A principle used in Catholic moral and pastoral theology of which many Catholics have never even heard of, the “law of gradualness,” has gone viral this week emanating from the Synod on the Family. The law is a principle by which people should be heartened to grow closer to God and his plan for us gradually, rather than hoping to go from an initial conversion to holiness in a single step. We see this in Sacred Scripture in 1 Cor. 3:1-3, 2 Cor. 10:6, and Heb. 5:12-14. Has the idea of the law of gradualness been abused? Looking at its invocation of late, one sees that it is prone to abuse. For example, at the Synod of Bishops on the Family in 1980, bishops called for an interpretation of this law that would permit contracepting married couples to receive absolution and Holy Communion on condition of a firm purpose to gradually stop contracepting. St. John Paul II’s rejected it in his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, rejected this proposal:
[Married people] 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.
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 Humanae 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 [No.34].
At the present Synod in its Relatio post disceptationem (summary what various bishops proposed in discussions) some Bishops seem to be proposing that Catholics who have divorced and entered a subsequent, civil marriage (while the previous spouse is still alive and without an annulment and convalidation) should in some cases be allowed to receive absolution and holy Communion if they intend gradually to bring their situation in line with God’s law.
A closer reading of Familiaris Consortio is needed by those who are on record as holding the aforementioned interpretation of the law. It appears more to reflect the “gradualness of law” that JPII warned against, according to which a decisive break with sin is not obligatory before receiving absolution and Holy Communion, and in which a different standard of what constitutes sin would be applied to some than is applied to others. Other bishops opposed this—but, as it is not a magisterial document, it does nothing to change Church teaching. The fathers will produce a document at the end of the present Synod, which will be discussed in the approaching year. The discussion will then be repeated at the approaching Synod of Bishops on the Family in 2015; Francis will then decide what is to be done with the Synod’s recommendations.