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The World Meeting of Families: Day One

September 24, 2015

Bishop Robert Barron set the tone for the kickoff of the 2015 World Meeting of Families (WMF) in Philadelphia on Thursday. Towards the middle of the opening ceremony’s keynote address, Barron exclaimed that “the church does use the language of intrinsic evil—because some things are just wrong in themselves. There are objective moral values; we need to keep saying that to a world that’s growing deaf to it.” Barron, recently appointed one of the auxiliary bishops of Los Angeles, has a large online following, and much of his address was met with applause from the 8,000-plus who’d arrived for the opening ceremony. A robust silence hung around these particular remarks, however. No shouts and no claps—not even boos or hisses—followed his assertion that “there are objective moral values.” The lack of derision from the crowd is unsurprising—Catholics do believe in objective moral values.

After the first full day of the WMF it would appear that this preamble—particularly the ambiguous “some things”—may have been the source of that peculiar silence.

The World Meeting of Families projected a large turnout for this year’s event, and by all accounts they have achieved it. With Pope Francis scheduled to visit Philadelphia Saturday and Sunday, the attendees are spread throughout Center City. Between clergy and laity there is a consensus: they are excited to see the pope. From the tone of the first day’s proceedings, however, that may be where the agreement ends. Some members of the crowd seem energized by the pope’s words—by the gestures he has made towards moderating some traditional attitudes and emphasis of the hierarchy. Others—particularly the bishops and their close associates—have made scant mention of Pope Francis’ words.

“In the words of Pope Benedict XVI,” Cardinal Robert Sarah stated at Wednesday’s opening session, “We are in a world where in many places, the faith seems like a light in danger of being snuffed out forever.” Sarah continued, “Laws are passed that fuel this breaking down,” specifically, “those favoring killing innocent lives in the womb.” Further expanding on Pope Benedict’s sentiment, Cardinal Sarah went on to tell the audience that those who are tempted to ignore traditional teachings on marriage and family were fostering a very dangerous notion in the church. Catholics straying from more conservative teachings were essentially bolstering “an idea that would consist of placing the magisterium in a pretty box—and separating it from person and practice which could involve, according to certain circumstances, fashions and impulses—[which] is a form of heresy. A dangerous, schizophrenic pathology.”

While many in the auditorium applauded the cardinal’s remarks, many did not. On the streets of Center City, signs of this division surfaced quietly. Groups posted around the convention center attempting to collect signatures for petitions supporting traditional marriage values were, it appeared, politely rebuffed on several occasions by attendees. When they were told that these petitions would make their way to Pope Francis, groups of younger Catholics seemed to politely ignore the requests. A few groups crossing the street said that they did not believe that there was anything wrong with same-sex marriage. Stepping off the sidewalk and away from the petitioners, at least one young woman in a group of four said that she did not believe Pope Francis cared too much about it either.

While casual encounters on street corners and in corridors were much more difficult to track, other philosophical and theological divergences appeared during the sessions. During a breakout session titled “The Special Place of Women in the Family, the Church and the World,” Terry Polakovic and Emily Sullivan of ENDOW instructed the crowd on Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” and the works of Edith Stein. Sullivan opened with various statements to the effect that “women are called … to build up a culture of life, and support policies and legislations that are effectively human and will ensure human flourishing” and “we are not androgynous beings, especially in a culture that is so confused about gender and sexuality—we’re not pretty much the same except for the plumbing.” Then she opened the floor to questions.

In a calm, considerate tone, the first audience member approached one of the microphones in the aisle and related how her son, who was transgender, took his own life seven years earlier. Offering help to anyone in the audience who was suffering from similar circumstances, the woman went to sit down and the ballroom erupted in applause. Before the attendee could return to her seat, Sullivan added, “There are so many, obviously, beautiful same-sex men and women who struggle with same-sex attraction and struggle with understanding our dignity and our gender and there is so much confusion about that.” Slowly turning back to the microphone before Sullivan could finish, the attendee politely rebutted, “I just want to say that there is not a lot of confusion for the people in the community, but the confusion belongs to the other people in the world.” Again, the room erupted in applause.

The closing keynote of the day, however, took more of a nod from Pope John Paul II. “Public and private leaders today,” said featured speaker and former United States Conference of Catholic Bishops employee Helen Alvaré, “are left very free to overlook, ignore, and refuse to accommodate women’s own interests and desires about marriage and family life, and to instead embrace contraception and abortion as the sine qua non of women’s equality. They just put them on an exactly even plane.” This remark was met with applause. However, much like Bishop Barron’s speech, there were notable spots of silence clinging to some of her remarks. In the grand ballroom, as in the smaller rooms and on the streets, there was a courteous, yet detectable tension among attendees. There wasn’t nastiness or discourteousness, but there was difference.

“Most people are not going to consult the latest research—that’s what I do all day,” Alvaré stated, bringing her speech to a close. “I don’t think that’s what most people do all day. Most people are not consuming Catholic literature on the family.” As the attendees filed out of the day’s final keynote session, the silence that had hung within the Philadelphia Convention Center on several occasions slowly took shape with Alvaré’s unwitting help: precisely who, and precisely what, are the people, the faithful, the church, consulting lately? Pope Francis? Pope John Paul II? Pope Benedict? Their conscience? Time will tell, and tomorrow is another day.