Gradualism and Holiness

Keeping up with all the news coming out of the Synod is a challenging task for those of us in the midst of a full load of fall classes. I’ll leave it to full-timers like Grant and Josh and others to provide the updates. But as a moral theologian with a great interest in sexual ethics, I can’t help but try to reflect on the significance of what is going on at the Synod, especially because of how refreshing it is to see the Church at work in serious, civil dialogue about very important issues, with leaders placing their cards on the table. Our American civic culture is painfully broken in terms of achieving such frank and serious dialogue; it is a great sign of life that the Church is achieving it (and a sign, I might add, that the episcopal appointments of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were not as uniform as is sometimes said!). (I’ll follow up with a couple more posts later this week that expand on the problem in a broader context, over at

Two key conceptualizations seem to be rising out of the discussion. On the one hand, some bishops have wanted to treat the problem in terms of a distinction between doctrine and pastoral practice. For example, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi has suggested that one can imagine reception of the sacraments for those divorcved and remarried so long as “confusion is avoided about the indissolubility of marriage,” and Cardinal Wuerl has noted that “the reception of Communion is not a doctrinal position. It's a pastoral application of the doctrine.... Just to repeat the practice of the past without any effort to see whether there is some awareness, openness, influence of the Spirit that might be helping us in total continuity with our past practice to find a new direction today.”

On the other hand, Cardinals Schönborn and Marx have focused on a different concept, that of “gradualism.”

One report explains Marx’s comments on this idea: “This aspect of the tradition recognizes that moral decision-making develops over time. ‘We cannot always have 100 percent.’ A person, a relationship, might develop toward the good, even if only in fits and starts. One bishop suggested that even in relationships that don't conform to the vision of the church, there may be aspects of those relationships that are ethical, according to Marx.” And Schönborn (a favorite of John Paul and Benedict, and the main editor of the Catechism) explains that "The Ten Commandments are not at our disposal, we cannot change them. But what we actually experience in our own lives is that we only keep them partially and not 100 percent. If one applies this to marriage and the family, then of course the full realization is sacramental church marriage, which is indissoluble and open for children. But we also know that many people only reach this full realisation of marriage gradually."

In both cases, bishops are doing what ressourcement requires: taking traditional, established conceptions and considering how they can be applied to present problems. Such concepts will avoid the overturning of established doctrine (i.e. the indissolubility of marriage), while at the same time adapting its practice to contemporary realities. In effect, they are also applying the newly-reinvigorated idea of the “hierarchy of truths,” such that more peripheral teachings ought not to serve as barriers to the Church’s central proclamation of salvation in Christ and participation in this grace through the sacraments, and especially the Eucharist.

I must admit I find the strand of discussion focusing on gradualism to be far more promising than the one attempting a distinction between doctrine and pastoral practice. As some have noted on the really interesting dotCommonweal discussion threads, Tettamanzi’s comments presume a kind of clarity in practice that seems mighty unrealistic: he includes the need for an “adult formation” program for those readmitted, for example, and every commentary I’ve seen suggests that readmission to the sacraments should be possible for “some” divorced and remarried Catholics. Well, which “some” and who decides? Thus, behind this idea lurks some kind of larger-scale pastoral program of discernment and ongoing formation. Given that the current annulment process has been criticized by some as onerous and slow, and that current marriage preparation programs are stretched to the limit, it seems fair to wonder exactly what sort of program is envisioned. Just as some who have experienced the annulment process done right have experienced it as providing healing and wisdom, so too some would find grace in this new set of procedures. However, I do fear that the development here runs into a tension: make the program too “thick” and it will deter participation and draw on stretched resources, make it too “thin” and it will simply lack real credibility – it will be too often perceived as a fig leaf the Church has dreamt up to get around its teaching. If this were some kind of temporary crisis, the fig leaf problem might be okay, but if one envisions this as an ongoing practice, it seems much more difficult. Proponents of a primarily practical solution must grapple with this problem of a merely “patched” solution.

On the other hand, “gradualism” is a broader principle that can be extended to how the Church deals with a whole range of contested sexual issues. “Gradualism” has the sanction of both Benedict XVI (in his Light of the World interview) and John Paul II (in Familiaris Consortio, the exhortation from the 1980 Synod, see paragraph 34). Gradualism allows the clear acknowledgement by all of the Church’s most profound vision of the sacrament of marriage: exclusive, procreative, lifelong faithful mutual love. The fact is most Westerners have not adopted straightforwardly cavalier attitudes toward this ideal – while a purely linear tale of sexual progress is problematic, there are plenty of reasons to believe that the best marriages today – both Catholic and even secular – embody this, and that people in general seek it. They want the Church to hold to this ideal, just as they want the Church to proclaim the ideal of a society where people help the poor and where peace reigns. Unlike the doctrine/practice split, where mixed messages are inevitable, gradualism promotes consistency of vision, but combines it with a practice of mercy. In addition, gradualism does not require additional juridical structures, but simply proclamation, and perhaps some new thinking about how best to embody the sacrament of reconciliation.

Most importantly, gradualism is a concept that makes sense within the larger Catholic turn to the universal call to holiness. Both Vatican II and Veritatis Splendor insist that the days of a two-level ethic for Catholics are over, and that all Catholics must strive to the fullness of holiness and discipleship to which Jesus invites the rich young man… and all of us. Faced with this ideal, faced with the kinds of demands Jesus makes in the Sermon on the Mount, no person would be so presumptuous as to claim that this holiness is something they have simply achieved. Everyone needs the encouragement of gradualism when faced with the demands to love enemies, to forgive seventy times seven times, and to see all of one’s possessions at the disposal of the Kingdom. Or, faced with the extraordinarily high ideals of papal social teaching, it is easy to turn away, as if Benedict XVI’s “economy of gift” or John Paul II’s vision of labor as enhancing human subjectivity are just pie-in-the-sky impossibilities. These are powerful teachings that require a real commitment to lay holiness in the world – a commitment that will seem impossible for wealthy Americans tethered to unjust social structures… unless we appreciate gradualism.

As a teacher, I could not do without gradualism. At my institution, I enter classrooms every semester filled with students who are at different places in terms of academic ability, life priorities, and spiritual commitment. To come into such an environment and teach a monolithic, deductive ethics class based on who was following and who was breaking the rules – this would be impossible. Instead, the challenge is to overcome a kind of moral complacency (10 minutes of moral debate on any problem seems to convince the majority of the class that “everyone has their own opinion and there is no solution”) without heavy-handed imposition. This requires paying primary attention (as Pope Francis understands) to the overarching vision, tapping into reservoirs of high hopes and aspirations, simmering beneath the surface. Once the vision is there, one can begin displaying the logic of the pathways, showing how steps lead to other steps… and thus trying to display why the Catholic tradition teaches what it does. I repeat, this is not easy. I’m lucky to get students for 15 solid weeks, 3 times a week, with tests to back me up. I don’t envy pastors who can’t have this kind of contact. Nevertheless, I would love to see more gradualism in parish communities. Too often, I see either an off-putting self-righteousness or a simple, all-too-comfortable compromise.  

If gradualism is so established and promising, what are the barriers to it? Two are particularly prominent. First, a central question of the Synod – readmission of the divorced and remarried to the Eucharist – is not as easy a fit with the concept as some other sexual issues are (e.g. cohabitation). It is possible that the Church could insist that the ideal of the second marriage would be sexual continence, but this frankly raises a whole host of obvious problems. Given that the divorced and remarried cannot attain to the ideal, strictly speaking, what does “gradualism” here mean? An interesting item for the Synod to pursue.

Second, and perhaps more problematically, communicating the message of gradualism accurately cannot but step on our cultural tendencies toward egalitarianism. We want desperately to say that every situation is basically as good as every other one. For example, in a recent NCR story on millennials, Christopher Hale states, "The church needs to realize that a large number of millennial Catholics did not grow up in a household with a mom and a dad. We are growing up in different times, and we still need a church to minister to us. What once was alternative is now normal." The story is headlined by the idea that millennials desire a “messy” synod, because they know the world is “messy.” The problem here is when the language of messiness becomes the language of normal. Certainly the Church’s sexual ethics have had difficulty naming the territory between what is normal and what is messy. But this is a distinction that has to be maintained for an authentic gradualism to work. Can the Church actually maintain it? Or does the take-away become that divorce is kind of… “normal”?


David Cloutier is an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith.

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