I’m not in the habit of taking life lessons from ’60s movies, especially not ones starring Jane Fonda. But Barefoot in the Park is an exception: I think for Catholics struggling with all the news about the Synod on marriage and the family can take a lesson from this odd little movie about marriage and family. At a climactic moment, Robert Redford’s character, a lawyer, turns to his newlywed wife Jane Fonda in the middle of their first real marital spat, at 2 AM, and attempts to cool the rising argument with a calm warning: “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in court, it’s this: be careful when you’re tired and angry. You may say something you’ll regret. I am now both tired and angry.”
This doesn’t just apply to marriage, but to human persons in general—that’s how we work, in any relationship, including relationships among human persons within the Church. Dismissive slips of the tongue, sharp-toned criticisms, heedless insensitivity, or harsh judgments rise easily to the surface of our conscious speech when the normal filters of prudence and patience have been worn down by frustration, exhaustion, or even irritability.
We often say things in the heat of the moment that we regret afterwards. In a world charged by constant frenetic activity and powered by instant communications media, taking the time for proper introspection is easily neglected. Much, much too easily neglected. In the current furor over what the Synod has (or hasn’t) said, I think Barefoot in the Park‘s lesson of patience and prudence in speech is one that Catholics of every stripe would do well to take to heart.
In modern communications, we have a tendency to react very quickly; to make declarative judgments on third-hand info before we know all the details. It takes about twenty seconds to see a Synod headline (calculated by media-ites to rock the boat, because that’s their bread and butter), skim the article without dissecting it for what kernel of truth it may contain, and reshare it on Facebook. It takes about ten seconds to skim the comment of someone who disagrees, and formulate a dissenting reply. The Church moves at eternal speed, not at human speed. But we react (and overreact) at lightening speed to everything the Church does.
The Synod, or some people within the Synod, produced a document, and the media released an avalanche of over-reactive reporting, which in turn generated an immediate and frantic response from Catholics and non-Catholics of all kinds. And, lo and behold, barely a week later headlines have flip flopped wildly in varying directions, stirring up similar flailing reactions from Catholics across the world (and across the web).
Why? Because we’re all tired and angry. We’re tired of the controversy over the Church’s stance on gay marriage. We’re tired of being entrenched in a war we know we’re losing with a media gone blind and deaf to eternal truth. We’re tired of telling everyone on all sides hyped up by the controversies that no, really, the Church isn’t going to change her stance on anything. (Really. Just believe us, we know what we’re talking about.) We’re angry over the misrepresentation; the media is angry we can’t just get with the times, or at least give them better headlines. We’re angry at reports that lobby groups might be rigging the Synod. We’re impatient with the cardinals, we’re impatient with the Pope, we’re tired of the media kerfuffle that ensues every time a Catholic with a collar opens his mouth.
Here’s a thought—let’s wait five years. Let’s wait until the dust settles, the tempers cool down, and the media memory starts to collectively fade. It’s going to be quite some time before the Synod is actually finished, and even more time before it releases its official documents (not just an interim “report”). So whether you dislike Synods in general, are anxious over the Pope, annoyed by the Cardinals, or just terribly confused, just take a minute or two—or a year or two—to cool down and see what happens, to see if anything has really changed (and therefore really needs all this attention).
I’m not recommending we all ignore the Synod and go walking barefoot in the park like Robert Redford. But, hey, let’s be careful what we say about the Synod when we’re tired and angry.