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The World Meeting of Families: Day Three

September 26, 2015

To be sure, there were verbal slights and quick shots thrown by some speakers during the first three days of the 2015 World Meeting of Families (WMF), but there was a noticeable absence of vitriol. On the closing day of the conference, the closest anyone came to a jeremiad was Pastor Rick Warren of the evangelical Saddleback Church. “I made a little list of what is threatening our families,” was Warren’s warm-up for the meeting’s final keynote session. “And I thought today in our culture, materialism is idolized, immorality is glamorized, truth is minimized, sin is normalized, divorce is rationalized and abortion is legalized. In TV and movies crime is sensationalized, drugs are legitimized, comedy is vulgarized, and sex is triple x, dirty lies…”

With the exception of Cardinal Sarah’s previous brief comments about “heresy” within the church, Pastor Warren’s nursery rhyme was one of the most biting remarks delivered from the grand stage of the Philadelphia Convention Center’s main hall. Contraception, same-sex marriage, in vitro fertilization: all were mentioned as sins, tragedies, threats to the faith. However, within the keynote addresses—the big events—none of these topics were dwelt upon. Breakout sessions dissected the “corrosiveness” of contraception and abortion. But in the main hall there were no calls for the church militants to storm streets en masse and stop those who supported reproductive rights or marriage equality.

And yet, there were petitioners on the street collecting signatures to show Pope Francis just how many Catholics opposed same-sex marriage. There werebreakout sessions—such as the final day’s “Marriage: Is It Really What We Say It Is?”—that used a legal lens to ponder whether redefining marriage could disrupt kinship ties on federal and state levels. There were, in at least some of these sessions, brief references to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

But in the main ballroom with roughly 13,000 seats, hate was largely absent. The tone of Pope Francis’ visit to the US seems to have quietly seeped into the proceedings in Philadelphia, delivering the message: be civil or remain seated.

Or did it? It could be possible, given the very mixed set of opinions on display at the World Meeting of Families, that civility among participants and presenters arose organically. After all, Pope Francis’ more pastoral tone on abortion and the LGBT community, while ambiguous, could have indirectly influenced the overall manner of the event. However, there might also be something else going on.

Ultraconservative staples such as the American Life League, C-FAM, Priests for Life and Human Life International were noticeably absent from the both the breakout and keynote rosters at the event cosponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family and the Philadelphia Archdiocese. It is curious that at the WMF, often viewed as a conservative Catholic event, some of these far-right standbys were not present while others were relatively silent.

While there is no official statement on these groups’ low profile in Philadelphia, the reigning courtesy leads one to wonder if Pope Francis’ pastoral tone makes the old conservative standard-bearers seem out of style. The deliberate exclusion of these ultra-orthodox groups would also make perfect sense, given their troubled histories.

Austin Ruse, C-FAM’s infamously blunt leader, was banned from American Family Radio last year for stating, among other things, that the “hard left, human-hating people that run modern universities” should “all be taken out and shot.” The incident drew a considerable amount of censure, and the usually unapologetic Ruse issued an official apology on the Talking Points Memo blog.

Fr. Frank Pavone, one of the key figures at Priests for Life (PFL), came under fire from 2011–2012, when the figurehead of ubiquitous, sometimes graphic, antiabortion radio spots and billboards was recalled to his home diocese by Bishop Patrick Zurek of Amarillo, Texas. Bishop Zurek pointed to concerns about the organizations’ finances, such as an audit reflecting a $1.4 million revenue deficit at the end of 2010. After a cooling-off period, Pavone was demoted to the level of chaplain and required to seek permission for any other activities.

Human Life International (HLI) developed its own breed of orthodox through its aggressive antichoice campaigns. Founder Fr. Paul Marx, with his financial scandals, alleged anti-Semitisim and homophobia, set the stage for HLI’s subsequent leaders. President Fr. Tom Euteneuer resigned in 2010 after he admitted to sexual misconduct with a young woman in his care while administering an exorcism.

Of all these organizations, however, the most telling absence is likely that of the American Life League (ALL). ALL is one of the oldest Catholic antichoice organizations in the US and its founder, Judie Brown, is frequently referred to as the “grandmother” of the movement. Brown has not only denounced pro-LGBT and prochoice figures for three decades, she has taken prominent conservative members of the hierarchy to task for failing to meet her hardline standards.

And yet, the World Meeting of Families carried on without them. In the absence of more extreme voices, even those attendees with antichoice, anti-LGBT opinions were remarkably open to the comments of others. However, one meeting can’t obscure that there is still a great disconnect between what the hierarchy proclaims and how the average family or individual lives their faith.