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The Paradox of Francis: When We Need Fathers, We Get the Law
December 7, 2016
In a business class in high school I recall studying how factories try to figure out how to squeeze productivity out of workers. In one case they took a group of women apart from the rest, gave them a specific widget-making task, and then had them do it over and over again with different work schedules. They tried all kinds systems to find the most productive – lots of little breaks, one big one, few medium ones, and so on. The study frustrated the taskmasters though, because no matter what they did, productivity increased. They could not identify the magic policy for work and breaks.
Then it hit them.
The women were more productive because of the personal focus. They were asked about needs and comfort and treated as persons – not exactly the normal scenario for factories at that time. It shifted managers away from the “law” of policy and procedure and to focusing on workers as persons, and not like the machines they were using in the factory. Policy works best when corresponding to the reality of persons.
Policies or Persons?
I am a convert from Evangelical Protestantism, the strain that focuses very heavily on two things: truth and reaching people wherever they are. In other words, we trusted Jesus completely that the truth would set people free, but we knew that truth is almost always felt as much as heard, through personal relationships, and rarely through any efforts of law and information – i.e. the evangelizing equivalent of a memo to the world, signed “Church.” Through God’s grace love for the truth led me home to the Catholic Church.
Since the beginning of his Pontificate, I have loved the message of Francis to get out among the sheep until you “smell like them”. While I’m not exactly sure I like the idea of having a scent potent enough to inflict upon my shepherd, I get it.
But the conversation today, especially with Bishops issuing conflicting “policies” about the implementation of Amoris Laetitia , is about the law itself. We are talking about the application of policies, sometimes as if truth can get in the way of working with persons. It’s a battle of headlines. Truth and law is cast as “rigid”. Well, truth is rigid. Because it is outside of our subjective experience, the objectivity of the truth can feel cold and calculating. But thanks to the Incarnation and the “method” Jesus gave the Church of people-to-people evangelization and formation, the truth is always accompanied by love. You can go through decades of seminary, but in the end you are not a priest until a man places his hands on you! The Church, like its Head, always comes in the flesh. This is the great wonder of Catholicism: Truth came and accompanied us, and we can now accompany truth to and alongside persons.
What We Really Need
This is why we don’t need CEO’s and policies, but saints and fathers.
Francis speaks of the Church as if it’s laid a heavy burden upon the shoulders of the laity and the clergy need to come in and help lift it. I think my experience is like many others: this is not the Church I encounter. Instead I have endured soft and wonky preaching and teaching, constant exceptions in the name of pastoral sensitivity, and I have generally had to dig deep and even go around the average parish workings to find the truths of the Church. And in them, because they are infallibly true, I have found freedom. The yoke was a yoke, but it was sweet. Jesus said that would happen right?
But I think this is the heart of the problem: people don’t know how to accompany truth on its way to people, so they think they can start with people, toss in some endlessly nuanced policies, and walk to truth. Some are great with truth and bad with people; some are bad with truth and great with people. (I fear the latter much more). We talk and walk them in circles and call it dialogue and accompaniment – it goes nowhere. The problem is not the truth. Tweaking policies won’t get at the problems we’re facing.
On the ground, outside of headlines, what we laity are seeing is simply pastors taking predictable paths: “conservatives” speaking of the truth and “liberals” speaking of the exceptions (in what seems to be obvious contradiction to Magisterial teaching). It doesn’t answer the problem: how did so few Catholics learn to know and love the truth? We are in chains because the truth has been under a bushel basket.
Love in Action
When this controversy first began at the Synod on the Family I felt this in my bones. I was actually angry. I did not hear once the critical self-reflection that a father and leader should have when I read the words of our shepherds. “Our number one question today,” I wish someone would have asked, “Is why in the world we let out people be devastated in this way by the Sexual Revolution?” Or perhaps: “John Paul II gave us amazing teaching, especially the Theology of the Body, which would have taught people the truth of marital love and probably saved marriages the world over. Why was it never taught?” Or even better: “Maybe we should have listened to the prophecies in Humanae Vitae…” ; or maybe, “Do we want favorable headlines with the world or favorable judgment in eternity?”
During the year of mercy I encountered a sweet old woman who had fallen away from the Church. According to Church teaching, which she knew well from the more solid days of catechesis, she was in a state of mortal sin. She told me a terrible story of being mistreated by a pastor, hurt by a father.
“You are outside of the Church right now,” I said to her, looking directly in her eyes. It was uncomfortable, but still personable because I had grown to really know her as a person.
“I’m on the inside,” I continued. “But from the inside, as a representative of the body you left, can I ask you something?”
She looked worried at this point.
“Will you please forgive me for hurting you?” She cried. And she’s back at Mass.
In God, “mercy and truth have met” (Psalm 85:10). My point is that I think the whole conversation that Francis is inducing is working against its goals, which is bringing people closer to Jesus Christ, because instead of talking about Him – the Way, Truth, and Life – we’re talking about the letter of the law. As many have pointed out, it’s hard not to think we are in a moment when the world is changing the Church, not the Church changing the world. And here we sit, talking of policies.
Let’s talk about our cowardice at bringing the truth to the streets, not how we can adjust a policy and send a memo and press release to the world about it – with an air of self-congratulating “mercy” and ostentatious humility. Has a memo ever worked?
What we need is fathers.
Jason Craig works and writes from a small farm in rural North Carolina with his wife Katie and their five kids. Jason is the Executive Director of Fraternus, a mentoring program for young men, and holds a masters degree from the Augustine Institute. He is known to staunchly defend his family’s claim to have invented bourbon.
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