The Pope, Amoris Laetitia & the Doggedness of Truth
It has been nearly two weeks since Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) was released. The work has been described as “a rich reflection on the mission of the family and on how the Church can equip couples to embrace God’s vision for marriage and can offer healing for families who are struggling.” But anyone paying attention to the two year process that yielded Amoris Laetitia recognizes the truth behind Otto von Bismarck’s immortalized words, “Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.”
Pope Francis called for a Synod (or Bishop-led process) addressing “the vocation and mission of the family in the Church and in the contemporary world” in 2013. Subsequently, in 2014 an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops convened to consider matters facing the family (cohabitation, divorce, same-sex relationships, re-marriage, interreligious marriage) and in 2015, an Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (following the World Meeting of Families and Pope Francis’ whirlwind tour of America) convened to consider pastoral guidelines for family life. The hope of the two Synodal gatherings and World Meeting of Families was for the Church to be acutely in touch with the family and thus, provide guidance faithful to the verities of the Catholic Faith while remaining lovingly sensitive to the joys and challenges families face on a daily basis.
And while Pope Francis earnestly implored the Bishops and participants to speak openly and honestly in their deliberations on the modern family’s problems (leading to some unnecessary intrigue) and how the Church might help them, many in the popular press saw a window of opportunity. Pope Francis, they reasoned, is more liberal, more open-minded, more “in touch” than that fusty, dogmatic enforcer Pope Benedict XVI. Surely, the press felt, his Apostolic Exhortation to emerge from these meetings will have his fresh stamp on it – a stamp that challenges (if not upends) entrenched Church teachings for the better. And, they continued, if there is openness on this issue and wiggle room on that concern, well then, that’s just the beginning of real and necessary change in the Catholic Church. Change, they hoped, is in the air.
Ah, the press.
You see, here’s the thing.
It has often struck me as intriguing that an institution such as the press which prides itself on its insatiable curiosity and dogged pursuit of the truth is, in fact, notoriously incurious and lazy when it comes to the Catholic Church and its teachings. For a bias (or ineptitude) to be so glaring, one would think the popular press would be embarrassed…but in fact they find themselves heroic and fashionable. A mind no less than G.K. Chesterton’s (no slouch as a member of the press!) observed that the Church is unique as “the one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years.” He wondered at the Church’s uncanny formulation of “a sort of map of the mind…compiled from knowledge which, even considered as human knowledge, is quite without any human parallel.” G.K. Chesterton was in awe of the Catholic Church. But, the modern press is not. The modern press is disdainful…or it doesn’t care.
Here is what the press fails to understand about the Catholic Church.
Truth is a dogged thing.
Truth, as Pope Benedict XVI once observed, is not determined by a majority vote. The Church serves not as a creator of Truth. That is God’s job. Instead, the Church is the custodian of the Truth. It is charged with faithfully expositing on reason and revealed Truth while passing it on from generation to generation in order to bring people in to Christ’s salvation. Truth, the Church reminds us, is inviolable…lest it not be Truth.
Evelyn Waugh thoughtfully made this very point in his brilliant novel of the mid-20th century, Brideshead Revisited. In it, an agnostic Oxford student Charles Ryder is visiting his friend’s English country estate, Brideshead. At one point, Charles is asked by his friend’s older brother, Bridey, his opinion about the family chapel.
“You are an artist, Ryder, what do you think of it aesthetically?”
“I think it’s beautiful,” said Cordelia [Bridey’s younger sister] with tears in her eyes.
“Is it Good Art?” [Bridey asked]
“Well, I don’t quite know what you mean,” [Ryder] said warily. “I think it’s a remarkable example of its period. Probably in eighty years it will be greatly admired.”
“But surely it can’t be good twenty years ago and good in eighty years, and not good now?”
“Well, it may be good now. All I mean is that I don’t happen to like it much.”
“But is there a difference between liking a thing and thinking it good?”
Or as Winston Churchill once observed,
“The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”
In the end, Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, affirmed the Truths that the Catholic Church espouses while, once again, advocating a deep mercy (wedded with justice) in approaching the muddy, messy lives of families in the modern world. It charged us to live in the Truth while extending ourselves to those in the peripheries. As is forever true in the Catholic Church, the exhortation tried to balance the tension between justice and mercy. I admit, at times, I felt as Peter must have felt watching Jesus cross the threshold of Levi’s door to sup with tax collectors and sinners. “If I step in, am I running afoul of the Law? If I stay out here, am I running afoul of God’s Mercy?” Yes, some faithful Catholics might consider it a bit shy on justice while others feel it too reserved on mercy. That said, Amoris Laetitia didn’t provide the headline-grabbing news the press hungered for. It didn’t begin a revolution that would topple the Catholic Church as we know it. No. It simply reaffirmed the enduring Virtues and Truth about families. And the popular press? They grumbled. They simply didn’t like it.
And so, we must look at the press and echo Waugh’s character, Bridey,
Is there a difference between liking a thing and thinking it good?
That is the doggedness of Truth.
In the end, there it is.