Gradualism. In the last week it has been sweeping through Catholic circles quicker than Ebola through the USA. Rebirthed during the Synod of the Family graduality has been like a hot knife through butter dividing the bishops and the faithful into two though somewhat unequal camps. But what is it and what is all the fuss about?
Gradualism is the name given to the understanding that a person is on a journey toward God wherever their path in life leads. Atheists have a particular view of the world interpreted by the facts presented to them. People of other faiths live to the standards of that faith in which some of the truths of God are revealed. Society by and large accommodates and recognises the use of free will though not rarely the source of such a beautiful gift. To whatever their understanding of truth people live their lives. Gradualism recognizes the varied states in life.
The benefit of gradualism lies in pastorally approaching ones recognition of their journey to God; in meeting them where they are. These approaches can change dependant on their place on their journey. Like when discussing the faith one would not talk about the church’s teaching on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist to an atheist, the recommendation of annulments do not extend beyond the Catholic community except where such things occur in other church’s law or in secular laws.
The problem with gradualism is when the person is not on the journey to God but away from him. In meeting the person where they are we hope to proclaim the mercy of God in the hope of their repentance, echoing the first proclamation of Jesus. How this is done is one of the concerns of the synod. But the teaching of the church must remain the same. Allow me to use an analogy.
Imagine a cliff with a steep but graduated slope. On the top of the cliff are the people of faith. These hold true to the teachings of the church. Anchored among them is a rope which hangs over the cliff. People are found at various places down the cliff. The rope is there to help them up.
Now the people down the cliff are the people we encounter. To them we preach. Some may choose to grab the rope on which they are saved, some may not. We can only offer the rope not make them take it. The placement of the rope is our pastoral approach. Pastoral approaches change to the need of the person; the positioning changes, the end may feed one place or another. The rope strands are the teachings of the church which together reveal the fullness of the truth. The quality of the rope is unchanging. It is rooted in the church whose hands are secure at the top of the cliff.
Gradualism addresses the recognition of the location of the people on the cliff and the need to move the rope accordingly. What seems to be occurring in the synod is that the vocal minority Kasperian camp wants to weaken the rope by removing a strand. Who wants to grab a fraying rope? The question I pose is with regard to gradualism, who is moving and closer to what?
There have been many examples of the insatiability of liberalism: the latest of these is the pressure to accept a redefinition of marriage. The various attacks against marriage calls for the church to respond. But how will it respond? This will be a defining moment in the papacy of Francis, whatever be his bias. Does he feed into the secular pressures and risk never filling their perceived need or does he hold firm to the truth that will set them free?
Two opportunities exist. First, the church reasserts itself as the bearer of all truth and still changes the pastoral approach accordingly. Second, because of such a lively debate during the synod the bishops return to their postings invigorated in their faithfulness to the church and in their fraternal fellowship. Lets hope the synod can bring consensus in pastoral approach and renewed faithfulness in its teaching. Pray the Holy Spirit guides their hearts and minds. Pray now!