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The trouble with 'gradualism'

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 15, 2014

Pope Francis has compared the Church to a field hospital, a place where wounded people come to be healed. Let’s apply that very useful metaphor to the relatio post disceptationem, the interim document from the Synod of Bishops, and in particular to that document’s call for “gradualness” in response to irregular situations.

In a field hospital, doctors might advise a wounded patient to resume normal activities only gradually. That would be appropriate medical advice. If he tried too much too soon, he could reopen the wounds and aggravate his condition.

But suppose a patient was hospitalized because of an addiction. Would a responsible doctor suggest that the patient should try taking a bit less heroin each day? Not likely. Addictions feed on themselves, making gradual recovery impossible; the habits must be broken.

So is a homosexual lifestyle, say, more like a wound or an addiction? Until we answer that question we cannot assess the value of “gradualness” as a pastoral approach.

In a field hospital, doctors are candid with their patients. They do not tell a wounded man (nor an addict) that he is healthy; they tell him that he needs treatment. Father D. Vincent Twomey, the noted Irish theologian, has said of the relatio: “There is nothing very courageous about offering ‘pastoral’ recommendations that fail to challenge a world that still bears the scars of the sexual revolution of the 1960s.”

In its passage suggesting “gradualness,” the relatio cites St. John Paul II, who used the term in his apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio [34]. He acknowledged that many people will make gradual progress toward virtue, but he quite clearly indicated that pastors should not shy away from a clear statement of Church teachings:

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.

If “gradualness” means meeting people wherever they are, and opening a conversation that might lead them toward Christ, of course it is a good thing—indeed a pastoral necessity. But the relatio seems to suggest something different: a willingness to tolerate sin, to pretend that a wound is a sign of health.

[Throughout this essay I have used the term “gradualness,” because that is the term used in the relatio and in Familiaris Consortio. In my title I use “gradualism” because it, unlike “gradualness,” is a word found in the English language.]

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: fenton1015153 - Oct. 16, 2014 8:07 PM ET USA

    They say people get the leadership they deserve. We have weak leaders because we are weak in our faith and in practicing it. So now if we get unsound recommendations from our weak leaders it will make it much easier to practice the less demanding faith. Before long we will have amend the list of commandments to 9... or 8... or ...

  • Posted by: Defender - Oct. 16, 2014 11:00 AM ET USA

    No matter what happens to this document, the proverbial cat is out of the bag when it comes to homosexuality and the family. The synod resembles VII is some ways with the attempt by some to ramrod through the synod their own views (irrespective of the Magisterium). Fixing it will do no good because of what was written in the preliminary. If I were the pope, I'd thank the bishops and rip the document up in front of the press and tell them it needs to be redone - in a few years.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Oct. 16, 2014 10:21 AM ET USA

    I am into "reality.." Who would deny that there is NOT a "fifth column" in Rome who are exploiting this Synod as a dark strategic opportunity? Is it merely because "we" are looking upon this distressing situation from the outside that we see the obvious...?; Or is it because the participants, the Cardinals & the Bishops still loyal to the Church & its teachings do not have the courage to denounce and expel rebels?

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Oct. 15, 2014 1:27 PM ET USA

    We all know where this vague talk about gradually doing things will lead: soon all criticism of the sin of sodomy will be verboten in sermons, much as talking about artificial contraception is now. It is impossible to infer from what we have seen that the prelates involved in this effort don't understand that. Alarmingly, among these prelates we muat include first and foremost Pope Francis himself. The disastrous Synod mid-term report did NOT see the light of day without his imprimatur.