The question of gradualness
It happened in the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family in 2014. In fact, it exploded into a media firestorm. In tackling the question of gradualness in relation to the pastoral care of people with some moral irregularities, like the divorced and remarried, a lot of nuanced distinctions have to be made. The main problem is how to translate the theory into practice, the abstract principles to concrete actions.
The first distinction to be made is that between the so-called ‘law of gradualness' and the ‘gradualness of the law.' The former is ok, the latter is not. The former says that “people improve their relationship with God and grow in the virtues gradually, and do not jump to perfection in a single step.”
It is a principle used in Catholic moral and pastoral theology that encourages people to grow closer to God and his plan for their lives in a step-by-step manner rather than expecting them to jump from an initial conversion to perfection in a single step.
This is simply because man grows by stages in his life and holiness. Thus, St. Paul said: “I could not address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it…” (1 Cor 3,1-3)
The latter, the ‘gradualness of the law,' presumes that there are different degrees or forms of God's law for different individuals and situations. In effect, this position holds that there cannot be absolute, objective and universal moral laws. It practically erases all possibilities of sin, since any situation can be rationalized by one's subjective law.
In the gospel, we can have an example of this ‘law of gradualness' in that parable of the dishonest steward (Lk 16,1-17). In that parable, the dishonest steward was commended not for his dishonesty, but for his shrewdness or prudence. He at least was concerned about his future.
But his over-all actuation was obviously wrong because of the dishonest methods he used. This is made clear when Christ concluded in that parable that “he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much,” (10) and that “no servant can serve two masters…you cannot serve God and mammon.” (13)
It is in the same vein that we have to understand those words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who in 2010 told a German journalist that if a male prostitute uses a condom to try to avoid infecting other 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 XVI did not mean to change the Church's opposition to condom use. He simply meant that there are times when it suggests a concern for others that in itself is already laudable.
What is to be guarded against is to use this ‘law of gradualness' to justify all the other aspects of a human act that in themselves are immoral. While we should be quick to acknowledge the good parts of that act, we should not turn a blind eye on the other parts that are questionable. Otherwise, the ‘law of gradualness' becomes the ‘gradualness of the law' which is another name of that moral anomaly called relativism.
In real life, though, the distinction between the two can be very tricky. One can easily be confused with the other. Such confusion can lead to bad consequences as when the ‘law of gradualness' can make a person too lenient with himself and becomes prone to abuse such treatment.
It is quite clear therefore that just like in prescribing medicine for a serious health problem, certain contraindications and other conditions may be given to assure that this moral and pastoral approach of gradualness is received well and not abused.
It was with this idea that in 1997 the Pontifical Council for the Family issued a Vademecum for Confessors to give guidance to those hearing confessions on how to deal with people who are in some delicate, difficult if not irregular situations.
The document warned confessors against the idea of thinking that repentance does not require a decisive break with sin. “The pastoral ‘law of gradualness,'” it said, “not to be confused with ‘gradualness of the law' which would tend to diminish the demands it places on us, consists of requiring a decisive break with sin together with a progressive path toward total union with the will of God and with his loving demands.” (3,9)
With more study and prayer, consultation and discussion, let's hope that we can achieve the skill to apply the ‘law of gradualness' properly.*
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