For three glorious years, I was a high school teacher. During those years I taught Religious Education to Freshmen and Sophomores at Boston College High School, and I have to admit that, while I genuinely loved my students and am still in touch with a good number of them, there was one type of question that came from them that I couldn’t stand.
Inevitably, I would get it before each test and usually, it had the same foundational reality. It would go something like this: “Mr. (I wasn’t a priest yet) Rogers, how do we answer the essay question?”
But there was no right or wrong way to answer the questions I posed them.
There were certain guidelines that showed me that a student had engaged the material, had thought about it, and generally understood what it was about. Some essays were, of course, better than others, but much more often than not they were good, honest attempts at answering the question such that the students received passing, and usually very good, grades.
The problem with the aforementioned question, though, was that underneath it was also the implicit question: “Could you please just give us the answer, or tell us what you want to hear so that we’ll get an A?”
It’s not that easy.
As any teacher will tell you, most of what you do when you try to teach is not merely delivering content nor is it pouring facts and figures into the brains of the youth so that they can spit them back. The educational project is rather about helping young people learn how to think and giving them the practical tools that they need to think critically.
It is never ultimately about passing a class, but rather, as most educators worth their salt will tell you, it is about passing at life.
The image of those students, asking for the answers and not willing to struggle with the material is, however, an image that came to mind several weeks ago when I deigned to post on twitter that the debate over Amoris Laetitia had gotten out of hand, and that it is time to accept the document and move on.
The responses that I received pointed to a need for clarity, they demanded that I remove my tweet, and hounded me, many over the course of days, implying that such a lack of clarity was putting souls at risk.
The truth is that Amoris Laetitia is a murky document, it doesn’t give us quick and easy answers to our questions, and even famous footnote 351, which many take to be the place where the Holy Father allows divorced and remarried people to receive communion, is not obviously clear.
Amoris Laetitia is a murky document, and how could it be anything but? It talks about some of the most wonderful and messy experiences of human life, places where things aren’t always immediately apparent, and where most of us are forced to simply do our best, hoping against hope that it is enough.
Pope Francis, having been both a pastor and a teacher before his role as universal teacher and pastor, knew full well what he was doing in writing a document which provides few clear answers while leaving the door open for the faithful to be concerned not so much with the letter of the law, but with the movements of the Spirit, knowing full well that life in the Spirit leads to the living of the law in its fullest, richest sense.
Of course, the problem with such an approach, in the classroom as much as in regular life, is that the obsession with having the correct answer, the need to be right, can often leave one missing the forest for the trees.
The need to be right, or more clever than the teacher, means that those who worry about the famous footnote neglect that the document as a whole attempts to give families the tools that they need to never have to worry about that particular situation.
To paraphrase Cardinal Kevin Farrell in a recent Crux interview, the whole point of the document is to never have to concern oneself with being right about what footnote 351 does or doesn’t provide.
If we spend time focused on one tree, or one footnote, we lose sight of the forest, or the document, which surrounds it.
The goal of education, of teaching, whether it is in the classroom, the pulpit, or in a document like Amoris Laetitia, is not the memorization of rote facts, nor is it hoped that students will merely always be somehow justified because they are “right.”
Rather, the pedagogical enterprise is about imparting the skills and values that allow people to flourish as human beings.
In short, the goal that is missed by so many critics of Amoris Laetitia is to help people be better rather than to be right.