There have been multiple references so far to the “law of graduality,” more commonly referred to by theologians over the years as “gradualism.” Its apparent popularity may offer a clue to how things are evolving in the keenly watched debate over divorced and remarried Catholics, but understanding why requires a bit of background.
At one level, gradualism is no more than the common sense observation that virtues such as honesty and courage aren’t all-or-nothing propositions, and that people move towards them through stages and at different speeds. It implies that just because someone’s current situation falls short of perfection doesn’t mean it has no moral value, and it’s often better to encourage the positive elements in someone’s life rather than to chastise their flaws.It was probably that sense of gradualism Pope Benedict XVI had in mind in 2010 when he said in an interview with a German journalist that if a male prostitute uses a condom to try to avoid infecting people with HIV/AIDS, it can be “a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”
Benedict wasn’t repealing the church’s opposition to condom use, but he was saying that there are times when it suggests a concern for others which, in itself, is laudable.
Where gradualism becomes more of a bone of contention is when it’s invoked to justify a permissive approach to moral rules.
When you hear reports coming from the synod that bishops are calling for more “inclusive” language and the bad examples “exclusive language” seem to be taken right out of the Catechism of the Catholic Church then “gradualism” becomes another word like “ecumenism” that inspires a love/hate relationship.
God Himself certainly used a “gradual” approach with me. I was not the easiest, most obedient and faithful of believers and had a long rocky road before I realized what I thought had to be brought under what the Church teaches and that I needed to bring myself in line with the Church, not the Church in line with me.
God reached out to me and plucked me out of a self-destructive lifestyle while I was on psychedelic drugs. So, given my starting point on the journey, I did not go immediately from radical feminist, hippie to the Catholic Church via the Ordinariate!
I wandered for years as a Gnostic, attracted to fringe forms of religion that had some Christian leanings—Christian Science, Swedenborgianism, Roy Masters but unorthodox views on the Trinity or other aspects of the faith that Christians hold in common across denominational lines.
My introduction to orthodox Christianity began in a seeker-friendly Baptist Church where a warm, loving parish welcomed me heresies and all. Not that they agreed with them, but they did not tackle them head on. They took the “gradual” approach and exposed me to good teaching and loved me out of my bad ideas. After a few years of not having to defend my pet heresies, I examined them again and thought, gee, I don’t believe this stuff anymore.
So, yes! to gradualism as a tactic or an approach to evangelism. I did, however, have the Bible there as a standard. I could always read it and find myself convicted or troubled or inspired and freed as the case might be.
Given what I was and how many lies I believed and how ignorant I was of the Catholic faith and so on, I needed that lovely Baptist community to nurture me. I don’t know if I would have been able t handle the Anglican Catholic Church of Canada until I’d had 10 years of preparation in the Christian world. And then, when I joined, we had open communion. Would I have stayed if I had been refused? I don’t think I would have. I don’t know. I would have sympathy for the “medicinal” approach to the Eucharist, i.e. that we need it for healing and grace, not as a confirmation of having already received that “state of grace” before receiving it. But I obey what the Church teaches on this matter.
Then we went through the ordeal —and it was an ordeal, an experience fraught with suffering—of becoming Catholic as a community. Learning how to think with the Church, to set aside my private opinions, etc. was not easy. For all of us, there was kenosis involved.
I was also grateful that most of the people who most deeply made me want to be Catholic so as to be in communion with them did not point the finger at me and call me an adulterer because I was in an irregular marriage. I knew, too, how I recoiled against those who used “One True Church” apologetics to try to convince me it was sinful and spiritually dangerous to wait before becoming Catholic. I know. I know. I get it about gradualism, I really do.
But at the same time, there needed for there to be the Catechism of the Catholic Church and clear statements on doctrine that I could use to examine my life in my own time at my own pace, guided by the Holy Spirit and by my Catholic mentors and friends who were sensitive to Him. God forbid that teaching should be watered down, changed to suit the zeitgeist, made gradual in and of itself. Are we going to hear next some bishops from the western world suggest some harsh sayings of Jesus need to be cut from the Bible, or at least excised from Mass readings and the offices?
This “gradualism” approach is what had me so upset with the Pope’s first Scalfari “interview” or reconstruction of an interview. Obviously, the Pope was using “gradualism” in trying to meet the atheist Repubblica publisher where he was at and try to draw him with love and mercy towards Truth.
But Pope Francis is the Pope! He’s not me speaking to one of my atheist or agnostic colleagues on Parliament Hill. If he is not upholding the right teaching, but instead sounds like the Dalai Lama or Deepak Chopra, then where do we go so as to learn how to think with the Church?
Is the Magisterium merely the Successor of Peter and the Bishops alive today in community with him? Is there not a Magisterium of the Communion of the Saints that extends back to the first eyewitnesses of Jesus Christ, the first Apostles?
I pray the Holy Spirit will bring conviction and a fear of the Lord upon that Synod, that the bishops there will tremble at the huge responsibility they have for souls alive now and yet to be born.
Another thing. I really do not like the Pope’s image about wanting shepherds who have the smell of the sheep. What if the sheep have the stench of death? Should not our shepherds be imparting to us the fragrance of Christ and not taking on our stench of death ?
Woe to us if we are ashamed of the Gospel.