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Pope Francis Attends His Weekly Audience In St Peter's Square.
Pope Francis Attends His Weekly Audience In St Peter's Square.
(Franco Origlia/Getty)

Pope Francis' views on human sexuality are not as simple as you might think

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It might come as a surprise to some that the same Pope who famously said of gay people, "Who am I to judge?" would also spout out, "Children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother."

The line came from last month's Vatican conference titled The Complementarity of Man and Woman, a three-day colloquium called by Francis "to examine and propose anew the beauty of the relationship between the man and the woman, in order to support and reinvigorate marriage and family life for the flourishing of human society." The event was attended by more than 30 religious leaders from around the world, from several different faith traditions.

Complementarity refers to the belief that God designed males and females with differences that are meant to complement each other within the context of marriage. Here is how the teaching was explained under Pope John Paul II, who offered the first official document containing the word:

Womanhood and manhood are complementary not only from the physical and psychological points of view, but also from the ontological. It is only through the duality of the "masculine" and the "feminine" that the "human" finds full realization.

This particular view of complementarity is based on an interpretation of the biblical story of the creation of Adam and Eve. According to Genesis, Eve is able to be Adam's helpmate because God created her with unique traits and abilities that are different but compatible with her husband's. And it's this compatibility, according to some opponents of same-sex marriage, that is lacking from homosexual unions, which is why, they argue, those homosexual unions, no matter the level of love or fidelity present in them, cannot be considered as marriages.

Todd Salzman, associate professor of theology at Creighton University and author of The Sexual Body, thinks this understanding of complementarity is reductionistic. "In the Church's official thinking, relationship is grounded in biology and genitalia. So unless you have male/female to begin with, there's no possibility of a moral expression of human sexuality," he told me over the phone. (Click on the interview tab above to read my complete interview with Salzman.)

Granted, not many Catholics would say their views on complementarity are reducible to genital difference, but the very fact that two people with the same genitals are barred from Church-sanctioned marriage proves Salzman's point.

Frustrated by this reductionistic approach, Salzman has tried to reframe discussions of complementarity in terms of social and scientific advances in our understandings of human sexuality. Particularly, he argues, the Church should "focus on the relationship of two people in love, and not simply their genitals." If and when they do that, then "all sorts of other possibilities open up," in terms of how the Church can approach gays and lesbians.

Toward a new understanding of complementarity

As Patrick Hornbeck, chair of Fordham University's theology department, explains it, complementarity "has been used to justify restrictive roles for women. On the most conservative readings of it, God created men to do some things, and women to do other sorts of things."

But Francis' reading of complementarity is not particularly conservative, and it's certainly not simple. Although, judging from how Francis is being represented, you'd think it was both.

Many evangelicals, including some in attendance at the colloquium, were pleased with Francis' mother/father statement, as it seemed to position him squarely on their side of discussions about gay marriage. The president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Russell Moore, who was an invited speaker at the colloquium, took to Twitter to make sure his followers knew that Francis thought marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

And again:

And one more time:

Following Moore's lead, the Christian Post, a member publication of the Evangelical Press Association, wrote an article praising the Vatican colloquium as successfully defending heterosexual marriage. "Pope Francis declared during the conference on Monday that marriage is by definition a union of man and woman, defying past claims by some that the Church was considering a change in its views on same-sex unions and sexuality."

The message ringing out from US evangelicals, long wary of Francis' progressive stance on many issues, couldn't have been clearer: the pope was on their side of the marriage battle. He even used their rhetoric: "Children have a right to a mother and a father."

Simple.

Except, well, what Francis said isn't simple. And to talk about his statement as if it is is to distort it, in a sense.

Here's the full context of Francis' mother/father remarks:

"Children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child's development and emotional maturity."

To be clear, Francis did mention gender in this remark — it just wasn't the central point of what he was saying. At the center of his statement is the idea that children deserve to grow up in supportive environments. The way Moore and others quoted him makes it sound like he was saying that children are entitled to having one male parent and one female parent.

The difference between the two ideas may seem minor, perhaps even petty. But here's the point: Francis isn't a culture warrior, and beating marriage equality advocates isn't his endgame. As he's said before, the focus of his papacy is not gay marriage, and Christians need to find other things to talk about. "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage … it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time," he said.

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.

Francis Decembe

Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives for his general audience at St Peter's square on November 19, 2014 at the Vatican. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty)

According to 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.

Of course, it's not necessarily the case that Francis was misrepresented by evangelicals. After all, it was probably the line most important to their stateside agenda. As Moore has long preached, heterosexual "marriage isn't incidental to gospel preaching." In other words, Moore believes, heterosexuality is a fundamental tenet of his Christianity, and therefore homosexuality really is a gospel issue.

This is a dramatic departure from what Francis said about gay people: "If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, well who am I to judge them?"

To be sure, Hornbeck doesn't think "we have enough evidence" to extend Francis' definition of complementarity to same-sex couples. As Francis has often made clear, he sees himself as a "son of the Church," which means Francis affirms that marriage is limited to heterosexual couples. But, notes Hornbeck, "there's a range of opinion" between affirming gay marriages and viewing gay people as intrinsically disordered. Francis' position probably falls somewhere in the middle, he notes.

Salzman also acknowledges that Francis hasn't hinted that he's changing the Church's stance on gay marriage. However, he notes that his statements seem to signal that progress on this issue could be on the horizon. "Francis' recognition of the evolving nature of complementarity, in dialogue with the sciences, can move us in a direction of greater of openness."

In 2008, Catholic theologian Todd Salzman, associate professor of theology at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, published a book about human sexuality called The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology. The book earned him and his co-author a harsh 23-page rebuke from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, who condemned what they saw as "erroneous conclusions." His work had previously been met with criticism from the then archbishop of Omaha, who warned that Salzman's philosophy "cannot be considered authentic Catholic teaching."

So what was it that Salzman wrote about that would earn him the wrath of the USCCB?

Homosexuality.

In particular, Salzman challenges the Catholic understanding of the word "natural." Many Catholics say homosexuality is unnatural because gay sex does not lead to conception. But reducing human sexuality in such a way is incredibly reductionistic, argues Salzman.

Further, he says, the word "natural" must take into account sexual orientation. If a man is heterosexual, then being with a woman would be natural for him. If, however, the man is homosexual, then being with a woman would be unnatural — and therefore immoral — for him.

I called Salzman last month to talk with him about Pope Francis's recent statements on complementarity, as well as the idea that men and women are sexually and emotionally compatible with each other.

Brandon Ambrosino: How is "complementarity" traditionally defined in the Church?

Todd Salzman: In the Church's official thinking, relationship is grounded in biology and genitalia. So unless you have male/female to begin with, there's no possibility of a moral expression of human sexuality. That strikes me as reductionist in terms of what we know about human sexuality.

At the root of the Church's teaching against homosexual sexual acts is this: by definition, if gays or lesbians engage in sexual acts, that's destructive of human dignity — by definition! — because those acts are intrinsically evil. Yet the sciences don't support this claim, our experiences don't support this. Certainly tradition reasserted supports that claim, and a certain interpretation of Scripture supports it. But if the tradition is evolving, as it is, then we can challenge certain outdated ideological notions of complementarity.

Brandon Ambrosino: As a Catholic theologian at a Catholic university, are you encouraged to challenge official Church teaching?

Todd Salzman: Certainly you can challenge it! The basis for that challenge is, first, that the teaching on homosexuality is not infallible. It's never been declared infallible. Second, there can be legitimate dissent within the Church — of course it has to be respectful of the authority of the magisterium — but there can be dissent when it can be supported by the authority of conscience. Before he was Pope Benedict, Cardinal Ratzinger, in his commentary on Gaudium et Spes, said this:

Over the Pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one's own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. Conscience confronts [the individual] with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official church.

You don't often hear that, you know, and yet that's the tradition of the Church! Now, your conscience has to be well-formed and informed. But on the authority of the conscience, you have a moral obligation to follow it. And the Church has been wrong in the past, and it's because people were following their well-formed conscience the Church changed its position on slavery, religious freedom, usury or interest-taking, etc.

Brandon Ambrosino: So what did you think about Francis' remarks on complementarity?

Todd Salzman: 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.

Brandon Ambrosino: Francis warned against a "static" understanding of sexuality. What do you make of that?

Todd Salzman: Pope Francis is taking what theologically we refer to as a historically conscious approach to complementarity. When he says that we shouldn't confuse complementarity "with the simplistic notion that all the roles and relations of the sexes are fixed in a single, static pattern," the implication is that our understanding of complementarity is evolving in terms of our human understanding.

That's one of the big critiques of the notion of complementarity that the Church has adopted under John Paul II, that it's based on stereotypical gender roles: man is rational, industrious, and pragmatic, and woman is caring, loving, emotional. But, of course, those traits are culturally determined. Those aren't ontologically given.

Francis' recognition of the evolving nature of complementarity, in dialogue with the sciences on human gender and sexual orientation, can move us in a direction of greater openness — where complementarity is not grounded in a simplistic understanding of fixed sex and gender roles.

Brandon Ambrosino: So is Francis opening the door for homosexual relationships?

Todd Salzman: We don't find in Francis anything that specifically implies that complementarity can go outside of male/female relationships, because he says "man and woman" over and over. But those points I made above, I think they indicate that there's an evolving understanding of complementarity that could go in the direction of recognizing same sex relationships as legitimate.

Again, to be clear, I don't think Francis is endorsing same-sex marriage. But I think what he's alluding to in terms of harmony, Scripture, historical consciousness, and social justice is that complementarity is a complex notion. Francis has broadened — without endorsing same-sex relationships — complementarity in a way that can open up to other possibilities.

Brandon Ambrosino: Some of those in attendance at the colloquium, like the Southern Baptist Russell Moore, quoted Francis again and again in a way that made it seem like the Pope's only concern with complementarity is that couples were of different genders. What do you think about the way some are presenting Francis' statement?

Todd Salzman: Russell Moore is reading the statement reductionistically to support the conclusion that he's already come to. But I think a more nuanced reading could open it to greater possibilities than Moore would appreciate.

This is a typical thing. Whether it's Moore, or Benedict, or John Paul, or Francis, we all read things through our own lens to see what we want to see. But I do think Francis has much a more nuanced understanding of complementarity here than we've seen in the past in the Church. And, again, that nuanced interpretation and presentation opens up a lot of possibilities in terms of how we think about homosexuality.

Brandon Ambrosino: The word "natural" seems culturally conditioned. What's natural today might not have been "natural" a century ago. So why do some people use the word "natural" as if it isn't a word that we define how we want?

Todd Salzman: That's been a longtime critique of natural law. What is natural? There are different ways to take it. For example, if you look to the animal kingdom, over 300 invertebrates demonstrate homosexuality. So there's great evidence to show that homosexual orientation can be very natural. Now, it's not normative, and it's not as high in frequency as heterosexuality, but it's very natural both for humans and different animal species.

Brandon Ambrosino: Many people who oppose gay marriage point to Adam and Eve as the proof that God intended marriage to be between one man and one woman. How do you respond to theologians who use Scripture to condemn homosexuality?

Todd Salzman: Genesis is a myth, and I think this is where the sciences come in to help. The term homosexuality wasn't developed until the 19th century, so the issue is this: when Paul, or the writer of Leviticus, or anyone in Scripture, or anyone throughout the Christian tradition before the 19th century, talked about same-sex relationships, there was no understanding of sexual orientation. The assumption was, all people were heterosexual. It wasn't even until 1973 that the APA removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. So [homosexuality as we know about it today] is a recent development.

Also, if you want to take the Bible literally in terms of sexuality, then you better take it literally in terms of farming and textiles. You can't mix different seeds in a field. You can't mix fabrics in clothing, since that was a fundamental violation of the law. I think evangelicals frequently cherry-pick what suits their predetermined understanding.

Scripture is a product of its history, culture, and context. Does it have universal truths? Yes! But, "if your  hand causes you to sin, cut if off" — well, fundamentalists don't take that one literally, you know. Or, "Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor." Why is there a self-selection when it comes to reading Scripture? I think we have to be very careful.

Brandon Ambrosino: Overall, do you think Francis' remarks are good for the future of these discussions?

Todd Salzman: I think it's very, very encouraging that Francis is thinking about concepts like complementarity in a new way that isn't so tied to traditional, static perceptions of that concept. In doing so, he's trying to complement Catholic sexual teaching and social teaching to create more of a charitable, compassionate stance for all people in the Church, including gays and lesbians.

He's opening up and inviting a deeper, more holistic, theological, and experiential reflection on complimentarity. It's actually pretty profound, pretty revolutionary. And I think it's up to theologians to draw out the logical implications for how we think about human sexuality in light of Francis' lecture.

Brandon Ambrosino: As a Catholic theologian, do you think it's possible for gay people to be in God-honoring relationships just like straight people?

Todd Salzman: Personally, do I think God would recognize and look favorably on a same-sex marriage just as God would with heterosexual couples? If they're loving, committed, faithful, and they focus on the principles that guide that relationship — sure.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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