The ‘Law of gradualness’ and the Synod mid-way report

Gradualness and the moral life

It is common knowledge that turning our hearts to God and extricating ourselves from habitual sins and temptations is something that tends to happen only over a period of time. This is no less true in the sexual than in the non-sexual domain. To give just one example, the Catechism has this to say on the subject of people experiencing same-sex attraction:

Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection. 2359

And in its section on the Sacrament of Penance, the Catechism tells us that a confessor:

“should have a proven knowledge of Christian behaviour, experience of human affairs, respect and sensitivity toward the one who has fallen; he must love the truth, be faithful to the Magisterium of the Church, and lead the penitent with patience toward healing and full maturity.” 1466

As this process will unfortunately involve continuing temptations and perhaps moral lapses, it is important that the Sacrament of Penance be readily available: precious support left to us by Jesus himself in approaching the Christian perfection for which we should all resolutely strive. Nonetheless, while our approach to the demands of the moral law is likely to be gradual and partial, the moral law itself makes the same demands on us at every stage of our journey. The mid-way Report (see below) makes reference to the mention of gradualism in Familiaris Consortio. However, Familiaris Consortio takes a markedly different approach to the mid-way Report, saying that husbands and wives:

“cannot… look on the law as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future: they must consider it as a command of Christ the Lord to overcome difficulties with constancy.

And so what is known as ‘the law of gradualness’ or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with ‘gradualness of the law,’ as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations.

 In God’s plan, all husbands and wives are called in marriage to holiness, and this lofty vocation is fulfilled to the extent that the human person is able to respond to God’s command with serene confidence in God’s grace and in his or her own will.

On the same lines, it is part of the Church’s pedagogy that husbands and wives should first of all recognize clearly the teaching of Humanae Vitae as indicating the norm for the exercise of their sexuality, and that they should endeavor to establish the conditions necessary for observing that norm.” 34

Similarly the 1997 Vademecum for Confessors issued by the Pontifical Council for the Family says that:

The pastoral “law of gradualness” not to be confused with the “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 towards total union with the will of God and with his loving demands.” 3:9.

Lesser evil

In acknowledging that moral growth is likely to be gradual and involve moral set-backs, it is important not to deliberately encourage lapses. For example, it is one thing to claim that cohabitation may be morally worse where there is no intention to marry; something quite different to deliberately encourage cohabitation ‘of engaged couples only’ even if this is seen as a means to encouraging the formation of commitments to marry. It is the commitment to marry (the good intention) not the cohabitation (the bad intention) that should be deliberately encouraged. Similarly, in those who are not free to marry, because they are already married or are of the same sex, it is always wrong deliberately to encourage cohabitation, even as a means to preventing promiscuity. It is one thing to acknowledge that one kind of lifestyle may be even worse than another; something quite different deliberately to endorse the ‘lesser evil’.

Mid-way Synod report approach to gradualness

What, then, are we to make of the words of the mid-way Report on the Synod: the summary of Bishops’ discussions to date, which tells us that:

“As regards the possibility of partaking of the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, some argued in favor of the present regulations because of their theological foundation, others were in favor of a greater opening on very precise conditions when dealing with situations that cannot be resolved without creating new injustices and suffering. For some, partaking of the sacraments might occur were it preceded by a penitential path – under the responsibility of the diocesan bishop –, and with a clear undertaking in favor of the children. This would not be a general possibility, but the fruit of a discernment applied on a case-by-case basis, according to a law of gradualness, that takes into consideration the distinction between state of sin, state of grace and the attenuating circumstances.” (emphasis added)

In referring to a penitential path, the mid-way Report might appear to be suggesting – as was recently suggested by Msgr. Jean-Paul Vesco, Bishop of Oran in Algeria https://voiceofthefamily.com/wordpress/?p=235 – that the sins to be repented of are all in the past (Bishop Vesco refers to the sin of seeking the new relationship while one was still with the original marriage partner). Of course if the sins truly are all in the past, there would be no serious dilemma in regard to the Eucharist, provided the person is truly sorry for them. Those who have committed adultery or other serious sins (including other sexual sins) repent sincerely of their sin, receive the Sacrament of Penance, and are welcomed lovingly back to full communion.

However, there is no sign that the Report is referring to those who sincerely desire to make a radical change to their lives. On the contrary, by referring to ‘extenuating circumstances’ the Report is saying either that no serious objective wrong is being done – as perhaps the reference to situations which ‘cannot’ be resolved ‘without creating new injustices and suffering’ might appear to show – or alternatively, that while serious objective wrong is being done by the person, the person is not fully culpable for doing this.

Yet the Church is responsible for teaching people what is, and what is not, seriously wrong, thereby transmitting the message of her Founder. God calls people out of ignorance: to keep people in ignorance is not the Church’s mission. Privately, people deserve to know the truth about their actions from the Church which seeks to communicate God’s will for them. Publicly, it is important not to suggest through our actions that certain things are not objectively seriously wrong. That is the reason why it is necessary to withhold communion from those who have done and/or continue to do serious unrepented public wrongs (in the area of respect for life, for example, this would include abortionists and those who vote or lobby for abortion). Even with private sins known only to the person and the priest, the faithful have a right to know from their priests that approaching communion, which should indeed be their ultimate aim, will demand a radical change of heart. To return to the words of the Catechism:

“Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed.” 1431.

The Catechism in a later paragraph on the Sacrament of Penance (1439) includes a section on the prodigal son: a beautiful image for the return of the soul to God.

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Voice of the Family is an international lay coalition of major pro-life and pro-family organizations that has formed to offer expertise and resources to leaders of the church, the media, NGOs, and governments before, during, and after the Catholic Church’s Synod on the Family. The Synod will end on 19 October.