Chaos reigns in high school classrooms and hallways when rules are too vague or are unevenly applied. Students in a well-ordered school thrive with clear rules applied fairly. Teachers in a good school automatically dismiss a misbehaving student’s plea: “I didn’t know there was a rule.” Of course, the student really means: “I didn’t know I would get caught.”
Moral formation occurs in high school. It is impossible, however, in a high school classroom to teach the difference between private morality and public morality or the difference between rules and pastoral guidance.
Some years after graduation many students do though draw upon their high school experience to appreciate these differences. For example, three or four students, now a year or two out of college, meet. They note that a former teacher, maybe a religious brother or nun, has recently married and has disclosed—for whatever reason—a decade long dating relationship. “The private hypocrisy is irrelevant to the competence the teacher showed us in the classroom,” the former students conclude.
“Well, what about abuse,” one of them asks? “That’s not private morality,” one of them correctly asserts. “Abuse by a teacher is misusing public authority.”
These same former students can always recall an incident from high school where they got caught misbehaving and yet where a strict teacher or dean “let us off the hook” or “said a couple words and let us go.” Why? The incident was just before an important football game or because a student was already reeling from some sad news.
Some adults, it seems, have a low tolerance for ambiguity. Some of the low ambiguity types want church officials to clearly declare and consistently enforce rules. Others among the low ambiguity types want to make their way without any rules, without as it were any second guessing. All of the low ambiguity types are unable to hold onto the creative tension between private morality and public morality or the tension between rules and pastoral guidance. One type says: If any rule is loosened, the moral threads of society will eventually all pull away. The other type says: If there are any rules at all, there is no freedom.A proper tension between rules and pastoral practice is not relativism. It is adult maturity. It is a tension. Habitually drifting into pastoral practice quickly leads to a life of making exceptions, to soft relativism. Habitually drifting into rules is soon associated with hypocrisy and righteous judgment of others and often with scrupulosity.
Both of the low ambiguity types are currently having their say over Pope Francis’ letter about marriage and family life—commenting almost exclusively on its passages about divorce and the Eucharist. One type thinks any change in “the rule” about Eucharist and divorce will lead to a wholesale forfeit of morality. The other type thinks “any rule” about lifestyles or the definition of marriage is a violation of rights.
A handful of major themes emerge from Jesus’ life and teaching. Let’s say number two is: Never allow the rules to inhibit compassion.
Adult life is hard. A parent, a teacher, a union steward, a judge, a pastor and others have to continually keep contradictions in creative tension. It’s hard, but real life is lots of fun for those who keep tensions afloat.
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629) a print newsletter about faith and work.