A Report on Day One: Patriarchal Spiritualism and Authoritarian Moralism

Sydney, Australia – May 2013

Day one of WCF Sydney kicked off with a whimper, though the organizers appeared to have learned one lesson. This year, the modest auditorium seats just over 500, well down from the 4,000-seat auditorium they hired in Amsterdam (2009) and the 850-seater we saw in Madrid last year. It was still only half full—with delegates who appeared to be half asleep—when the MC grandly welcomed everyone to the World Congress of Families 7 in Sydney. He was met with silence.

More showbiz failures followed. First was a sun and surf tourist video that would have made Tourism Australia proud until it lurched into fetishizing pregnant bellies and bewildered-looking women just microseconds past second-stage labor. This was followed by the Mormon Children’s Choir, an ensemble of cute and impeccably turned out six- and seven-year-olds. Their version of the classic children’s hymn “Teach Me” included an unusual line that elucidated what arguably was the central motivation for the patriarchal spiritualism and authoritarian moralism that would be the order of the day: “Teach me all that I must do to live with him someday.”

Some in the audience seemed convinced the end time was near, and that this gave both commercial and moral goals a particular urgency. As a man emphasized to the two women stationed at the Catholic Women’s League table, with the end of days nigh “you must stand by what you believe no matter what.” This was why, he continued, the Catholic League should distribute his books.

Back inside the auditorium, the emphasis on spiritual explanations for the decline of the natural family—and for why that decline must be halted—continued with a video greeting from the Vatican. Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia from the Pontifical Council for the Family highlighted the importance of those with shared views on the natural family working together across faiths and cultures. Paglia was followed by Archpriest Dimitry Smirnov from Russia (where the 8th World Congress of Families will take place next year) and then Australian Bishop Peter Elliot.

Elliot began with the parable of a man who wandered in search of all that he wished for but wound up back home, where he started. Hard to miss the moral of the story, yet this is what the audience seemed to do. This celebration of the family, used as a justification for keeping the status quo ante on all issues of marriage and sexuality, was not met with the enthusiastic reception one would expect from the family’s staunchest protectors.

Instead, we had silence.

Did the audience not follow? Rather than ask, Elliot staggered on. “We must take the heterosexual married family seriously,” he said, because “it’s here, we can’t ignore it.” This may be true, but single moms and gay parents are here too, yet the Catholic hierarchy demonizes or rejects them.

On the logical front, Elliot was far from alone in not knowing which way was North. Throughout the day various forms of tortured reasoning, often the hallmark of conservative politics, were in evidence. They included the mistaking of correlation for causation; fallacious appeals to nature (sometimes known as the “is-ought” problem); selective empiricism; and the “best defense is offense” tactic of ascribing one’s own moral failings to others.

Time and time again, speakers would contend that the very existence of the family constellation with which they are most comfortable was proof that this type of family was both inevitable and morally correct.

Another logical inconsistency endemic at WCF thus far can be summarized by the following analogy: shoddy researchers note a correlation between cities that have more churches and higher crime, and conclude that means that churches cause crime. When, in fact, more churches correlate with larger populations, which are a more likely explanation for an increased crime rate. Drawing the lines of causality in ever-more-improbable patterns doesn’t stand up to basic examination, but keep in mind the conference environment adds in equal parts squeamishness and defensiveness about people with a different understanding of “family.” All told, it does make for good theater.

Pat Fagan from the Family Research Council was just one of the presenters who sought to dazzle with charts and figures that were said to prove married heterosexual families were the cause of good grades and other outcomes for children. He claimed, for example, that “chastity is vital for a strong economy” while asserting that the “mother at home makes a greater contribution to the economy than the husband in the marketplace.” He then quickly undermined that argument by declaring, “The biggest heavy lifters [in employment] are married men with three children or more.”

In fact, all he showed was what every first year social science student knows, or should: that a secure and adequate income is the greatest predictor of good outcomes for kids (something that correlates with two-parent families of any sexual orientation and—as one of the slides clearly showed—with widows left an adequate income by their departing spouse). Evidently the nurturing family does come in more than one size.

Such appalling breaches of academic rigor and honesty implicitly answer the question posed by the former Australian Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson: “If research [showing the natural family is the right kind of family] is correct, why is it not gaining more traction?” One answer: the “data” produced by this ideologically driven research usually mistakes moral rigidity for scientific rigor, and what is objectively demonstrated always has more traction than the subjective misgivings of the few. So much for the valid “data and reasoned arguments” promised by WCF Sydney organizers!

Another answer comes in the form of a question, specifically, Anderson’s question turned on its head: If the WCF’s exclusive “non-traditional families need not apply” club isn’t gaining much traction, could its definition of the traditional family possibly be the problem? Everywhere from the Vatican to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops there is a stubborn tendency to fall back on two explanations for the so-called defense of the family not rallying more troops: build a better messaging campaign, or blame the audience for remaining unmoved.

Yet (some) troops showed up to Day One of the WCF, and they, too, appeared underwhelmed by the message of exclusion once the children’s singing had died down. Perhaps it’s the old adage of getting what you ask for: once the door closes with a bang on all the groups who aren’t our sort of people, you’re left shut in with only people like yourself to talk to, and what is there to say?

If today was any indication, there’s a lot of silence and not much substance.