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Standing 'gradualism' on its head

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 03, 2014

Father Frank Brennan, an Australian Jesuit who is currently teaching at Boston College Law School, is disappointed with the final document from the Synod. He was hoping for more dramatic changes. So he writes:

For the moment, I would not see much pastoral point in sharing this document with the many young people I know who are living together, or with those who are gay or lesbian seeking a homecoming in the Church, or with those who have endured the pain of divorce and the moral angst of remarriage. I think I will be telling them to keep the door open, wait a while, and check back in a year to see how we are doing.

During the Synod the proponents of change touted the benefits of “gradualism,” a pastoral approach that would encourage people in sinful situations to move incrementally toward virtue. Pastors must meet people where they are, said the liberal prelates; as long as they are making progress toward the Christian ideal, that’s good enough. This interpretation of “gradualism” conflicted with the thought of St. John Paul II, who wrote in Familiaris Consortio (34):

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.

Father Brennan, however, has taken the concept of “gradualism” in an entirely different direction. He does not even pretend to expect that his young gay and lesbian friends will move slowly toward a Christian understanding of human sexuality. He wants the Church to move toward their understanding. He doesn’t ask the Church to keep her doors open to couples who are living together without benefit of marriage; he asks those couples to leave their doors open, and “see how we are doing” sometime in the future.

During the coming year, as the universal Church gears up for the next Synod meeting, respectable Catholic liberals will insist that they are not advocating any change in doctrine. All they want, they will assure us, is to make it easier for wayward individuals to discover their path toward a life of virtue. Father Brennan notifies us that some more ambitious “progressive” Catholics will be pushing for a good deal more. They won’t be content to say that Christians should not sit in judgment upon homosexuals and unmarried couples; they want those couples to sit in judgment upon the Church.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: steve.grist2587 - Feb. 23, 2017 5:49 AM ET USA

    Through the centuries, one of the great beauties of our Church has been clarity of thought. Clarity is beautiful, in part, because it is a great kindness, especially in a world that embraces confusion. After so many perplexing remarks and pronouncements, it appears our Church also values confusion. Accordingly, a great call to prayer for our Pope is appropriate and necessary. (We were spoiled because Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict both spoke with great clarity).

  • Posted by: feedback - Feb. 22, 2017 7:08 PM ET USA

    In a three-card Monte trick, no one can spot the right card except for the few insiders. Church documents must be clear as daylight to everyone.

  • Posted by: - Nov. 12, 2014 8:05 PM ET USA

    I like the distinctions and even the permutations made here. A few decades back there were was a furor over "the theology of compromise" and it seems to resonate here. As I recall, this idea accepted the person "where they were at," yet left them there s helpless to do otherwise. "Gradualness" is a neologism for the process of conversion which begins where one "is at" yet encourages and advises one to progress "gradually" (as we all do) in holiness.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 03, 2014 3:32 PM ET USA

    These are dangerous times. In dangerous times it's with great ease that contentiousness rears its ugly head. However, the Church is nothing if she is not a beacon in times of distress. We might be as docile as the meekest lambs, but the Church and her prelates are called to something greater- something transcendant. Burke, Pell and others are no malcontents. They are shepherds of a remarkably susceptible flock. It's really all about the souls. The last sentence is direct and to the point.

  • Posted by: Vincit omnia amor - Nov. 03, 2014 3:02 PM ET USA

    beautiful summary! "They won’t be content to say that Christians should not sit in judgment upon homosexuals and unmarried couples; they want those couples to sit in judgment upon the Church." And so we keep praying, and fighting.