing out, the most important part of Francis’ lecture was this:

When we speak of complementarity between man and woman in this context, let us not confuse that term with the simplistic idea that all the roles and relations of the two sexes are fixed in a single, static pattern. Complementarity will take many forms as each man and woman brings his or her distinctive contributions to their marriage and to the formation of their children — his or her personal richness, personal charisma.

According to [Fordham theologian Patrick] Hornbeck, these words signal a departure from Francis’ predecessors. For one thing, Hornbeck notes, Francis didn’t go out of his way to condemn homosexuality. Second, Francis’ comments display a certain level of openness often lacking in discussions about complementarity.

“What Francis tells us in his address is complementarity is not about a rigid demarcation of gender roles,” said Hornbeck.

In other words, Francis has displayed a more nuanced understanding of sex and gender than we’ve seen from a recent pope. He understands that human sexuality is complex and that it resists easy categorization, which is why his lecture warns against simplistic, static, reductionistic ways of looking at it.

In an interview, Hornbeck further delineated a more expansive understanding of what complimentarity can mean, especially as it connects to gay relationships:

What I like about his statement is, first of all, how he uses Scripture. He uses I Corinthians 12 to talk about spiritual gifts: “Saint Paul tells us that the Spirit has endowed each of us with different gifts so that – just as the human body’s members work together for the good of the whole — everyone’s gifts can work together for the benefit of each.” Now, there’s no gender associated with those gifts. Those are unique to each individual.

The way those gifts complement each other is the second point. Francis says, “To reflect upon ‘complementarity’ is nothing less than to ponder the dynamic harmonies at the heart of all Creation.”

When we think about the harmony of sexuality, one of the fundamental aspects that defines that harmony is sexual orientation. So heterosexual relationships are harmonious for people with a heterosexual orientation. And homosexual relationships are harmonious for people with homosexual orientations. I think it’s correct to say, as Francis does, that all complementaries were made by the Creator, and sexual orientation is part of that creation. (Even though the Church uses the language of “disordered,” I and many other theologians would challenge that language.) But I think there can be harmony for gays and lesbians in sexual relationships, just like there can be harmony for heterosexuals in sexual relationships.