Gradualism: False Hopes with Illusory Desires

Several blogs on the present Synod have mentioned bishops seeking a return to the theory of “gradualism” in order to be able to solve some of the moral problems currently facing the Church: contraception, homosexual “marriages” and second marriages after a divorce, among other effects of the lack of the virtue of chastity. This Synod, like the one of 1980, is, strictly speaking, on the family, not on moral or disciplinary changes about the life of marriage. Nevertheless, one of the bedrocks of keeping marriages alive with fidelity and mutual life is the sacrifice of chastity, together with divine love and the spirit of penance. Just as there is the gospel of joy, there is also the gospel of frequent confession and Holy Communion, personal sacrifice, atonement, asceticism, vigilance, hatred of sin and penitential acts called in theology “satisfactory” acts (prayer, fasting and almsgiving). These realities of the spirit keep marriages from dying for the most part, and sustain generous self-giving of couples and their children. That is why the Synodal Fathers bring in moral and canonical questions. However, some may have forgotten how to inspire the Christian faithful toward the excellence of virtue, which is the real problem of our time and of many of other times in the history of the Church.

When the Synod on the Family of 1980 concluded on October 25th, Pope St. John Paul II preached in his homily about issue of gradualism:

Fathers (bishops) turning to those engaged in the Pastoral Ministry for the benefit of the spouses and families have rejected any dichotomy between a pedagogy, which suggests a degree of gradualism in the divine plan, and the doctrine proposed by the Church with all its consequences….

ringLater on, he further fleshed out this notion in Familiaris Consortio, (34) which included a  portion of his homily of 1980:

Married people too are called upon to progress unceasingly in their moral life, with the support of a sincere and active desire to gain ever better knowledge of the values enshrined in and fostered by the law of God. They must also be supported by an upright and generous willingness to embody these values in their concrete decisions. They cannot however 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.

What this all means is that divine laws on martial love are not to be interpreted as if one could occasionally dispense from following them in the area of conjugal intercourse. Some precepts always bind (negative precepts) by aiming the couple toward transcendence and true fulfillment, even though some divine laws may seem arbitrary. While there is a “no” involved, more importantly there is a “yes” in favor of courage, generosity and self-mastery in these negative precepts forbidding masturbation, contraception, adultery and the like. Because of the effects of original sin, the attainment of virtue in general and chastity in particular is difficult but not impossible to acquire, although imperfectly for almost all. It is one thing to sincerely try to live up to the ideals of chastity and fail from time to time. It is quite another to think that one can willingly be, more or less, chaste as an ideal, much like being a just a little pregnant. Following the path of the Lord Jesus does not work that way. Practicing authentic conjugal intercourse for three weeks a month does not give one the excuse to practice contraceptive intercourse for one week or even one evening based on “gradualism of the law.” As the Catechism of the Catholic Church so clearly teaches:

2342 Self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life. The effort required can be more intense in certain periods, such as when the personality is being formed during childhood and adolescence.

2343 Chastity has laws of growth which progress through stages marked by imperfection and too often by sin. “Man . . . day by day builds himself up through his many free decisions; and so he knows, loves, and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth.”

It is clear that this virtue is developed gradually and like alcoholics, people have “slips” due to weakness or worse, malice. It requires constant “effort” under grace to attain a measure of it because chastity is never “acquired once and for all.”

Therefore, before one enters a sacramental or non-sacramental marriage, the more spiritual law of the gospel is the same:

2015 The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes: He who climbs never stops going from beginning to beginning, through beginnings that have no end. He never stops desiring what he already knows.

This number is no mere gospel of delight being taught here but a gospel (good news) of a battle against sin or disorder. No sacrament or intense praying does all the work of growing in the difficult virtue of self-mastery. Each person has to apply the intellect convinced of the good fruits of sexual self-control, and willingly take measures to integrate excessively self-centered feelings and false desires from overcoming one’s ideal to live the chaste lifestyle before and during marriage. This should normally begin not only in adolescence but even pre-adolescent times learned from parents primarily, honed by intelligent catechesis from the local church and finally with the help of one’s culture.

As we see from the Catechism, a culture also must believe in the goodness of chastity before, during and after marriage:

2344 Chastity represents an eminently personal task; it also involves a cultural effort, for there is “an interdependence between personal betterment and the improvement of society.” Chastity presupposes respect for the rights of the person, in particular the right to receive information and an education that respect the moral and spiritual dimensions of human life.

Now if one lives in a culture adverse to sexual self-mastery, then the door is open to internet pornography, wife-swapping, contraception, fornication, “hooking-up” and just in general desiring sexual pleasure for its own sake. This is traditionally called lust not true love. If the general public does not care about this effort in the name of the principle of absolute autonomy, then family life becomes disrupted, and married people only think individually of themselves and not the family. Gradualism of the divine laws attacking repentance is a profound detriment to persons, and will only exacerbate the decline of family life for a nation. No one need be sorry for their sins and promise to avoid sinning again. Rather one will only promise to occasionally avoid sin in the future. The slippery slope leads toward other sins against social justice, and so, breaks down a civilization with great poverty.

Father Basil Cole, O.P. is currently a Professor of Moral and Spiritual Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Father is also author of Music and Morals, The Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood and coauthor of Christian Totality; Theology of Consecrated Life. A native San Franciscan, Father has been a prior in the Western province of the Dominicans, a parish missionary and retreat master, and invited professor of moral and spiritual theology at the Angelicum in Rome.
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