Gradualism: Fornicating for Jesus

John Allen’s article on Gradualism at the Synod provides me with an opportunity to interact with this insidious pastoral approach with lethal doctrinal implications.

First  of all, we must define the term.  Gradualism (Latin: gradus (“step”)) as it applies to the Catholic faith is a pastoral strategy which stresses the need to affirm a person’s goodness over and above his objectively disordered state.  It  shuns identifying sin and calling someone to repentance, in favour of acknowledging that an individual is moving or changing slowly towards a better moral or doctrinal state from his current one; the goal of which is to assist the person to accept and live by what the Catholic faith teaches.

All of a sudden at the 2014 Synod of Bishops on the family, “gradualism” as a concept in both Catholic moral theology and pastoral practice, which not so long ago seemed on the verge of being stricken from the official lexicon, is back with a vengeance.

We should be asking why gradualism is “back with a vengeance” when it has been rejected in the past.  It offers a false sense of mercy, while refusing to acknowledge that all of the Church’s pastoral “strategy” must be in line with its doctrinal profession.  Implicit in gradualism is a great irony.  Gradualism pretends that it is the option of mercy when, in fact, it is the opposite.  Traditional Catholic teaching always encourages people to get up after they fall and try again.  They fall in trying to reach, with God’s grace, the standard that Jesus calls us to which brings with it eternal life.  “Be perfect”, Our Lord says, “as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Cf. Matthew 5:48).  However, gradualism takes away that struggle because it does not really call people to conversion but “accepts them where they are”, and does not encourage them in a concrete way to move beyond their current situation.  Ultimately, gradualism is about removing the cross and even the need for true mercy.  Mercy only has meaning when we fall short of real justice, but if justice is removed or made effectively obsolete (or at the very least greatly diminished), there can be no real mercy.  Mercy presumes a certain moral code.  It presumes that there is an objective understanding of sin.  If the Church does not acknowledge that a certain behaviour is not truly a sin, then there is no longer any such thing as justice or mercy because a real transgression is required to make any sense of either.  No sin?  No justice.  No sin?  No mercy.

What’s more, you can forget about bringing many people into the Church.  What would be the motivation, when our new second class citizens can have it both ways?  Everyone can be fornicating for Jesus, since no one will be judging anyone….as long as, of course, we’re all on the journey.  As long as we are all on the journey to no where.

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 is true that persons are a mixed bag. We are all sinners. Sometimes we are honest. Sometimes we lie.  All of this is self-evident.  In approaching the mystery of sin, however, gradualism fails to accept the proposition that, at any one point in our faith journey, we are either saved or we are not, depending on the state of our soul at death.  That is why Jesus warns us repeatedly about being prepared to face our Maker now and not, as Gradualism supposes, at some undetermined time in the future (i.e. see the parable of the ten virgins and the faithful and wise manager). And, in particular, we see how the rich young man who was a virtuous fellow and also had positive qualities in this life, but went away “sad” after his encounter with Jesus (Cf. Matthew 19:16-24).  Gradualism, of course, would say we should affirm the rich young man, but Jesus did not really do that, but called Him to a greater truth about his disordered attachment to his wealth.  In Kasper’s church, there is no “sad”, but only “happy” so this rich young man needs to come back and try again!

Gradualism accepts “where we are” and permits an individual to defer the decision to accept Christ and do violence to our sinful nature. Furthermore, implicit in gradualism, is that we can be saved by these virtues or other “elements of sanctification”, while still being in an objective state of mortal sin.  Consider the bigamist who has two “wives”.  He lives with both of them and has children with both of them.  By all outward appearances, the “elements of sanctification” are present in his life.  He is “faithful” to both his wives.  He provides for his children, spends time with them, and sacrifices for them.   He even goes to Church with them.  By all accounts, these “elements of sanctification” are very present…he just seeks to share them with more than one woman.  If this man were to die tomorrow, as a Catholic, would he be saved since, after all, he is “on a journey”?  And this is not a theoretical problem, but exists in Africa where the bishops are battling cultural practices of polygamy…which devalues and degrades women.

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.

Indeed, it is laudable, but only insofar as it is a movement from one mortal sin to a lesser (although still abominable) one.  In itself, this is self-evident. But the key is in the recognition that the Church gives to such a relationship.  In the prominent example before us at the Synod, it is indeed a better thing for a man to be monogamous with one woman instead of fornicating around with dozens of them.  But, a movement to a “lesser mortal sin” (if we can use that phrase) does not make the relationship anything other than a mortal sin, and certainly not comparable to marriage, as is being proposed.

Where gradualism becomes more of a bone of contention is when it’s invoked to justify a permissive approach to moral rules.  For instance, some theologians and even a few bishops over the years have invoked gradualism to defend going easy on Catholics who practice birth control, arguing that while the teaching of Pope Paul VI in 1968’s Humanae Vitae reaffirming the traditional ban represents an ideal, there may be valid reasons why lots of people can’t be expected to fully embrace it right now.

Well, this belief that people can’t be expected to fully embrace the truth or that is beyond God’s grace to transform people into living that truth out was an error condemned by St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Pius X and the Church’s perennial Tradition.  Anyone advocating an approach of “it’s just too hard to follow such a teaching” is advocating heresy because they are ultimately saying, contra St. Paul, that the Catholic faith and God’s grace to practice it is not enough for them right now at this very moment.

“God does not command the impossible, but by commanding He teaches thee both to do what thou canst and to ask what thou canst not, and He helps thee that thou mayest be able” (St. Augustine, quoted at the Council of Trent, Denz., no. 804).

“Christ is the propitiation for our sins, for some efficaciously, but for all sufficiently, since the price of His blood is sufficient for the salvation of all” (St. Thomas on I Tim. 23, and elsewhere).

“The help of grace is twofold: one, indeed, accompanies the power; the other, the act. But God gives the power, infusing the virtue and grace whereby man is made capable and apt for the operation; whereas He confers the operation itself according as He works in us interiorly, moving and urging us to good” (St. Thomas on Ephes. 3:7).


 For those concerned with defending tradition, this second sense of gradualism can make it sound like another word for “relativism”, meaning watering down objective standards of morality. By the same token, it also makes gradualism a favorite refuge for moderates who accept the content of Church teaching, but who don’t want to go to war over it.

In other words, we are talking about the lukewarm who don’t want to fight against sin but to surrender to it.  Easy does it.

Ferment over gradualism, and what its implications may be, tends to arise whenever the Catholic Church ponders sexual morality.  The last time the Vatican staged a Synod of Bishops on the family, which was almost 35 years ago in 1980, talk about gradualism was in the air, too. Pope John Paul II was sufficiently concerned about where it might lead that he included a warning in a homily he gave for the closing Mass of the synod, a line he then also dropped into the meeting’s concluding document, Familiaris Consortio.  “What is known as ‘the law of gradualness’,” John Paul said, “cannot be identified with ‘gradualness of the law’.” The gist was there’s just one set of rules for everybody, and they’re not going to change.

If they are not going to change and a great giant of the family, St. John Paul II, said so, why is the Synod even entertaining this theory again?  What was the point of the canonization if not to affirm his great teaching legacy on the Family?

Since that time, the Vatican has occasionally circled back to the theme. When the Pontifical Council for the Family put out a guide for priests hearing confessions on matters having to do with married life in 1997, it warned that the “law of graduality” shouldn’t induce priests to send the signal that sin isn’t still sin.  Especially in that context, it’s striking how often the “law of graduality” has surfaced already at the 2014 edition of the synod. In his opening address on Monday, Cardinal Péter Erdo of Hungary argued that Humanae Vitae should be read in light of graduality. In a session with reporters at Vatican Radio Monday night, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich invoked graduality as a key to helping the church develop a new way of talking about sex. In a briefing session for reporters on Tuesday, a Vatican spokesman described graduality as among the synod’s emerging themes, and Cardinal Vincent Nichols of the UK said the idea of graduality “permits people, all of us, to take one step at a time in our search for holiness in our lives.”

There must be a distinction between those who are genuinely seeking to reform their lives on the one hand and a recognition of the Church which equates their current situation to what the Church understands as moral, on the other hand.  There is no problem with the Church encouraging people in their walk.  There is no problem with the Church using an outreach ministry to try help persons and couples reach the goal of being in a state of Grace. In fact, that is a very good thing and the reason the Church exists!  The problem is equating a sinful relationship or disorder to something that is a grace-filled relationship.  Cardinal Kasper’s proposal of giving Communion to the divorced and remarried is the equivalent of stating that an adulterous couple are in a state of grace. This, of course, overturns many of the Church’s teachings, including but not limited to the whole understanding of “communion”, sin, confession and repentance, and sanctifying grace, to name just a few.

Here’s why the vocabulary matters: Everyone knows that the hottest issue at this synod is the question of whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics ought to be able to receive Communion. Moderates supporting that change need to find a way to justify it that doesn’t seem to call into question the principle that marriage is for life.“The law of graduality” could be one way of doing the trick, and thus references to it could be understood as an early show of strength for the moderate position. It’s also perhaps an index of how things have changed under Pope Francis that bishops feel licensed to use the phrase without a truckload of qualifications, given the increasingly disapproving tone of most Vatican statements on it in the recent past.In other words, the sudden return of gradualism may be a central part of the storyline about the 2014 synod.

Gradualism is a willful deception to any knowledgeable Catholic.  A man who is divorced from his legitimate wife and having sex with another woman is in an adulterous relationship. Period. Full stop.  Allowing him to receive the Holy Eucharist simply allows this man to be confirmed by the Church in his error, and there will never be any motivation for him to address his situation with a proper tribunal where the Church can rule on the validity of his marriage.  Barring such a man from Communion is the merciful way of the Church not only evangelizing him but gently pointing out to him that the moral status of his conjugal relationships needs to be addressed.   Refusing Communion is the sacramental way of offering TRUE mercy.  As we say to the homosexual activists who pound the church on her teaching against sodomy: love does not always say “yes”.  Unfortunately today in NuChurch, mercy has forgotten the language of “no”.  It’s been banished from its vocabulary.  It’s always “yes”,  7 days a week, 24 hours a day.  Mercy has, for all intents and purposes, become the “yes man” to very confused bishops and cardinals.

A few weeks ago, I had the good pleasure to hear a wonderful talk by Sister Ann Shields.  She related an experience in the Confessional that was very instructive.  Apparently, at one point in her life she was struggling with a particular sin and after sharing that sin in the Confessional, the priest did not absolve her from the sin.  Now that was rather amusing to me because, although a priest has a right to withhold absolution, I have never heard of such a thing actually happening.  Whatever the reason for withholding the absolution, it compelled her to examine her conscience more deeply and return for a proper confession with the absolution.  In respect of the debate on Gradualism, this account is also instructive because it shows the role of the Church’s ministers in holding the penitent accountable.  Clearly, we can see how Gradualism completely vitiates such a critical function, and provides us through a crystal clear example why it will be rejected once again by the Synod.

There will be no fornicating for Jesus.

2 thoughts on “Gradualism: Fornicating for Jesus

  1. Pingback: 10 Reasons To Chill Out About Our Sinking Church | The Catholic Legate

  2. John, thank you for your great commentary

    “If they are not going to change and a great giant of the family, St. John Paul II, said so, why is the Synod even entertaining this theory again? What was the point of the canonization if not to affirm his great teaching legacy on the Family?”

    I would like to carry this further- WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF THIS SYNOD?

    Ezekiel 3 ►

    Douay-Rheims Bible

    A Watchman for Israel

    16And at the end of seven days the word of the Lord came to me, saying: 17Son of man, I have made thee a watchman to the house of Israel: and thou shalt hear the word out of my mouth, and shalt tell it them from me. 18If, when I say to the wicked, Thou shalt surely die: thou declare it not to him, nor speak to him, that he may be converted from his wicked way, and live: the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but I will require his blood at thy hand. 19But if thou give warning to the wicked, and he be not converted from his wickedness, and from his evil way: he indeed shall die in his iniquity, but thou hast delivered thy soul. 20Moreover if the just man shall turn away from his justice, and shall commit iniquity: I will lay a stumblingblock before him, he shall die, because thou hast not given him warning: he shall die in his sin, and his justices which he hath done, shall not be remembered: but I will require his blood at thy hand. 21But if thou warn the just man, that the just may not sin, and he doth not sin: living he shall live, because thou hast warned him, and thou hast delivered thy soul.

    Tony L

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