Synod's promotion of 'gradualism' does little for several fundamental human rights issues

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

by Heidi Schlumpf

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I don't think anyone would accuse Malala Yousafzai of being a "gradualist." Nor would Kailash Satyarthi embrace that description. Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who became an advocate for children's education after surviving an attack by the Taliban, and Satyarthi, an Indian activist working against child labor, were not honored by the Nobel Peace Prize committee for taking small steps.

We've heard a lot about "gradualism" from the synod on the family. A term that comes from Catholic moral theology, it refers to people's movement toward the attainment of a moral good. Gradualism calls for recognizing that someone who is struggling with sin has moved toward the good and praising that movement.

It has become controversial because some bishops are applying gradualism to issues being discussed at the synod of the family. What's important to note is that the notion of what is the moral good does not change, only the attitude toward the person striving -- albeit somewhat imperfectly -- toward it.

So lifelong, sacramental marriage is still the moral good, but perhaps the way the church deals with people whose marriages who do not last forever may change. Homosexuality is still "intrinsically disordered," but perhaps we'll downplay that word and instead talk about the contributions of LGBT folks.

It's hard to believe that traditionalist Catholics are upset about what is merely a more pastoral outreach to "sinners," but the concern is that these pastoral moves would weaken the moral teaching. I have to at least admire their passion for what they believe is right.

I'm a little less impressed with progressive Catholics, some of whom seem to be reading a revolution in every little baby step. Perhaps they are correct, and we are seeing the beginning of real change in the church. But clearly we are not there yet.

The Catholic church still needs to move on several fundamental human rights issues, including the full participation of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in church and society. Those of us who are working and waiting for these changes are not going to be jumping up and down with glee over moderate pastoral suggestions that, quite frankly, should have been implemented years ago.

What if we applied gradualism to the attainment of those issues? Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the full human rights of women is a moral good. Gradualism would say that those who cannot accept the full human rights of women should be praised for their small steps toward that moral good.

So rather than admonish the church for preventing women from answering their call to priesthood, we could praise the church for no longer considering us defective human beings. Or for allowing us to become altar servers -- in most dioceses, at least.

Or in the case of the full human rights of LGBT Catholics -- again, for the sake of argument, a moral good -- the church would be the "sinner" for not accepting this. A gradualist would praise the desire by some in leadership to at least downplay hurtful language about LGBT people, even if the church continues to keep on its books language that says that they, too, are defective human beings.

However helpful gradualism may be in pastoral practice, it becomes clear that it is not appropriate in the important work of human rights advocacy.

Malala Yousafzai did not win the Nobel Peace Prize for praising any lessening of the Taliban's violence against girls trying to pursue an education. Instead, she calls for the human right of every child to be educated.

Kailash Satyarthi did not win the Nobel Peace Prize for working to improve conditions for child laborers. Instead, he calls for the complete eradication of child labor.

I know systemic change comes slowly, and the church is a large, ancient boat that cannot turn on a dime. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

When Catholic commentators (who are, more often than not, not members of these oppressed groups) call gradualist changes -- ones that do not address underlying human rights abuses -- an "earthquake" and imply that larger change is happening, it is not only inaccurate but painful for those still suffering from the church's failure to accept their full human rights. It borders on sadistic to expect victims of these abuses (and calling someone intrinsically disordered is abusive) to get excited because the church, while still maintaining the teaching, is finally allowing some discussion of the issue.

Pope Francis was allegedly in the running for this year's Nobel Peace Prize for his prophetic stance on poverty and peace. On those issues, he is clear in calling for the attainment of the moral good -- the whole moral good. Those working for the full human rights of women and LGBT people should do no less.

[Heidi Schlumpf teaches communication at Aurora University outside Chicago. She is the author of While We Wait: Spiritual and Practice Advice for Those Trying to Adopt (ACTA).]

A version of this story appeared in the Nov 7-20, 2014 print issue under the headline: Don't read a revolution in every baby step.

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