I. Some background on “The Law of Gradualism”
A. Gradualism in a report from the 2014 extraordinary synod on the family
On October 13, 2014 there was publication of an unofficial translation of opinions expressed at the Catholic Church’s extraordinary synod on the family. This preliminary report is titled in Latin Relatio post disceptationem and can be read as:”report after discussion.”This extraordinary synod ran from October 4 through October 19, 2014 in the Vatican. These published opinions were expressed in the first few days of the synod and are to be discussed in the remaining days. The extraordinary synod is, in effect, a preliminary meeting for the ordinary synod. A final statement of opinions will be published and form a basis for an ordinary or regular synod of Catholic bishops in the Vatican October 4 to October 25, 2015. This preliminary report has been regarded as radical by both progressives and conservatives and has not been well received by conservatives including me. Here, though, I do not want to criticize the preliminary report because it will be revised. It’s transitory. Also careful critique of it would require theological expertise which I lack. My goal is to elaborate on a concept used in this preliminary report since it connects with themes in my philosophy book on sexual morality. This concept is “the law of gradualism.”
See a Jimmy Akin Blog Post for a useful overview of the Law of Gradualness in the discussions about the bishop’s synod.
B. Gradualism in two Vatican documents,
1] From section 34 of John Paul II’s 1981 exhoration Familiaris Consortio in which amongst many other topics, he reaffirmed the condemnation of artificial birth control.
Married people too are called upon to progress unceasingly in their moral life, with the support of a sincere and active desire to gain ever better knowledge of the values enshrined in and fostered by the law of God. They must also be supported by an upright and generous willingness to embody these values in their concrete decisions. They 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.
2] From section 3,9 of the 1997 Handbook for Confessors on Conjugal Morality in which confessors are advised not to let penitents delay stopping a practice of artifical birth control as they gradually prepare themselves to stop it sometime or other.
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
B. My preliminary thoughts on the law of gradualism vs. gradualism of the law,
1. When should we use a law of gradualism? When a moral law requires us to bring about good state of affairs for which there are degrees of goodness for these states of affairs it is permissible and, indeed may be necessary to bring about the lesser goods as we develop attitudes and skills for bringing about the higher goods. For instance, a father has a duty to spend time with his children. However, because of focus on his job and low apptitude for interacting with children, he may have to start with just spending a few minutes each day with his children. However, he should gradually bring himself to spend more time with his children in more significant activities. This example suggests many areas of life in which we are wise to accept that we only grow gradually producing better and better situations.
2. What would it be like to practice gradualism of the law? The example of a father’s duty to spend time with his children can be used here. Suppose a young father thought that while the children were quite young and he was busy with his career, he would spend no time with them at all. He would completely neglect them with the mother or other caregivers having contact with the children. He would tell himself that when he grew older and had more inclination to spend time with his children he would do so. He plans to gradually start following the law. Well, as long as he totally neglects the law to spend time with his children, he is in the wrong and living, in that respect, immorally – not as he ought to live.
So, my interpretation of “gradualism of the law” is an intention, or hope, to stop violating a moral law sometime in the future when one feels ready to set aside present motives for violating the moral law in question. On this characterization of “gradualism of the law” a person who practices it does do what is morally wrong each time the person violates the law.
A significant question is whether or not practicing gradualism of the law has any place in moral life or moral development. Especially does it have any place in sexual morality.
My next post will address this question.
I dealt with this question in my book on sexual morality.
My book Confronting Sexual Nihilism: Traditional Sexual Morality as an Antidote to Nihilism was released by Tate Publishing on March 11, 2014. See Book Web Page for information about the book. The publisher’s listed price is $26.99. Printed copies can be purchased here by credit card for $12.99, plus $3.71 for shipping and handling.
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