Law of graduality: living with the imperfect

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

by Thomas Reese

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During the Synod of Bishops on the family, the bishops in Rome struggled to find a way that the church could be a loving mother while still being a clear teacher -- something all parents can relate to. If when the kids come home for Thanksgiving, they are met by a nagging parent, they will not return for Christmas.

No child wants to be greeted at the door with questions like, "Is that a nose ring?" "You got a tattoo?" "Who are you sleeping with now?" "When are you getting married?" or "When am I going to get a grandchild?" No, what they want when they come home for Thanksgiving is a hug, a welcome. "I am so happy you are here!" "I love you!"

The bishops realized that a very large percentage of the faithful are either in "irregular" unions (cohabitation, divorced and remarried, gay relationships) and/or are practicing birth control. How to pastorally deal with these people was one of the central questions at the synod.

The bishops made clear that they were not going to change church teaching on these matters, but they realized that threatening hellfire and brimstones was not working. In fact, it was driving people away from the church. Numerous bishops admitted that terms like "living in sin," "intrinsically disordered" and "contraceptive mentality" were alienating.

On the other hand, overemphasizing the loving mother, they feared, would give the impression that these were minor issues that could be ignored. People would conclude that all sexual unions are equal, and there is no reason to be married in the church.

One solution to this quandary was the "law of graduality," proposed by some bishops. For many bishops, this was a whole new concept, even though it had been around for a while. In A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century, Jesuit Fr. James Keenan reports that after Humanae Vitae, confessors were hearing from penitents who accepted the encyclical's teaching but strove unsuccessfully to observe it.

These people were confessing, with great frequency, but still asking: were they sinners each and every time they practiced birth control, even though they tried to adhere to the church's teaching without excuse? In particular, they wanted to know were they to absent themselves from Communion, even though it could help them grow in the moral life?

In response to these queries, confessors recommended the practice known as the law of graduality.

"Through this law," Keenan writes, "confessors encouraged the laity to understand that gradually they would make the law a reality in their lives and that in the meantime the sacraments could accompany them along the journey."

Keenan notes that Pope John Paul II referred to the law of graduality favorably in Familiaris Consortio (1981), although he differentiated it from "the gradualization of the law, that is, moderating the universality and/or force of the law itself." The law is clearly expressed, but "it was for the laity to gradually adhere to it," Keenan explains.

This was not a left-wing, liberal idea, as can been seen by its support from John Paul, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, and Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, whom Keenan cites. Tettamanzi even extended the idea to homosexual persons.

The law of graduality was a pastoral response to concrete people, not a softening of the law. "Pope John Paul and Tettamanzi had argued that using birth control was always in itself wrong," Keenan writes, "and that failure to acknowledge the truth of the teaching would 'gradualize', that is, 'relativize', the church's law."

Not all moral theologians saw this solution as a convincing remedy. Keenan cites Jesuit Fr. Josef Fuchs, who argued that "if the demands of the couple's marriage meant that they 'had' to practice birth control, then the morally right act would be to use birth control." For Fuchs, there was no need for them to go to confession in the first place.

Still, the law of graduality is not as huge a change as progressives hope or as conservatives fear. There is no change in teaching, but in how individuals are pastorally cared for. But many, if not most, of the bishops at the synod were unfamiliar with the law of graduality, and they knew if they were confused, then so would be their priests and people. As a result, reference to the law was dropped from the final document. Don't be surprised if the same idea returns next October and gets a better reception.

Where the law of graduality becomes pastorally critical is on the question of Communion. The traditional approach has been to say that people practicing birth control or in irregular unions are in mortal sin and destined for hell. As a result, they cannot receive Communion.

Rather than seeing sins as going into two boxes (mortal and venial), most moralists would see actions on a continuum of lesser to greater evil. In addition, a person might be imperfect in one area of his or her life and better in other areas. Thus, a divorced and remarried couple might be exemplary in their faithfulness to one another, their care for their children, and their contribution to the community.

Under these circumstances, could not a confessor tell a person in a less-than-perfect relationship that they may go to Communion as long as they are struggling to live the best possible life that they can? As Pope Francis has said, Communion is not a reward for the perfect, but medicine for the sick.

At the end of the synod, Pope Francis reported that zealous traditionalists were tempted to "hostile inflexibility," while progressive do-gooders were tempted to treat symptoms rather than causes. Finding the happy middle ground of compassion and truth is what the bishops will be looking for between now and next October.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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