Reporters have written about the emergence of "graduality" in synodal conversations this week.

As Cardinal Vincent Nichols defined it, graduality is "a law of pastoral moral theology which permits and encourages take one step at a time in our search for holiness."

John Allen elaborates"Just because someone’s current situation falls short of perfection doesn’t mean it has no moral value, and it’s often better to encourage the positive elements in someone’s life rather than to chastise their flaws."

This is not an institutional principle having to do with gradual doctrinal change, but an anthropological principle. It imagines the human person not as an ethical test-taker, getting some questions right and others wrong, but as a pilgrim, journeying through peaks and valleys toward goodness.

This vision has something in common with virtue ethics, a line of thinking that looks beyond specific acts at those habits or dispositions that incline us toward our ultimate moral goal. It is an approach with deep roots in the Catholic tradition.

Jesus himself preferred the Beatitudes -- a set of open-ended virtues -- to lists of negative commands. The Patristic authors spoke of human existence as a divine pedagogy, a gradual learning of the ways of God, and of the life of grace as a long exodus from slavery into progressively greater freedom.

Aquinas's concept of natural law has been hijacked by neoscholastics who believe it refers to a list of forbidden behaviors, but actually what Aquinas meant by that phrase was that all living beings have a natural and dynamic tendency toward the good (which must be interpreted in specific circumstances once we "descend into detail").

The emphasis on open-ended growth in virtue has appeared in papal teaching before. For instance, John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis Splendor cited the young rich man who upholds the commandments but is called still further by Jesus. The encyclical used that parable to illustrate a few basic principles of virtue ethics. Morality has a "lower limit," prohibitions that must never be broken, but not a "higher limit"; we can always become more virtuous. Thus the ultimate vocation of moral theology is not law enforcement but the exhortation to sainthood.

The significance of today's talk of graduality, however, lies in the acknowledgment that even the lower limit of morality is sometimes a high bar to vault over. Helping people to grow rather than obsessing over the minimal requirements for Communion is a pastoral approach consonant with Francis's emphasis on mercy. The synod doesn't need to liberalize everything in order for this to be significant, already.

I am reminded of Christopher Dawson's distinction between two ethical temperaments: the "erotic," which he associates with Catholicism, and the "bourgeois," which he associates with liberal Protestantism. The Catholic approach sets a high bar for moral behavior (it is "erotic" in the sense of an unslacking tension toward fulfillment) but prescribes mercy when we, inevitably, fall short.

The bourgeois approach sets the bar lower, yet therefore becomes less forgiving when people do not live up to it. (We all know people who go on and on about tolerance, yet couldn't be harsher toward those who don't fit their idea of a model citizen!)

The problem is that sometimes the Catholic instinct gets corrupted: we set the bar high without exercising its correlative mercy. A gradualist approach may restore balance.

On the one hand, the bar must be set high. God is far more than a cosmic police officer, but we shouldn't become presumptuous about God's laxity. Moral laziness is a real risk, perhaps not so much because it angers God as because abandoning the quest for self-transcendence ultimately leaves us unsatisfied with ourselves.

On the other hand, life is very hard. Suffering and death are everywhere. Meaninglessness threatens everything. For many of us, it is harder to love ourselves than to love others. Moral theologians, rather than adding exaggerated ethical demands, ahistorical value judgments, and joyless renunciations to the already laborious task of living, must help us to shoulder these burdens, and this requires a pastoral approach consonant with the nature of the God they are trying to help us find: one of mercy.

Graduality, then, is a remedy to two different yet equally stultifying spiritual threats: the stagnation of libertinism, and the suffocation of legalism.

The challenge for a less act-centered morality is that it will remind many wary people of that great Catholic bogeyman, "relativism." In fact, there is a significant difference between subjectivism, the idea that I am the primary source of moral authority, and relativism, which locates moral authority outside the self -- not in an unvarying set of rules written, as it were, in the sky, and which I can default to without doing the hard work of discernment, but in a God who is precisely relational and whose Spirit moves like the wind.

Pope Benedict XVI said as much in Deus Caritas Est: God is not a "lofty idea" but a person who "gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction," a person who exerts a gravitational force of love.

Graduality is an approach that helps us to follow, slowly but surely, this patient pull of love, wherever it happens to seize us.



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