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
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
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
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
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,
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 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.