Here’s an unusual suggestion for reading Amoris Laetitia: don’t.
OK so that sounds much more extreme than I mean but now that I have your attention, let me explain. Of course you should read the new document from Pope Francis, eventually. But should it be this week? I suggest that for many of us the answer is no. Here’s why.
An apostolic exhortation is a great teaching document of the church. They should be read prayerfully, thoughtfully, respectfully. Yet this is becoming increasingly difficult. The maelstrom of noise surrounding the release of any papal document, or indeed of any papal utterance at all, can be disorienting and overwhelming. It can be unsettling and destructive of peace and trust. This is not really a recipe for prayerful contemplation. Everyone knows prayer requires a little bit of silence. And silence is hard to come by.
We live in a time of surfeit of information. We live in an age where we expect immediacy. So we find ourselves with the first reports on Amoris Laetitia emerging even before actual copies were in wide circulation. Indeed, some of these reports were written before their authors had read the document. But more and more and more information, or more and more words, more and more noise, is not necessarily more and more wisdom. The fact we can read everything right away makes us feel like we must. There is also a problematic urge to be “in the know” as part of a global conversation as opposed to being in the know in the sense of being taught by an encyclical. We want to take part in the talk around the water cooler more than we want to be instructed in virtue.
Furthermore, this desire for immediacy is affecting our relationship with the Papacy. I particularly reference the institution and not the individual Pope because it is this institution we seem to be forgetting of late in emphasizing the individual men who hold the See of Peter. Because we can know exactly what Pope Francis said on a plane before it even has time to land is developing in us a sense of entitlement to know and dissect everything instantly. The speed of the dissection is somehow becoming more important than the care and precision with which it ought to be done. And we remake the Pope in our own image, expecting Him to say what we want when we want or expecting him to be nemesis to our personal interests. Familiarity is breeding, perhaps not contempt, but disregard for the special relationship of the Papacy to the Holy Spirit. There have been good popes, great popes, even some capital G Great ones, and there have been some bad ones, personally vicious, weak, unwise. Yet the center has always held. Nothing but God’s love for His church and his unwavering personal care for her and for the rock upon which she was founded explains this. The center always held.
We don’t have to love everything going on in Rome at any time. Some people fold themselves in pretzels to love every utterance and move of every 21st century Pope, which must be mentally exhausting given what different men each has been. Still, at the root of our relationship to the Popes there should always be this sense of peaceful, calm trust in God’s guidance for the Papacy itself. I believe that feeling like Rome is in our backyard is not all good. A little distance, a little time, a little patient waiting helps maintain this essential trust in the barque of Peter.
All this has suggested to me a mental experiment. I’ve decided to imagine Amoris Laetitia was being released hundreds of years ago. To make copies would be a long and painstaking process, to distribute these even longer. And surely the copies would have gone first and foremost to priests, bishops, professors, theologians. Many of the faithful would not have been able to read the text for themselves and would have relied upon the teaching to be filtered down to them through the authentic teaching of the magisterium in its day to day workings.
For previous generation the question was, as it still is for us today although it is so easy to forget: How am I called personally to live out my Catholic faith in my own life, today? That means ensuring we are well catechecized in the tenets of the faith, and then going about the business of our individual vocations while pursuing virtue and living that faith. If your vocation is theology, or church news, then by all means, you may be called as part of that work to read the new encyclical ASAP. But if you vocation is motherhood, or carpentry, or medicine, or you name it, taking your time to read it is perfectly acceptable and perhaps prudent given the climate of agitation that swirls around its release. It is quite possible to be a good and faithful Catholic without reading every single thing on day one of publication.
Of course in the end I am not suggesting never picking up Amoris Laetitia. I’m not even suggesting avoiding other people’s commentaries on it. I would recommend choosing those commentaries judiciously. I would recommend saving the read for the right time. Spend the meantime fostering a sense of trust in God and his love for the Church as evidenced through his ongoing care of the Papacy. I would recommend learning about the relative weight of the magisterial authority behind different kinds of papal document and the history of previous documents. When the dust has settled and the noise softened, when you can approach the read with tranquility and genuine desire for instruction and clarity, then read. It will still be waiting. Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever. This is His Church. Follow Him. Live your vocation. Do not be rushed.