No analogy is perfect but I would like to offer one in regards to Pope Francis’ latest apostolic exhortation, the context of marriage in our world today and what the Holy Father is calling the Church to through his words.
A few years ago I purchased some land in the mountains of East Tennessee near the state line with North Carolina. The land is mostly wooded but there are two fields that sit along the road. Once I acquired the land I bought the architectural plans of a small home design and I hired a local contractor to do the building. In the process electricity had to be run to the site where the home would sit. One day the electrical workers arrived and with an authority second only to God they immediately cut down a stand of towering pine trees in order to run the electrical lines. The trees fell into one of the fields and there they lay … for a couple of years.
My original intent to cut the trees up quickly and be done with it did not materialize and by the time that I did get around to beginning the work an almost impenetrable stand of brush and thorns had grown up around the trees. It has been hard and tedious work. Many times my hands, arms and face have been slashed with the thorn brambles that I am convinced are conscious and out to wreck vengeance upon me. Each time that I am able to put in some work on this task I leave exhausted and worn out. I have pretty much cut everything down to the massive trunks now and have many piles of wood and bramble to be burned as proof of my efforts but it has been a long haul and, even yet, not fully completed.
The analogy is this. Trees have fallen into the life-giving field of marriage and they have done damage and have lain there for quite some time and an almost impenetrable stand of brush and thorns have grown up. Pope Francis, in his exhortation, is inviting the Church not just to wax philosophical or theological about marriage nor to bemoan the ruinous state of affairs and wag fingers but rather to get about the hard and tedious work of clearing away the trees, thorns and brambles and reclaiming the life-giving field of marriage.
This being said, there are some important nuances to be aware of.
The trees were cut down due to our activity and selfishness. Extreme individualism, a pace of life that is chaotic and stressful, a culture of greed that leaves many people and families impoverished, addictions that wreak havoc on families, a throw-away mentality even in regards to relationships, even a theologically abstract understanding of marriage – these are all means by which the trees have been cut down and have fallen, causing immense damage.
One temptation is to just let the trees lie where they are and let the brush and thorns continue growing and accept that this is just the way things are and how they are meant to be. But to do so would be to deny both the beauty of the field and its full possibility and how it, by its very nature, is meant to give life.
No one can think that the weakening of the family as the natural society founded on marriage will prove beneficial to society as a whole. The contrary is true: it poses a threat to the mature growth of individuals, the cultivation of community values and the moral progress of cities and countries. There is a failure to realize that only the exclusive and indissoluble union between a man and a woman has a plenary role to play in society as a stable commitment that bears fruit in new life. We need to acknowledge the great variety of family situations that can offer a certain stability, but de facto or same-sex unions, for example, may not simply be equated with marriage. No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society. (AL # 52)
If letting the trees lie and the brush and thorns grow and thinking all the while that it is the norm is a disservice to the field then just shaking our heads as Church and wagging our fingers at society is also a disservice that does no good. This is the second temptation we might have in reaction to the current state of affairs but nothing ultimately good, the Holy Father reminds us, comes out of simply throwing hard stones. Contemplating the nature of marriage and family life certainly has importance and value but just sitting back and waxing on about an idealized form of marriage does not clear away the brush and thorns that have grown up. Exalted language and thought alone can sometimes be used as a cover for the dual sins of sloth and tired resignation and a way to avoid the hard work that needs to be done.
What then are we to do as Church? In no uncertain terms, Pope Francis is calling us into the thicket in order to begin the hard and tedious work of clearing away the brush and thorn and regaining the field. He is calling everyone in the Church to this work and he also knows that within the labor itself we will learn some things.
Yes, the thorns that have grown up can sting and cause pain but thorns also are a means to protect. There are human persons living within the reality and brokenness of marriage in our world today. Human persons who are made in the image of God and who have been wounded by forces beyond their control. These people need to be respected. One way to respect them is to be willing to meet them where they are at and not just treat them as a theory, a statistic or that group “over there”. This means going into the thicket and, yes, even being willing to suffer the stings and pain of the thorns that people often can carry in life as a means to protect. Please note that this does not imply denying the reality of sin and the need to take responsibility for sinful choices and behavior. It means trusting in the power of the gospel and being willing to carry the gospel into every situation.
Once we get into the thicket we will realize that there is life and beauty even within the thorns and brush. The human spirit is an amazing thing – even producing beauty and goodness amidst brokenness and confusion. Is it the perfect beauty of the field? No, but it is beauty nonetheless and there is really no reason why this should not be acknowledged. Can there be beauty within a broken and separated family? Yes. Can there be honest care found in a committed same-sex relationship? I think so. Do these negate the beauty of marriage as God has intended it? No, just as that beauty found in the very limited confines of the thicket does not deny the beauty or the life-giving nature of the field. But, neither do these realities negate the Church’s duty and responsibility to proclaim and cultivate the true nature of marriage.
We need to walk carefully and be attentive to how we go about the work of clearing the field. All of the abstract principles and talk of marriage and family life are ultimately enfleshed within the lives of living persons – both the fullness of marriage in all of its possibility as well as the brokenness and woundedness which can occur. Pope Francis is not downplaying the Church’s teaching on marriage in any way, rather he is saying we need to hold all teachings in relation to the lived reality in order to determine how best to proclaim the good news in the current situation.
It will no longer be enough to just clear away the trees, thorns and brush. We must always continually do the work of cultivating the field. I do believe that the Church has taken this for granted for far too long and has even been neglectful. In essence, we help people get married and then we often say, “You are on your own now. Get in touch with us when you need a baptism.” We can no longer do this. The Church must continually be attentive to cultivating the field of marriage. We must work at it and we must grow in a true theology of marriage and family life. Our world demands it.
No analogy is perfect and I do not pretend that this one is. But after reading some of Amoris Laetitia the other day followed by a couple of hours work of clearing the field I realized that it is an analogy that works … at least for me.
An “exhortation” is the proper word. In his writing Pope Francis certainly reflects on the beauty of the sacrament of marriage and family but then he exhorts and calls us as Church to the hard, tedious and necessary work of clearing the field.