The law of gradualism: A process toward God

In the midst of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, there was much talk of the concept of gradualism. Though this language was removed from the final report released by bishops at the synod’s end, it’s a concept that likely will resurface as the Church prepares for the “ordinary” family synod in October 2015.

Some less informed accounts describe gradualism as a brand new idea or something being revived by the Church after having fallen out of favor in recent decades. People from many different points of view have characterized it as a kind of Trojan Horse designed to undermine the Church’s supposedly rigid teaching from within by making it possible to endorse irregular family situations.

These characterizations of both the origin and purpose of gradualism are mistaken.

The roots of the idea are found in the message of conversion preached by Old Testament prophets and central to our Lord’s preaching in the Gospels: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). However, both Jews and Christians recognized that conversion was not a one-time event but a fundamental change in one’s direction — a new path or way of life in which one must learn to walk. Walking this new path well takes time, training and the healing and transforming power of God’s grace.

With a renewed focus on biblical studies in the 20th century, Catholic moral theology has increasingly drawn upon Scripture as well as virtue to understand conversion as an integral part of Catholic moral living.The Church’s magisterium has also used this concept. In his apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio (“The Family in the Modern World”), following the 1980 synod on the family, Pope St. John Paul II distinguished between what he called “the law of gradualness” and “the gradualness of the law” (No. 34). The former refers to the gradual nature of the healing work of grace in enabling a Christian to grow in virtue. So a person living a sexually promiscuous life who undergoes a conversion will usually not be able to live chastely overnight. When they fall short in sexual sin, they should be reminded of God’s love and encouraged to have recourse to his mercy made available in the sacraments of the Church.

The “gradualness of the law,” according to Pope John Paul II, is the false idea that there are “different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations.” This approach would say to a cohabiting couple afraid of marriage that it’s OK — or even good — for them to live together, and perhaps the Church should have a rite of blessing for them. In other words, when the Church’s teaching is perceived by some as too hard, we need to “lower the bar” for these people. This is actually demeaning to the persons so identified because it denies their ability to grow in holiness and live the fullness of the Christian life.

Pope Benedict XVI drew on “the law of gradualness” in his 2010 interview published in Light of the World when he gave the example of an HIV-positive prostitute who begins using condoms in order not to inflect others. He stated that such a choice could be “a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.” These widely misunderstood words were not asserting that either prostitution nor condoms were in themselves good. Rather, his point was that someone who changed his or her behavior to reduce the risk of harming others in this way might be taking a small step toward a way of living that recognizes the value of others and not merely self.

Pope Francis has demonstrated the same authentic gradualism in his teaching. In a recent interview, he praised the courage of Blessed Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”). By standing up to public pressure for population control, Pope Paul’s “genius was prophetic, he had the courage to side against the majority, defend moral discipline, put a brake on the culture, oppose neo-Malthusianism, present and future.” But Pope Francis also noted that Pope Paul VI had directed priests hearing confessions to interpret his encyclical with “much mercy, [and] attention to concrete situations.” He continued, “the question is not whether to change the doctrine, but to go deeper and make sure that pastoral care takes account of situations and of what each person is able to do.”

Gradualism is simply the recognition that the conversion to which all the members of the Church are called is not a magic, one-time transformation, but an ongoing process of healing, growth and change.

John S. Grabowski is an associate professor of moral theology and ethics at The Catholic University of America.