Do you remember when you were a kid, putting together your first “grown-up” puzzle? All those small, interlocking pieces, many of them with similar shape and coloring. It was easy enough to find the pieces that ringed the outside of the puzzle, but those inner pieces were more difficult. Sometimes a piece seemed that it must fit in a certain position, but just wouldn’t lock into place correctly. Unless someone older and more experienced with puzzles was there to stop you, you might even be tempted to pound the pieces with your fist to get them to fit.
Sometimes this happens with other products. You buy something requiring “some assembly,” are given a manual to follow, and then must fit the parts together. Your manual says that Tab A definitely goes into Slot B, but for some reason you can’t get the pieces to fit. So you try to force them. And then you hear the unmistakable sound of plastic cracking, which means you broke off some internal bit, rendering the whole project unstable. Later, you realize you had tried to insert Tab A into Slot B upside-down.
This kind of force-fitting also happens in human relationships. We look at the “manual” the Church gives us, say the Catechism of the Catholic Church or the Code of Canon Law, and see that it says right there in black and white that certain actions are proscribed, or that certain human problems cannot be resolved in a certain way, or that the faithful are expected to take certain actions to address pastoral issues. Cool, we think. Right there in the “manual.” What’s so difficult about that? Until someone tells us exactly what is so difficult. And we can’t think of anything else to do but to pound our fist on the table, trying to make the pieces fit.
Take, for example, Natural Family Planning. Over at her blog, Catholic Authenticity, Melinda Selmys has been exploring the difficulties of NFP for many couples. She has been asking some honest, probing questions; she has been sharing her experiences and frustrations . . . and the response I have seen from many Catholics on social media has been rather disheartening. Instead of approaching Melinda’s concerns with consideration and discussing them thoughtfully, I have seen Catholics question Melinda’s commitment to Catholicism, pooh-pooh the seriousness of the issues she’s raised, and even suggest that the answer is to suffer (the venerable “Offer it up!” school of Catholic pastoral care, I guess).
As the prison warden in Cool Hand Luke explained, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
When Catholics ask uncomfortable questions, when they explain difficulties they are having with certain aspects of Catholic faith or practice, it does no one any good to try to force-fit solutions. There may be nothing wrong with the solutions themselves, but it can be dangerous to try to jam them into places where they are not working. You never know what is going to crack as a result. It could be a human heart.
So, what can you do when a fellow Catholic shares difficulties he or she is having with certain aspects of faith or practice? Here are some ideas:
Listen. You don’t always have to offer a solution. Sometimes all that is necessary is to offer a listening ear and an understanding heart. “That must be really difficult to deal with” sometimes is more helpful than “Ooh, ooh, have you tried . . . ?” (The answer to your unsolicited solution may well be “Yes, thanks, been there, done that, have the snarky coffee mug. Now would you please stop interrupting?”)
Reflect. Unlike spoken conversations, written conversations offer an opportunity to think about what someone says before responding. It is much easier to ponder someone’s experiences when you were not actually directly spoken to. You can sit back, re-read, meditate, and compare with other perspectives, without anyone waiting impatiently for you to fill a conversation gap.
Research. One of the first things I learned when I became an apologist was that I should never trust my gut instinct about anything having to do with Catholic faith and morals. The Church was far more likely to have a far subtler, far more nuanced approach to the matter than anything that boiled up in my belly. Take, for example, the Vademecum for Confessors, which lays out for confessors how to advise a Catholic whose spouse insists on using contraception. The Church doesn’t require the Catholic to refuse the spouse conjugal relations. Instead, the Vademecum provides that:
Special difficulties are presented by cases of cooperation in the sin of a spouse who voluntarily renders the unitive act infecund. In the first place, it is necessary to distinguish cooperation in the proper sense, from violence or unjust imposition on the part of one of the spouses, which the other spouse in fact cannot resist. This cooperation can be licit when the three following conditions are jointly met: 1), when the action of the cooperating spouse is not already illicit in itself; 2), when proportionally grave reasons exist for cooperating in the sin of the other spouse; 3), when one is seeking to help the other spouse to desist from such conduct (patiently, with prayer, charity, and dialogue—although not necessarily in that moment, nor on every single occasion) [VC 3–13].
If you look into how pastors of the Church are trained to respond to moral dilemmas, you’ll probably be surprised to find that there often is a lot more leeway given for human frailty than you might have expected.
Suggest. Don’t command. If you find yourself telling anyone to “be” a particular kind of person or to go “do” things you think will eliminate that person’s problem, you are very likely overstepping your personal authority. Not even priests have the moral authority to bind consciences that tightly. What you can do is to offer suggestions or recommendations. You can salt your advice with qualifiers like “might,” “could,” and “perhaps.” If something is a matter of personal opinion, say so.
Assist. If you know the person “in real life,” is there something you can do to lighten that person’s burden? Can you offer to watch a struggling couple’s children so they can have a night out together to relax and enjoy each other? Perhaps the need for conjugal relations at an impossible time will subside somewhat if they are offered opportunities to connect in other, nonsexual ways. If the problem is financial, if they don’t have the money to address a medical problem in a licit, but expensive, manner, can you offer to help them out monetarily? Believe it or not, people are more likely to listen to you as a source of moral guidance if they have received practical support, not just good advice, from you.
Accept. Sometimes there is no good solution readily at hand. Sometimes people do the best they can until they are in a position to do better. If you open your heart to them now, at the place where they are at, and work to keep the lines of communication open, they may eventually be able to resolve what seems unresolvable with your help. If you turn away, they may still eventually resolve their problems, but it will be in spite of whatever roadblocks you had a hand in placing in their path.
One of my favorite saints is St. Therese of Lisieux. She is all too often dismissed as one of those rose-and-rainbow saints who ascended into heaven on a cloud of cotton candy. But if you read her writings closely, you’ll find that she was very sympathetic with human frailty and had a deeply understanding heart. Here is one of my favorite quotes from St. Therese:
And it is the Lord, it is Jesus, who is my judge. Therefore I will try always to think leniently of others, that he may judge me leniently, or rather not at all, since he says: “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged.”
(Image credit: Pixabay)