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Msgr. Charles Pope Msgr. Charles Pope

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Pondering ‘gradualism’ and the controversial Synod ‘midterm’ report

Msgr. Charles Pope Msgr. Charles Pope

The so-called “midterm” report of the Synod is out. Please remember, it is only a rough draft and the final report may in fact look very different. Frankly, I am not sure why we are even being permitted to look at a rough draft. Nevertheless, presuming the Pope is serious about inviting discussion, let me consider a certain aspect of the report and a few particulars.

A governing principle that seems to permeate the report’s reflections is one that some refer to as “gradualism.” As a pastoral strategy, gradualism can be an effective, even necessary approach in order to lead people more deeply into the moral and spiritual life of the Church. However, as with any pastoral strategy, there are serious concerns and pitfalls to avoid.

What is gradualism? While I myself have never personally called it this, gradualism is a way in which we meet people where they are and seek gradually to draw them more deeply into the true life of a Christian. All of us who have journeyed toward Christ realize that we have not always been where we are today, and that future growth is necessary. Growth usually happens in stages and by degrees, ideally leading us more deeply to Christ.  

Perhaps an analogy involving a doctor and patient may help. Suppose a doctor meets a man in his late 50s who presents with a large number of health issues. There are many things wrong with the man (obesity, hypertension, diabetic tendencies, pulmonary and cardiac issues, etc.). Many aspects of the man’s lifestyle (drinking and eating to excess, poor diet, smoking, lack of exercise, etc.) may be contributing to this deterioration in his health. Seldom does a doctor give a patient a list of 25 things to do immediately. Such a “prescription” might leave the patient discouraged and unlikely to comply. So most doctors choose to chip away at the problem. What are some small changes that the patient can reasonably make in the next month? Perhaps it is beginning to take short walks, or making small changes in his diet.  And thus the doctor begins with what he thinks is reasonable and achievable right away, and then gradually draws the patient to a more healthy lifestyle and better health. Small changes can eventually lead to a lot of progress.

In the pastoral ministry, similar strategies are often employed and they sometimes make good sense. People who show up at the front door of the rectory (or at our RCIA or marriage preparation programs) often present in a state of extensive spiritual disrepair. Many unhealthy and sinful moral issues or spiritually irregular practices are evident. Many have also been influenced by modern errors and misinformation. In many cases, the best place for a priest to begin is with a conversation, laying a foundation of trust that will assist the person in being conformed once again to the truth of the Gospel. During these conversations, the priest can clarify doubts and errors, display careful reasoning based on Scripture, and explain why we teach certain things. This approach can inspire repentance from sinful habits or patterns.

Priests and other pastoral leaders engage in this process frequently even if we don’t use the term “gradualism.” Not everyone is ready to go right into the confessional. Most people must be carefully prepared and led back to the truth. It is obviously a process that will vary considerably from person to person depending on his or her needs.

However, as with any pastoral strategy, there are pitfalls that must be avoided. Here are a few concerns that the practice of so-called gradualism might raise:

1. Gradualism works best when the one who administers it remains committed to seeing the whole process through and is not simply trying to evade the difficult work of restoring people. Again, for example, the doctor who begins in small ways to help a person to better health must remain deeply aware of how serious things like heart disease, pulmonary disease, etc. are. Well-trained doctors must have a proper sense of urgency for the overall goal of actually restoring health. Today in the Church, however, it is not certain that a similar urgency is evident among the laity, the rank and file clergy, and I would suppose even some bishops.

However, the prevalence of “universalism” (the unbiblical view that all are saved in the end no matter what) in the Church has led to a profound lack of urgency. Very few in pastoral leadership today have a strong sense of concern about the fact that so many people are confused, are in darkness, and are living in serious, unrepentant sin. In the midst of a great moral crisis, many pulpits remain strangely silent and most parishes seem more focused on the next chicken dinner or the upcoming fundraiser than about how to reach out to those who live in darkness.

It is very troubling, akin to a doctor suddenly saying, “Well, heart disease, cancer, etc. are not really big deals, so in the end it doesn’t really matter whether we do anything or not.” And yet for many in the Church this is exactly the way they speak, at least implicitly. Apparently, for many, it is no big deal that people are living in great moral confusion, or that many are not coming to Mass, receiving sacraments, or explicitly confessing Christ, or that many are fornicating, divorcing, and engaging in or celebrating homosexual acts. If, as universalism implies, everyone will be saved in the end, who really cares all that much that people do these things?

This widely held pastoral stance has left many in  the Church without an appropriate sense of urgency to reach out to people who may in fact be lost.

In such a climate, gradualism is not likely to work well since there is no necessary goal to which we must urgently summon those to whom we minister.  In such a climate of little urgency, the emphasis is more on how people might feel. And even if gradualism is attempted, at some point, even in gradualism, there are difficult things that have to be said and unpopular truths that must be announced. Without that urgency to drive it, it’s hard to imagine a “gradualist” approach really moving the ball much.

Only if the priest or pastoral leader is deeply committed to the truth and is aware of the urgent need for people to live that truth, can gradualism bear the necessary fruit. Do such leaders exist? Yes, but how numerous they are is debatable in the Church today, so infected is it by universalism.

2. Gradualism as a strategy is poorly attested to in Scripture, where an urgent call to conversion and repentance is more the norm. The biblical evidence paints a picture of prophetic urgency and a strategy that strongly, even sternly asserts a clear contrast with the sinful world. The call to come away from worldly thinking is unambiguous and is to be done singularly and without lots of careful steps laid out.

For example, Jesus says, If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent me (John 15:18-21). And Paul admonishes,  Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:2).

Some will argue that Both Jesus and St. Paul were dealing with a small window of time and thus had to work urgently and in this manner. Fine. But Scripture cannot be wholly set aside as a model for evangelization. And even though our culture may prefer the “kinder, gentler” approach, and gradualism has its place, it must be balanced with other pastoral strategies that emphasize contrast and urgency.

3. Gradualism is a personal pastoral strategy, not a global strategy. That is to say, it is directed to a specific person. The skilled pastor will have to adapt such a strategy to the specific needs of different people. Gradualism is a very complicated thing to try to pull off toward a group.

On any given Sunday, a pastor looks out upon a congregation filled with people at all different stages of spiritual and moral growth. He cannot possibly have a homily perfectly crafted to draw every one of them in stages, gradually closer to the truth. He will have to speak generally, but also very clearly, to the issues.

St. John Vianney was reputed to have remarked that a pastor should be tough in the pulpit and more gentle in the confessional. This illustrates to some degree the problem with gradualism applied to a large, diverse group such as a typical Catholic congregation. It works better as a personal strategy wherein a confessor or pastor can help a person work on particular areas in order to lay the ground for other areas. But this is very personal and varies widely from person to person. 

And this leads to the next point.

4. The cultural climate also presents challenges for the widespread use of gradualism. Generally, in these days of rapid cultural collapse and deep cynicism about biblical morality, a silent, quiet, or highly gentle approach is likely to be regarded as evidence of implicit agreement. Many today will say, “See, I went to this parish or that confessor and no one said anything to me about what I’m doing; no one seems concerned. So I guess it’s all right.” Thus, gentleness is confused with approval.

The Synod “midterm,” as published, contains a lot of ambiguous language about being “welcoming” and finding what is beautiful in non-traditional expressions of family and sexuality. OK, I get it; even a broken clock is right twice a day. And in certain personal settings, we can sit down with people and find areas of agreement. But when “gradualist” notions are issued to a wide, unbelieving, skeptical world such broad notions are subject to a thousand interpretations and may signal to some that the Church has “moved” in her doctrinal stance. Gradualism must be more carefully articulated. Signaling this approach without proper distinctions clouds more than it clarifies; it blurs the Church and her teaching.

Thus, when the document speaks about homosexuals and being open to the gifts they bring, to whom is it really referring? To those homosexuals who are living celibately? Or to those openly living in unions and engaging in activity that the Catechism calls gravely disordered and sinful? One can surely see that celibate homosexuals heroically living chastely in a world gone mad would indeed have the gift of heroic witness to offer, among other gifts. I am less certain that whatever gifts an openly practicing homosexual would bring would not be eclipsed by the scandal and confusion caused by that open practice.

When the document speaks of “accepting the reality of civil marriage and also cohabitation …”  and goes on to state rather generally that many such “unions” have “reached a notable level of stability through a public bond … characterized by deep affection, responsibility with regard to offspring …” one wonders what “gradualism” is necessary for seemingly so lovely a thing. It sounds like the Synod is equivocating between true marriage and the endless arrangements of the world that clearly vary from God’s plan.

One can see a pastor working quietly with a cohabiting couple and encouraging them to validate their union, even telling them that their relationship appears beautiful and strong and that the Church’s blessing will make it even better. But for a Roman document to use such broad and affirming language to an unspecified audience is to invite the notion that affection equals approval.

Our modern culture is not usually going to understand these “outreaches” as an invitation to come to Christ, but rather as a capitulation by the Church to the status quo. The subtle approach of gradualism does not translate well to a culture that takes a mile when the Church offers an inch.

The better approach is that reputed of St. John Vianney: the Church should be clear in the pulpit and work quietly and in stages with people who struggle to meet the norms (and that is all of us, really). Let the norms and teachings of the Church be clear. Let local pastors and clergy work carefully within guidelines to clear obstacles, apply canonical remedies, and draw people (gradually) through preaching and teaching to a deeper adherence to the true and clear teaching of Christ and His Church.

Gradualism has its place: as a local and very personalized strategy under the direction of Church norms. I do not think it is viable as a worldwide pastoral strategy, one which will surely be misunderstood and likely misapplied.

Reprinted with permission from the Archdiocese of Washington

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