Grace under fire: How a false gradualism undermines resistance to temptation

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 19, 2017

There has been much talk of “gradualism” over the past generation or two, and most of it has been rather foolish. Whenever the term is used to describe the normal process by which a person grows in spiritual understanding, in the love of God, and in virtue, gradualism is a descriptive term which essentially states the obvious. Good spiritual counselors will take careful note of a person’s spiritual maturity, and tailor their advice so it is suitable to that person’s understanding and commitment, seeking to prompt growth without breaking the bruised reed or quenching the smoldering wick (Is 42:3).

But insofar as the term is used to suggest that virtue consists in doing “the best we can” even though we neither recognize nor accept the “ideal” way of life proposed in the Gospel, gradualism distorts the will of God and undermines spiritual progress. This abuse of the term has been particularly notable in considering the spiritual health of those in irregular marriages. As Pope St. John Paul II put it in his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio:

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.” [Familiaris Consortio, #34]

Pope Francis also touched on this theme in his own apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. A growing number of pastoral approaches to those in irregular marriages have obscured the necessary distinctions, tending toward precisely the gradualism of the law against which Pope John Paul II warned. At times Pope Francis himself has seemed to approve such abuses. In the actual text, however, Pope Francis did reiterate what his predecessor had said:

What we are speaking of is a process of accompaniment and discernment which “guides the faithful to an awareness of their situation before God. Conversation with the priest, in the internal forum, contributes to the formation of a correct judgment on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the Church and on what steps can foster it and make it grow. Given that gradualness is not in the law itself (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 34), this discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church. For this discernment to happen, the following conditions must necessarily be present: humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it.” [Amoris Laetitia, #300]

The controversy surrounding Amoris Laetitia hinges on whether Pope Francis succeeded in articulating forms of pastoral accompaniment which do not slip into the proscribed gradualism of the law. At the heart of the conflict is the widespread perception that admission to Communion, for those who remain in irregular marriages without living as brother and sister, is tantamount to embracing gradualism of the law. This problem arises precisely because it undermines or denies Pope St. John Paul II’s point, quoted above, that “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.”

In other words, if progress in holiness can occur only when the person “is able to respond to God’s command with serene confidence in God’s grace”, then the failure to commit oneself to living in accordance with God’s command is a refusal to undertake the necessary progress. Admission to Communion would suggest, therefore, that this refusal is recognized as morally good (even if not ideal) because “it is the best the person can do”. If that is the reasoning, then we have entered once again into gradualism of the law, through the back door.

An examination of temptation

I believe it will be helpful at this point to consider the Catholic understanding of temptation. The line of reasoning I just mentioned could be sound only under one of two possible conditions: Either temptation is not morally significant, or God does not necessarily make available to those who are tempted the grace necessary to resist and ultimately overcome that temptation.

Since temptation is, by its very definition, an invitation to sin, reason indicates that it is self-evidently morally significant. If we turn to Scripture, we will realize not only that it is morally significant according to reason, but that Our Lord has directly revealed it to be of very great moral significance indeed.

This is evident throughout the gospels. “Woe to the world for temptations to sin!” says Our Lord and Savior. “For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes” (Mt 18:7, cf. Lk 17:1). In His own agony of temptation, Our Lord also demonstrated the proper response to temptation: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Mt 26:39; cf. Mk 14:36). He cautioned his followers very strongly on this point: “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt 26:40-41; cf. Mk 14:37-38).

In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul lists the instances in the Old Testament in which God punished the unfaithful even among His chosen people. Consider the lesson he draws for Christians:

We must not indulge in immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put the Lord to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents; nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the age has come. Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. [1 Cor 10:8-12]

Finally, in the letter to the Hebrews, the writer refers to the judgment of the Holy Spirit: “Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion…. I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their hearts; they have not known my ways.’ As I swore in my wrath, they shall never enter my rest.” The sacred author concludes: “Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (Heb 3:12).

The availability of God’s help

So much, then, for the moral seriousness of temptation. Now, what of the suggestion that God does not always help those who are tempted? If this is true, then the argument in favor of “the best we can do” would carry considerable weight. But if it is false, then the sinner cannot be commended for the virtue of doing his best if he is still embroiled in the same sin—as if he has done something good even though it falls short of the “ideal”. If temptation is spiritually significant and God always offers the help we need to overcome it, then gradualism of the law is ruled out absolutely.

In fact, the willingness of God to provide all the necessary help is a constant theme in the New Testament. Our Lord even taught us to ask the Father to “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil”. As He explained, we can always rely on God’s grace:

And I tell you, Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! [Lk 11:9-13; cf. Mt 7:7-11]

St. Paul teaches us very specifically that “no temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13). A strong theme in both St. Paul’s letters and the Letter to the Hebrews is Our Lord’s ability to understand human temptation and weakness and to help us in our need: “For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted” (Heb 2:18). Clearly we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with us. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace,” the sacred author concludes, “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16).

Gradualism of the law depends on a denial either of God’s power or of His love, for it assumes it is not our fault if we fail to stop sinning, and so anything positive within this sinful situation renders it good in its own right, even if it is short of the ideal. The argument is always some form of “we can only do so much on our own”, without recognizing that we are “on our own” only through our own decision to exclude God. This assessment is really just another temptation. We will see this very clearly if we permit St. James to have the last word:

Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. [Jas 1:12-16]

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Leopardi - Jan. 23, 2017 1:07 AM ET USA

    Jeff: Four of your first five paragraphs discuss in detail issues that are central to the problem of divorce and remarriage (with extensive quotes and references) before delving into "gradualism of the law". One could be forgiven for thinking that the former was simply an important example of the latter. No?

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jan. 22, 2017 9:40 AM ET USA

    Leopardi: I'm confused by your comment. This essay is not about divorce and remarriage; it is about the falsity of gradualism when it is applied to moral norms, that is, "gradualism of the law".

  • Posted by: Leopardi - Jan. 21, 2017 9:38 AM ET USA

    This analysis is more pedantry than it is illumination. You can do better. Divorce and remarriage arises from many, varied circumstances and are the result of various and often complex motives. These motives must be held as supremely relevant as is the condition of the current relationship which you glibly describe as 'without living as brother and sister'. Your brush is far too wide to paint this picture with any relevance.