Graduality at the Synod

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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All of us in the Church commentary biz are, understandably, transfixed by the Relatio that came out Monday and by some of the reactions to it. In a frenzied state, sometimes it is easiest to miss what is actually the most important, to overlook the obvious. In this case, the text’s statements about graduality or gradualness seem to be the key hermeneutic for the entire text, arguably for the entire papacy.

It is easy to miss because, at one level, it is so obvious. The self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ does not happen all at once, but in fits and starts. St. Peter, at whose tomb the synod fathers are gathered and whose successor leads the meetings, is portrayed in the Scripture as capable of deep, penetrating understandings and, the very next minute, totally misunderstanding the significance of the Master and His life. The Hebrew Scriptures are a long, slow, revelation of God’s love and mercy to His chosen people Israel, who follow the call of the covenant at one moment, then make a golden calf the next, follow Moses out of Egypt, then complain about being in the wilderness, are banished from Israel and sent into exile, only to be called back.

The law of graduality is also obvious to anyone who has ever been a pastor – or even a good friend. Teenagers ask questions and they will not be satisfied when a parent says merely, “We can’t talk about that” or “That question is out of bounds.” Even as adults, the path of discipleship is a crooked one for all but the saints - and even the saints have their moments of doubt and face the challenge of sin. We muddle along and pray that God will draw straight lines with our crooked humanity. There is nothing unduly lacking in rigor, still less saccharine, about the law of gradualism. It does not mean that our path lacks direction: Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, we begin with Him, His self-revelation is the lens through which we must judge everything in our own lives, and we will, by His grace, return to Him. But, the road has many twists and turns, some detours that might yield an unsought and even previously unknown vista of spectacular beauty, some side paths that turn out to be dead ends, sometimes the road gets narrow and there is only room for one person to pass at a time, and other times the road widens and we get to walk together. In any event, there is no avoiding the road, the path, even if we all know where it leads or accept, as accept we must, on the Church’s testimony, that our path as a Christian starts and ends with the empty tomb of Jesus Christ and the revelatory promise of salvation contained therein.

Similarly, the law of graduality says something about our relationship to the Church’s tradition. There is no denying that Pope Francis’ approach to governance of the universal Church differs from that of his two immediate predecessors. He is a pastor first and last. John Paul II brought his great philosophic sensibilities to the task. Benedict XVI was possessed of great theological vision, arguably the most penetrating post-conciliar theological vision. But, Francis is smart as a whip and he wishes to make all his philosophic and theological inclinations serve the pastoral needs of the Church, most especially the need to evangelize. I spent much of the eight years of the papacy of Benedict XVI trying to point out the beauty of Benedict’s theological vision to my friends on the left. I met with some success and some failure. I am not shy about claiming some measure of moral authority in inviting my conservative friends to do the same with Pope Francis. But, the key point is this: Pope Francis, the Synod Fathers, all of us, stand on the shoulders of giants. Still, we are called to walk.

In his interview with Catholic World Report, Cardinal Raymond Burke said this:

The document lacks a solid foundation in the Sacred Scriptures and the Magisterium. In a matter on which the Church has a very rich and clear teaching, it gives the impression of inventing a totally new, what one Synod Father called “revolutionary,”teaching on marriage and the family. It invokes repeatedly and in a confused manner principles which are not defined, for example, the law of graduality.

I was not present at the blessed event, but I am guessing that when Cardinal Burke was born, he was not clutching a copy of the Code of Canon Law. He, too, experienced the law of graduality he now denounces. He says that the law of graduality is presented in a “confused” manner, that it is not defined. Actually, I think pastors knew exactly what the law of graduality means and did not need it to be precisely defined.

That said, Cardinal Burke has a point. Life is messy and if the Church is to accompany the living, rather than withdraw into the canon law library, it must accompany the people of God – and all people – in all the messiness of our lives. Pope Francis has called for precisely this, time and again, and encouraged us all not to be intimidated by that messiness. A friend, whom I affectionately call “the fons” likes to quote Peguy on Kant: “Kant’s hands were clean because he had no hands.” That is, Kant’s devotion to his categories kept him from the realities of life.

Something similar is at work in the synod hall. The choice is not between truth and falsehood or between zeal and “moderation,” The choice is between categories and people. I am not a theologian but it is my understand that all our theological categories, all our pastoral plans and approaches, all our philosophic insights, exist to achieve the salvation of souls, and in this life, those souls are embodied souls, with often messy lives. We are the people of God and it is the Church’s pastors’ task to protect us, not from ever falling down, because human nature being what it is, we shall always fall down. The protection can come, can only come, by walking alongside humanity as we trip and fall, helping us back up to our feet. If the law of graduality is insufficiently precise for Cardinal Burke it is because human life is insufficiently precise.

A personal note. My life has been messy, very messy at times. Still, today, I am no saint. On the contentious issues of human sexuality, my thoughts betray me and my eyes still rove. Yet, I live my life as a single, chaste Christian as best I can. I did not arrive at this point because I was accompanied by pastors who said, “You are living in sin.” If they had, I would have run in the other direction. I arrived at this point because of pastors who accompanied me, encouraged me and, most importantly, provided an example of a life lived with Christian integrity. I believe the Church’s teachings on human sexuality need development. In some regards, they remain unpersuasive to me. But, the call to integrity caught me like an unseen hook, to borrow a phrase from Waugh, letting me wander to the ends of the earth and still to pull me back with a twitch upon the thread. That thread was the accompaniment of some wonderful, and wonderfully non-judgmental pastors – and, of course, the grace of God. The wanderings were many, the progress was gradual, and it came to me at a ninety degree angle. But, I have never been happier nor felt more liberated, precisely on these issues of human sexuality, than I did when I was not living in accordance with the Church’s teaching. Twenty years ago, I would not have predicted the path I have trod. Maybe even ten years ago, it seemed unlikely although, in retrospect, I can see that the path was moving in this direction. I hope every Christian soul will find that the Church’s teachings truly liberate us from every agenda, political and personal, as I have discovered, somewhat to my surprise. But, Pope Francis is absolutely correct that no one will ever find that sense of liberation apart from the accompaniment, not the hectoring, of the Church and Her pastors.    


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