A Report on Day Two: “Talk Among Yourselves”

Sydney, Australia – May 2013

The second full day of the WCF grudgingly ground into something like motion an hour later than scheduled. What is it with “natural family” forces? Can’t they get out of bed? The first session was set to begin at 9:00 am, but it took until 10:00 before the auditorium could be even vaguely described as full. The first keynote speaker, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, couldn’t be bothered to show, and he was only scheduled to appear by video link. Instead, we heard from hyper-conservative federal backbench MP Kevin Andrews, who clearly had a full schedule. His tardiness later in the day halted the afternoon Parliamentary Forum (to which Labor MP Anthony Byrne didn’t even show up) in its tracks. The forum chair, Lyle Shelton, who is the newly appointed managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, instructed audience members to “talk among yourselves” until the politician skidded in ten minutes late.

Nothing new in the morning’s pickings, though there was a cornucopia of new terms to describe the central—and, indeed, the congress’s only—contention. That is: that heterosexual marriage rates are declining and the result is every social and economic problem on the planet. Men in jail. Girls having sex. Adolescents with mental health disorders. Elders being cared for out of their homes. Low grade point averages. None of it would be happening, speaker after speaker averred, if women obeyed men and men loved women within the holy bonds of matrimony. By the time Cardinal George Pell got up to deliver his encomium that “genuine Christianity … encouraged people to be optimistic about their future” it was hard not to laugh at the group’s optimism about its proximity to a humble, charitable man from Galilee.

But the poor cardinal surely wasn’t laughing. The main theater that housed his “Faith and the Family” session—presumably in expectation of a large crowd—was nearly empty, and not because the attendees had been enticed away by other offerings. Competing sessions on the importance of good reading, about sexual slavery and on reaching the next generation with the natural family message weren’t bursting at the seams either.

The award for most cringe-worthy session of the day goes to Peter Meurs from Fortescue Metals. What “data and reasoned arguments for strengthening the natural family” does a mechanical engineer employed by an Australian mining company have to offer? Perhaps to head off the suspicion that Fortescue only got a berth because CEO Andrew Forest is a WCF Sydney patron, the session chair reassured the audience that Meurs was “distinctly well qualified to talk about the impact of work on family.” Perhaps sensing audience skepticism, Meurs felt additionally compelled to offer a personal biography to prove his mettle. We learned where he worships, the number of children and grandchildren he has, his wife’s name and the scintillating fact that she travelled to the congress with him that day. This soon became a pattern, with speakers beginning their presentations—AA meeting style—with summary stats on their marital status and multi-generational breeding results. (“My name is Mrs. Kelli Houghton and I have a husband of 24 years who couldn’t be here today and four children.”)

After a slow morning start, presentations by those WCF organizers cloyingly referred to as “Congress All-Stars” made the amateurish mistake of going too fast. Pilar Calva Mercado (two sons and two daughters) raced through a complex presentation on her standards—and, by implication, those applying to all doctors— for managing end-of-life care. No prizes for guessing that “putting my own values aside to give expression to those of the patient” was not on the list. But trying to explain knotty ideas like dysthanasia (artificially prolonged death), and then propose complex steps to avoid it, all the while speaking at steam-train pace, is going to leave any audience perplexed, and Calva Mercado’s presentation was no exception. Sharon Slater (seven children) was also moving too fast for comprehension, in between breathless plugs for Family Watch International books and videos.

Whether the average congress-goer ended up feeling glad that they got out of bed for the day’s offerings was hard to tell. If not, we can blame it on the decline of heterosexual marriage and call it a day..