Wednesday, October 8, 2014

On the Pastoral Law of Graduality

His Eminence Reinhard Cardinal Marx
(Photo: Allessia Giuliani/CPP/Ciric)
In the first rounds of discussion of the 2014 Extraordinary Synod on the Family, a somewhat unfamiliar term has been bandied about as though it were the panacea for the current crisis in sexual and medical ethics in the Church: graduality.

In his address to the assembly on October 6th, Cardinal Peter Erdo was first to use the term in the context of the Synod, when he said that Humanae vitae, Pope Paul VI's encyclical which reaffirmed the Church's position on the sanctity of human life, the purpose of marriage and the intrinsic evil of contraception, "needs to be considered in light of the law of graduality." Though their identities are unknown, it is reported that several other bishops at the Synod took up the term as an aid in promoting their views. Cardinal Marx of Germany is on record as saying that the application of the law of graduality would help the Church develop a new way of speaking about sexuality. He told reporters, "I think it is very important to see that we have ways or that there is a graduality also in the way to the sacrament."

What, exactly, is the law of graduality? Glad you asked.

The origin of the idea of graduality in the spiritual life is entirely innocuous. It comes from the recognition that, while every good Catholic aspires to the perfection of sainthood, each individual Catholic finds himself to some degree removed from that ideal. Simply put, if the saint is a pure, white light, then we Catholics living in the world are various shades of grey, some lighter, some darker, but all striving by degrees towards the fullness of that pure light. This notion of a step-by-step advance towards the ideal is commonly referred to among the clergy as 'graduality' or 'gradualism'.

Applied to the pastoral work of the parish priest, it means helping people recognize their current state of life, as fraught with sin as it may be, as a staging area from which they can set about to climb the ladder to sainthood, rung by rung. It's a common approach taken by countless good and holy priests, both in the confessional as well as at the pulpit, and has very likely saved countless souls from falling prey to despair.

Appealing to the notion of graduality is a perfectly valid approach to the pastoral care of souls - provided, of course, - and this is key - that the situation in which the individual finds himself is fundamentally sound, i.e., that there is not some objective obstacle which, by its very nature, prevents the individual from progressing along the path to sainthood. Just as it would be pointless to give interior design tips to a man who has constructed his house upon sand, so, too, would it be pointless to apply the law of graduality to an individual in a situation which is objectively disordered and inherently sinful.

Unfortunately, this key provision has been largely overlooked in the application of the notion of graduality in pastoral work over the last 50 years. Instead of demanding that the wayward individual work to remove those objective barriers - something which often causes a lot of hurt feelings and frequently provokes accusations of "heartheartedness" and "mercilessness" - pastors preferred to "meet the people where they are," and encourage those souls entrusted to their care to strive for whatever sanctity could be had in their current situation, sometimes even going so far as to excuse the objective disorder and inherent sinfulness of their situation by appealing to circumstances which could be seen as rendering the individual subjectively non-culpable. In their eagerness to always be seen as friendly and compassionate shepherds, many overlooked or simply ignored the grave sins occurring in their own parishes, among their own flock.

In his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortio or 'On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World', Pope St. John Paul II warned of the dangers of applying the notion of graduality in a way which would lead to a relativization of the ideal of Christian marriage:
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 situation. 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 Humane 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. (Familiaris consortio, §34)
This was underscored again in a discourse delivered by the Holy Father at the conclusion of a study seminar on the theme "Responsible Parenthood: Scientific, Philosophical and Theological Foundations" in 1983. He said:
The difficulties which the spouses encounter to be faithful to God's law cannot be ignored, and these difficulties have been the subject of your reflections.  It is necessary to do all that is possible to help married couples in an adequate way. Above all, it is necessary to avoid graduating God's law to the measure of the various situations in which the spouses find themselves.  The moral law reveals to us God's plan regarding marriage, the total good of conjugal love; the desire to diminish that plan is a lack of respect towards man's dignity.  The law of God expresses the demands of the truth of the human person: that order of divine Wisdom "which, if we observe in this life, will lead to God and unless we observe it, we will not reach God," as St. Augustine says (De ordine, 1 9,27). In fact, we can ask ourselves if the confusion between the "graduality of the law" and "the law of graduality" does not have its explanation also in a scanty esteem for God's law. The view is held that it is not suitable for every man, for every situation, and so it is desired to replace it with an order different from the divine.
He concluded his discourse with a solemn reminder:
All, married couples included, are called to holiness, and this is a vocation which may even demand heroism. This must not be forgotten.
Despite these clear warnings, this faulty application of the law of graduality was quickly becoming standard pastoral practice in many parts of the West, effectively undermining any efforts to call the faithful to apply the Church's teachings in their lives. God's mercy was being advanced so as to obscure His justice, and the objectivity of moral law was being thrown into question. In response, the Holy Father issued his 1993 encyclical Veritatis splendor, wherein he wrote:
In this context, appropriate allowance is made both for God's mercy towards the sinner who converts and for the understanding of human weakness. Such understanding never means compromising and falsifying the standard of good and evil in order to adapt it to particular circumstances. It is quite human for the sinner to acknowledge his weakness and to ask mercy for his failings; what is unacceptable is the attitude of one who makes his own weakness the criterion of the truth about the good, so that he can feel self-justified, without even the need to have recourse to God and his mercy. An attitude of this sort corrupts the morality of society as a whole, since it encourages doubt about the objectivity of the moral law in general and a rejection of the absoluteness of moral prohibitions regarding specific human acts, and it ends up by confusing all judgments about values. (Veritatis splendor, §104)
It's not as though the Synod Fathers are unaware of Pope St. John Paul II's warnings regarding the faulty application of the notion of graduality in pastoral work. Cardinal Vincent Nichols made a point of recalling the words of the Holy Father, underscoring how easily it can lead to the relativization of the objective moral order. But one has to wonder whether his call will be heeded, for the general approach was already established at the Mother of All Things Pastoral: the Second Vatican Council.

One would have to be blind not to see the clear parallels between these recent revelations regarding the understanding shared by some leading prelates on the subject of marriage and the development of "pastoral ecclesiology" at Vatican II, by which the solemnly defined dogma Extra ecclesiam nulla salus ("No salvation outside the Catholic Church") no longer means what it appears to say and what it was always understood as saying, i.e., that all non-Catholics are in perilous risk of final damnation, but rather that, while the Catholic Church alone possesses the "fullness of the truth", other religions might very well possess "elements of sanctification." In fact, at least one bishop made a direct analogy to this new understanding of ecclesiology when making his own suggestions on how the Church should reconsider its portrayal of "irregular unions." He was paraphrased by Vatican spokesman Fr. Frederico Lombardi as saying, "There is a full and ideal vision of the Christian family, but there are absolutely valid and important elements even of sanctification and of true love that may be present even when one does not fully realize this ideal."

The analogy is quite apt. In fact, one could say that the issue of modern ecclesiology provides something of a case study in the application of graduality which fails to require the removal of inherently disordered and objectively sinful barriers to progress towards sainthood. Thus, given that Vatican II was a raging success in the area of ecclesiology, we can rest assured that doing the same thing to Christian marriage will yield equally successful results. Right?


  1. Clearly articulated - thanks. It's all about language, isn't it? What John Paul II said seems clear, and Bishops today will even tell us they agree with the principles laid down waaaaaay back in the 80's.

    They then proceed to change the meaning of words to suit their purposes. This causes quite a strange Twilight Zone dissonance in a thinking Catholic.

    How clever that the only thoughts coming from this Synod are those Lombardi thinks we need to hear! This is diabolic.

  2. Dear Barbara,

    A very common image used in former times to describe the relationship between the truth as taught by the Catholic Church and the teachings of heretical sects is that of food laced with poison. It might look good. It might smell good. It might even taste good. But the fact that it contains even a drop of poison spoils the whole pot. So it is with the Eastern schismatics, the Protestants, the Jews, the Muslims and all the rest. Sure, they might get some of it right. After all, every effective lie contains at least some truth. But the drops of poison - and in some cases, there's more poison than soup - render everything deadly to the life of God within the soul.

    If the above analogy is accurate - and every thinking Catholic knows that it is - then the application of the pastoral "law of graduality" to this situation - which is exactly what happened at Vatican II - is madness. That's why the Council Fathers rejected the analogy entirely, replacing it with an image of "concentric circles," with the Catholic Church at the center and the various heretical sects arranged around it, their physical proximity reflecting their doctrinal proximity to the Magisterium.

    Not only did this have the effect of eliminating the clear and necessary distinction between Catholicism and everything else, but it also minimized the errors of the heretics, which, in turn, destroyed the work of two millennia in maintaining the purity of Catholic doctrine.

    Now, prelates are seriously discussing doing precisely the same thing to marriage. Christian Marriage as it has always been understood is to be placed at the center of a series of concentric circles, with the divorced, the remarried, adulterers, those living in concubinage, polygamists, fornicators, sodomites, etc. taking up positions relative to true marriage depending upon how many "elements of sanctification" are present in their sinful unions, i.e. whether it is monogamous, stable, fruitful, etc. This will, with relative certainty, be one of the fruits of this Synod.

    Just as with ecclesiology, this will have the effect of eliminating the distinction between true marriage and every other form of cohabitation, as well as minimizing the sinfulness of those in irregular unions, which will, in turn, destroy 2,000 years of clear and forceful teaching on the purity of Christian marriage.

    The next real issue then becomes where to draw the line for the reception of Holy Communion. Just as the Church has not (yet) officially allowed Catholics and Protestants to celebrate the Mass together - though I know for a fact that this effectively takes place in many parts of the western world - the Church will also not officially allow the divorced and remarried, or those in sodomite unions, to receive Holy Communion - though we can be certain that it will begin to take place on a massive scale.


  3. Thanks for that clear message. I think back to the times when John Paul II, and Benedict XVI actually did pull back from the brink, and would issue actual truth in teaching. They were given little glimpses of what would happen on 'their watch.'

    This would be an example of The Holy Ghost protecting us from error.

    I'm also reminded of the words of both of these VII Popes saying, with apparent amazement that there was a general apostasy in the Church - well, duh! I believe all the post-VII Popes really thought the Church would be filled with flag waving, deeply Jesus-loving, families on fire with 'The Faith.' These Popes were faced with the sad reality - the rotten fruits of 200 years of humanism and modernism. We must pity, and pray for, them and all who have been influenced by them.

  4. Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI all seemed thoroughly unable to reconcile what they were convinced was the victory of Vatican II with what they were unable to deny was the mass apostasy from the Faith which came in its wake. But at least they all had the decency to openly admit the latter. Now, the mantra coming out of the Vatican is that "Things have never been better." If the overwhelming majority of Catholics in the West reject Church teaching and you're saying, "Crisis? What crisis?", then either a) you're completely blind, or b) you approve of the rejection of those teachings. We have in Francis the first pope to embrace heretics and schismatics as "walking together with the Church towards Christ," and in this Synod the first convened with the implicit intent of finding a way to practically circumvent official Church teaching. One has to wonder how long the good and holy Cardinals - surely there are still some at the Vatican - can tolerate this kind of chicanery.


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