The Pope’s “Humanum” Conference: An Interview with Dr. Helen Alvaré


Many Christians are buzzing about an exciting new conference that will be held at the Vatican from November 17-19. It’s called “Humanum” and it will bring together dozens of religious leaders from around the world—including several Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim leaders—to discuss the meaning of marriage, specifically its grounding on the complementarity of man and woman.

Here’s a beautiful video trailer for the event, featuring the voice of Dr. Peter Kreeft:

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Pope Francis himself will kick off the “Humanum” conference with a special address. Attendees will also hear from:

  • Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Pope Benedict’s old position)
  • Archbishop Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia and host of next year’s World Meeting of Families
  • Rick Warren, senior pastor of Saddleback Church
  • Bishop N.T. Wright, Professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the School of Theology of the University of St. Andrews
  • Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sack, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth
  • Dr. Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission
  • Dr. Jacqueline Cooke-Rivers, Azusa Christian Community

I recently discussed the “Humanum” conference with Dr. Helen Alvaré, the well-known expert on family law, who is a Consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Laity. Dr. Alvaré is serving as a spokeswoman for the event.


BRANDON: What is “Humanum”? Who is behind it and why is the conference taking place?

DR. HELEN ALVARÉ: Humanum is the man and the woman together—humanity in God’s image, and the source of all life and society.

The four Vatican offices are behind the “Humanum” conference. The Holy See office holds many meetings responding to profound needs and signs of the times, and the “cause” of the relationship between the man and the woman is a huge question and “crisis”—a term Pope Francis has often used—of our times. People speak of their sexual relations and of despair in regards to relationships. We need to remember what is true, what is beautiful, and what the relationship signifies in both the natural and divine senses.

BRANDON: The gathering’s main theme is “the complementarity of man and woman.” What is complementarity and why does it matter?

DR. ALVARÉ: Complementarity is men’s and women’s equality plus their differences. It’s a reciprocity whereby man and woman depend on each other. Those special differences work together in harmony for the good of them both, for the good of new life, and for the good of their communities.

BRANDON: The controversy is still swirling around the recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family. Much of the secular media paints Pope Francis as a progressive when it comes to marriage. However, we then learn he is the opening speaker for this conference. What does this say about his view of marriage, family, and relationships?

DR. ALVARÉ: Pope Francis is gorgeously Catholic on marriage, period. His marital views don’t fit into a single political category—they’re simply Catholic.

His presence at the “Humanum” conference indicates he meant what he has repeated over the last couple years: the Church needs to find the truest, most beautiful, most creative language it can find—reaching out widely to find it—in order to speak to the human heart. It must speak what the heart needs to hear about the most important human relationship in the life of most people. It needs to “go out” and meet people in all their need and suffering.

BRANDON: The conference line-up features an all-star cast of theologians, preachers, and Church leaders—and not just from the Catholic Church. Many well-known Protestants like Bishop N.T. Wright (Anglican), Rick Warren (Baptist), Jacqueline C. Rivers (Pentecostal), and Russell Moore (Baptist) are scheduled to address the gathering. What is the significance of this being an ecumenical event? And what does it mean, in general, for the Church’s engagement with non-Catholics?

DR. ALVARÉ: It is a recognition, as Evangelii Gaudium and the Synod relatio confirmed, of two things. First, marriage is a natural institution with significance in every religion and culture of the world. Second, there is insight, practical wisdom, valuable charisms, and lived experiences within these cultures and religions that can be brought to bear on the problems concerning marriage today—across religious and cultural divisions.

BRANDON: One of the Church’s greatest challenges today is speaking truth about marriage in an increasingly secular world, one which distrusts her authority. Should Christians rely on non-religious arguments for marriage between one man and woman or should they continue leaning on religious-based claims? How can Christians present the conjugal view of marriage to a culture that dismisses God, tradition, and the concept of human nature?

DR. ALVARÉ: Marriage is a natural and human institution on which the Church has particular additional wisdom. Depending on the person to whom one is speaking, one might start in one place or the other—out of love for where that person sits. I think both together are quite effective of course.

It’s shocking how little we have explored the natural institution—what complementarity is and what it looks like when it’s lived. There’s a lot of work to do there. This conference will assist.

On the Church’s teachings, I don’t think it’s been brought home to people, in language they can understand, just what it means to say that man and women are made in the image of God, or the way we understand the meaning of life as love, or the way we understand how God loves us.

These are huge, but insufficiently communicated to most listeners in the pew or in the society.

Find out more about the conference by visiting