Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Family Synod: Gradualism and Truth

There's a fair amount of buzz in the Catholic world at the moment about the Synod on the Family, which has released a summary document which outlines what the world's bishops are currently talking about in this first past of the synod proceedings. (They'll then reconvene in October of 2015, have further deliberations, and then the Vatican will at some indeterminate late date issue a document summarizing what they believe are the most important thoughts coming out of the synod. So don't expect any definitive headlines soon, whatever the noise machine may suggest.)

I have a morning open due to conference travel, so I had a chance to sit down and read through the whole document this morning (it's not long.)

The main thing that struck me is that this does not seem like a document much focused on theology or morality, it's focused on evangelization and conversion. In that sense, this seems like a very Pope Francis kind of document (with the strengths and weaknesses that implies.)
What rang out clearly in the Synod was the necessity for courageous pastoral choices. Reconfirming forcefully the fidelity to the Gospel of the family, the Synodal Fathers, felt the urgent need for new pastoral paths, that begin with the effective reality of familial fragilities, recognizing that they, more often than not, are more “endured” than freely chosen. These are situations that are diverse because of personal as well as cultural and socio-economic factors. It is not wise to think of unique solutions or those inspired by a logic of “all or nothing”. The dialog and meeting that took place in the Synod will have to continue in the local Churches, involving their various components, in such a way that the perspectives that have been drawn up might find their full maturation in the work of the next Ordinary General Assembly. The guidance of the Spirit, constantly invoked, will allow all God’s people to live the fidelity to the Gospel of the family as a merciful caring for all situations of fragility.

Each damaged family first of all should be listened to with respect and love, becoming companions on the journey as Christ did with the disciples of the road to Emmaus. In a particular way the words of Pope Francis apply in these situations: «The Church will have to initiate everyone – priests, religious and laity – into this “art of accompaniment”, which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Es 3,5). The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life» (Evangelii Gaudium, 169).

The idea here is, I think, solid and important: Everyone is in need of hearing Christ's saving message message and receiving His graces. Many people are, for reasons that are their fault to greater or lesser degrees, living in ways that put them at odds with Christ's message, and yet there's a necessity that the Church connect with these people and gradually reel them in, with the hope that at some point before death they will fully unite themselves with Christ's graces and thus attain salvation.

This is something that traditional Catholic cultures did fairly well, and it served as a scandal to the more respectable splinters of Christianity. Perhaps it's hard to follow from a modern perspective, but in Brideshead Revisited, one of the things which is surely meant to be a sign of how disreputable Catholicism could be to the more respectable Anglo world is that Lord Brideshead's mistress Cara, the separated wife of some Englishman named Hicks, is herself fairly religious. This kind of devout semi-laxity (people who planned to make a good end eventually but in the mean time understood they were excluded from the sacraments because of living in grave sin of one sort or another) was a scandal to respectable Protestantism, and was attractive to flamboyant converts such as Oscar Wilde.

Our modern world isn't so good at this, however. In modernity, we consider our own goodness as a given and judge God on His willingness to accept us. Thus, stating that some given mode of life is sinful (say, living in a sexual relationship with someone you are not married to) is taken as "rejection". Too often, such "rejection" in the modern mind doesn't suggest "maybe I better pull my life together" but rather "no point in listening to that person", and so the fear expressed by the synod is that many people simply are not hearing Christ's message because as soon as they hear that their sexual relationships are considered sinful they stop listening.

The proposed solution is "gradualism". This gradualism is NOT (as you will hear in some commentary) the idea that the Church will gradually change its teachings on divorce, contraception, same sex marriage, etc. Rather, gradualism refers to the idea that the Church understand that people are on a gradual path to moral improvement and recognize the progress they are making along that path -- in particular recognize that there are elements of goodness in their current actions and that their moral progress involves their gradual growth of those positives and reduction of evils. The synod documents touches on this a bit here, and the quote shows some of the difficulties of this approach:
In the same way the situation of the divorced who have remarried demands a careful discernment and an accompaniment full of respect, avoiding any language or behavior that might make them feel discriminated against. For the Christian community looking after them is not a weakening of its faith and its testimony to the indissolubility of marriage, but rather it expresses precisely its charity in its caring.

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.
As a pastoral approach, there's certainly good to be found here. A person is not to be reduced to his current state of sin. So a confessor might indeed help someone grow in holiness by consistently working to help them become more virtuous from whatever point they are currently at -- so long as there is no denial of what actually is and is not sin.

However, the above also underlines the serious problems with getting too carried away with this gradual approach. It's possible to grow in virtue (or grow in vice) in any given state, but that doesn't change the fundamental nature of the state. For example, in Anna Karenina, during the course of the affair between Anna and Count Vronsky we see him change from an essentially predatory character who simply wants to have Anna because she seems beautiful and unattainable to a character who genuinely seeks to care for Anna despite her increasingly prickly and difficult-to-love behavior (inspired by the social censure which her affair with Vronsky has subjected her to.) However, although Anna and Vronsky can treat each other more or less virtuously in the context of their adulterous affair, the fact that the affair itself is wrong and a source of moral destruction is not going to change. Treating each other less viciously isn't going to gradually make them married. And this is the basic truth which a gradualist pastoral approach must not lose sight of (yet seems, given our modern world's moral tendencies, to constantly lean towards): The basic moral facts of the situation will not change. Adultery is wrong. Fornication is wrong. Using contraception is wrong. Homosexual relations are wrong.

Gradualism must be a gradualism towards something, towards abandoning sin. It cannot be allowed to mean simply accepting sin. Depending on the person and the situation, that abandoning of sin may take a long time. People may take the risk of waiting until their attachment to it attenuates for other reasons. There's a scene in Zola's Nana where the title character, a high class courtesan, sees one of the famous courtesans of the era before, who managed to save enough money to retire in luxury to a country house where she is now a respected landowner and support of the local church. Nana yearns for this kind of respectability in retirement (though she lacks the self discipline to save for it), and in the spiritual sense we see that in the prayer for "Lord, make me good, but not yet." And yet, there is a serious moral danger to getting too comfortable even with that kind of delay, though it at least recognizes the current evil even if it fails to reject it yet. While God will accept our conversion, no matter how late, in the interim that person is essentially saying, "I am more attached to the benefits I believe I get from sin than I am to God." That is, however conditional, a rejection of God. And rejection of God leads us to hell.

Given the tendencies of our modern moral culture, gradualism is a difficult approach to take successfully.

1 comment:

c matt said...

This gradualism is NOT (as you will hear in some commentary) the idea that the Church will gradually change its teachings on divorce, contraception, same sex marriage, etc.

Seems to depend upon whom you ask - Kasper appears to be leaning that way. Anyway, fine exposition on gradualism. However, I take your last line as not only a warning, but unfortunately a prediction. The tendencies of our modern culture make gradualism an inappropriate approach for the vast majority.