Among the many contested and even confounding questions in Amoris Laetitia is the question of what, exactly, it means to hold to church doctrine and yet to have a “principle of gradualness” as the pope lays out in chapter eight. Or, to take hold of what the pope emphasizes at the beginning: how do we hold both that rules have not changed and yet that we need pastoral responses? What might it mean to allow for exceptions – and yet not have those exceptions themselves become a new rule?
One person in the pew plaintively put it to me last week, when trying to see what the document was saying:
When are we going to stop talking about exceptions and simply try to live what the church teaches, darn it???
The thing is, I don’t think Amoris Laetitia is going to let us off so easily, because the point is precisely that simply trying to live what the Church teaches isn’t all that simple. What we will need – ALL of us – is a good dose of patience – and a new way of seeing family and church that I am calling, by analogy to the Slow Food movement – slow family and slow church.
The Practice of Patience
The practice of patience is a central theme in Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation: from the letter’s beginnings (for example, section 5, where he describes one of the virtues of family as patience), to his admonition to read the letter slowly, to the letter’s end point and conclusions (for example, where he exhorts us to: “accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively appear (308).”
The idea of patience that allows for people to grow and change requires that time not be of issue. How often the pope raises instances like children, elderly, disabled – people who require patience and whom he most definitely names as worthy of our patience.
But it is not only the traditionally marginalized that the pope speaks of here. He has the chance, in Chapter 4, to expound on the practice of patience when he discusses 1 Corinthians 13, and Paul’s assertion that “love is patient.” Patience does not mean that we allow ourselves to suffer abuses or being “used” as he writes in section 92. Yet he proclaims that unless we learn patience, we will always, always be tempted to respond to people with anger and worse.
Unless we cultivate patience, we will always find excuses for responding angrily. We will end up incapable of living together, antisocial, unable to control our impulses, and our families will become battlegrounds. That is why the word of God tells us: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, with all malice” (Eph 4:31). Patience takes root when I recognize that other people also have a right to live in this world, just as they are. It does not matter if they hold me back, if they unsettle my plans, or annoy me by the way they act or think, or if they are not everything I want them to be. Love always has an aspect of deep compassion that leads to accepting the other person as part of this world, even when he or she acts differently than I would like.
While the pope’s reflection is aimed at married couples, I think we’d do well to remember that 1 Corinthians 13 is part of the letter Paul wrote to the church. He didn’t envision this passage being associated with weddings, but with Christian communities in which people find it hard to be loving.
Moreover, Pope Francis foregrounds this chapter in chapter three. At the end of chapter three he writes that the Church is a “family of families…” More than that,
The Church is good for the family, and the family is good for the Church. The safeguarding of the Lord’s gift in the sacrament of matrimony is a concern not only of individual families but of the entire Christian community”
So here, I can’t help but see not only advice for marriage, but advice for the church. In learning to live out something like “Love is patient” in marriage, so to we learn to be church, and vice versa.
Slow Family: A Countercultural Response to Consumer Capitalism
I was reminded, in my reading of the Slow Food movement: a movement of people who wanted to cultivate, cook, and eat their food slowly. As opposed to eating quickly, in the car, on the go, by microwave, and individually, slow cultivation enables less industrial agriculture; slow cooking and slow eating enables more time with families and strangers to gather around tables. Fast food epitomizes a culture that loves timeliness, efficiency, and cost-effective strategies. Slow food attempts to draw us toward relationships with food, people and the earth.
Slow Food is both idealistic – it can carry the same kinds of white privileged overtones people attribute to Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman – but it is also intensely realistic. Slow Food recognizes that carrots fresh from the ground aren’t perfect, that homemade meals sometimes get burned, that even when families make an effort to get together, that doesn’t mean there will be a peace-filled meal. Yet we can still hold to the ideal and hope for the ideal, even as, in the middle of things, we make do (and learn to love) what we’ve got.
If we were to think about Slow Families, we might similarly recognize that the pope’s exhortation to patience enables a focus on relationships – relationships between spouses, parents and children, family broadly speaking, church, and society. Like Slow Food, being Slow Family is meant to hope for the best, but make do and learn to love what we’ve got. Mistakes are made all the time; we are imperfect people.
If, therefore, we are to be a people who practice patience, who allow for growth to happen, who can love those who do not measure up to our views, we will be slow at it. We will not be the fast-paced efficient and apparently perfect culture we have come from.
Indeed, the pope uses “craftsmanship” to describe married love (section 221). Craftsmanship is no quick skill; craftsmanship takes time and, yes, patience. It takes a lifetime, in fact, to become a true craftsperson – and a person working at a craft is never truly “done” with becoming better and better.
So too, with Slow Family. In being part of families, we agree to take on a challenge of loving each other for a lifetime, however imperfectly. As Pope Francis says:
Love makes each wait for the other with the patience of a craftsman, a patience which comes from God.
So – on my reading, Amoris Laetitia isn’t about exceptions and rules and “just live the ideal, darn it!” It is a difficult call to cultivate patience daily, in our own imperfect situations – ultimately it is a call to allow God, the ultimate Craftsman, to be present.