The Law of Gradualness: 12 things to know and share

What is the "law of gradualness" and why is it such big news at the Synod of Bishops?
What is the "law of gradualness" and why is it such big news at the Synod of Bishops? (photo: Register Files)

Most Catholics have never even heard of the “law of gradualness,” but it became big news this week at the Synod on the Family.

What is the law of gradualness, and what role does it play in Catholic thought?

Here are 12 things to know and share . . .


1) What is the law of gradualness?

It is a principle used in Catholic moral and pastoral theology, according to which people should be encouraged to grow closer to God and his plan for our lives in a step-by-step manner rather than expecting to jump from an initial conversion to perfection in a single step.


2) Is there a basis for this idea?

Yes. Human experience testifies that we are not made perfect upon our initial conversion. We must grow in various ways over time and we must continue to struggle against sin.


3) Does Scripture refer to this principle?

Yes, in a variety of passages. For example:

  • I, brethren, could not address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh [1 Cor. 3:1-3].
  • [We] take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete [2 Cor. 10:6].
  • For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need some one to teach you again the first principles of God’s word. You need milk, not solid food; for every one who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil [Heb. 5:12-14].


4) Has the idea of the law of gradualness been abused?

Yes. At the Synod of Bishops on the Family in 1980, some called for an application of the law of gradualness that would allow married couples which were contracepting to receive absolution and holy Communion on the condition that they have an intent to gradually stop using contraception.


5) Where was this declared an abuse?

St. John Paul II rejected it in the his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, saying:

[Married people] cannot however look on the law as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future: they must consider it as a command of Christ the Lord to overcome difficulties with constancy.

And so what is known as 'the law of gradualness' or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with 'gradualness of the law,' as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God's law for different individuals and situations.

In God's plan, all husbands and wives are called in marriage to holiness, and this lofty vocation is fulfilled to the extent that the human person is able to respond to God's command with serene confidence in God's grace and in his or her own will.

On the same lines, it is part of the Church's pedagogy that husbands and wives should first of all recognize clearly the teaching of Humanae vitae as indicating the norm for the exercise of their sexuality, and that they should endeavor to establish the conditions necessary for observing that norm [Familiaris Consortio 34].


6) Has the Church returned to this subject?

Yes. In 1997 the Pontifical Council for the Family issued a vademecum (i.e., handbook) for confessors in which it gave guidance to those hearing confessions about how to handle certain situations.

In particular, it warned confessors against the idea of thinking that repentance does not require a decisive break with sin, saying:

The pastoral "law of gradualness", not to be confused with the "gradualness of the law" which would tend to diminish the demands it places on us, consists of requiring a decisive break with sin together with a progressive path towards total union with the will of God and with his loving demands [Vademecum for Confessors 3:9].


7) How is the concept being used at the present (2014) Synod of Bishops on the Family?

Today some seem to be proposing that those who have divorced and entered a subsequent, civil marriage (while the previous spouse is still alive and without an annulment and convalidation) should in some cases be allowed to receive absolution and holy Communion if they intend gradually to bring their situation in line with God’s law.


8) How do we know this?

On Monday, October 13, the Synod released a document called a Relatio post disceptationem (i.e., a report after discussion), which summarized the discussions held in the first week of the synod.


9) What did this document say regarding the law of gradualness?

It referred to the concept in several passages:

13. From the moment that the order of creation is determined by orientation towards Christ, it becomes necessary to distinguish without separating the various levels through which God communicates the grace of the covenant to humanity. Through the law of gradualness (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 34), typical of divine pedagogy, this means interpreting the nuptial covenant in terms of continuity and novelty, in the order of creation and in that of redemption.

14. Jesus Himself, referring to the primordial plan for the human couple, reaffirms the indissoluble union between man and woman, while understanding that “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Mt 19,8). In this way, He shows how divine condescension always accompanies the path of humanity, directing it towards its new beginning, not without passing through the cross. . . .

17. In considering the principle of gradualness in the divine salvific plan, one asks what possibilities are given to married couples who experience the failure of their marriage, or rather how it is possible to offer them Christ’s help through the ministry of the Church. In this respect, a significant hermeneutic key comes from the teaching of Vatican Council II, which, while it affirms that “although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure ... these elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward Catholic unity” (Lumen Gentium, 8).

47. As regards the possibility of partaking of the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, some argued in favor of the present regulations because of their theological foundation, others were in favor of a greater opening on very precise conditions when dealing with situations that cannot be resolved without creating new injustices and suffering. For some, partaking of the sacraments might occur were it preceded by a penitential path – under the responsibility of the diocesan bishop –, and with a clear undertaking in favor of the children. This would not be a general possibility, but the fruit of a discernment applied on a case-by-case basis, according to a law of gradualness, that takes into consideration the distinction between state of sin, state of grace and the attenuating circumstances.


10) Is this same understanding of the law of gradualness present in Familiaris Consortio and the Vademecum for Confessors?

It does not appear so. At least from what has been said thus far, it appears more to reflect the “gradualness of law” that was warned against in those documents, according to which a decisive break with sin is not required before receiving absolution and holy Communion, and in which a different standard of what constitutes sin would be applied to some than is applied to others.


11) Does the Relatio change Church teaching regarding the law of gradualness?

No. The Relatio is a summary what various bishops proposed in discussions. It is not a document of the Magisterium.

The document accurately reports that one group of bishops proposed this—and that others opposed it—but it does nothing to change Church teaching.


12) What does this suggest for the future?

It suggests that this proposal will continue to be discussed. The first phase of that will occur this week, as the bishops discuss the Relatio in small groups.

They will then produce a new document at the end of the present Synod, which will be discussed in the forthcoming year.

The discussion will then be renewed at the forthcoming Synod of Bishops on the Family in 2015, and finally the pope will determine what is to be done with whatever recommendations are made to him.

There also may be involvement by other groups, including the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the International Theological Commission, the Pontifical Council for the Family, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, and others.

There is a great deal more that can be said here, but this should serve as a basic introduction to the concept of the law of gradualness.

We will look at other aspects of the proposal in future posts.


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