Gradualism of the Law in Sexual Morality

For sexual morality a well-known example of practicing gradualism of the law comes from Augustine when he prays in his Confessions. “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.”

“Gradualism of the law” is a practice of gradually bringing oneself to a decision to obey a law which one is now violating. Some non-moral examples show the reality of this practice. Suppose a law of personal health requires a person to exercise regularly. A man who needs to exercise more but rarely exercises hopes to start a plan of regular exercise sometime. He has it on his “agenda” to start such a program sometime. He goes along for several months thinking that he should start. He lets himself feel guilty about not having an exercise program. He is practicing gradualism of the law.

Finally, he decides to start exercising regularly. Because he has had a long history of not exercising, he occasionally fails to follow his program. He feels guilty about his failures to follow his program. However, his friends tell him that it will take time for him to become a regular exerciser. His friends are assuming a law of gradualism when they advise him not to lose heart because it takes time to overcome bad habits.

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to specify how someone who should go on diet first practices gradualism of the law and then keeps his morale up by reflecting on the law of gradualism.

In my book, I described a homosexual who hoped to somehow, sometime, stop engaging in homosexual acts. However, he had not yet made a firm decision to stop. I characterized him as a good man but not yet good enough. In respect to sexual acts, he was good by recognizing the correct moral principles. But was not good enough because he had not decided to try to conform to the correct moral law and, of course, was violating the sexual moral law for men. He would become a better man by resolving to conform to the law. Unfortunately, a resolve to conform to the law, which here means being celibate, does not guarantee conformity. Even if he fails from time-to-time he can hope that he will gradually build character to move completely beyond homosexual acts.

There are situations involving sexual behavior for which we should tolerate gradualism of the law as a first step towards developing a morally proper sexual character. We are not likely to set aside immoral behavior until we admit that it is wrong. Gradualism of the law starts by admiting, or at least conceding that perhaps, a moral law is being violated. Some guilt is felt. Unfortunately, admitting that a type of act violates a moral law and a bit of guilt is not sufficient for forming a firm purpose of amendment to stop violations. Indeed, a law of gradualism may be operating here. It takes time for guilt about violating a moral law to lead us to resolving to stop violations. It may take time for guilt to have its effect and to build up courage to stop. In ourselves, and for others, we may need tolerance to foster this build up. I use “tolerance” because wrong is being done with each violation of the law and the violator is not as he ought to be. With gradualism of the law we are tolerating evil! And it must be clear that evil is being done so that guilt can lead to resolve to stop.

In my next post I will discuss application of gradualism of the law for situations in Catholic sexual morality. These are situations of practicing artificial birth control and living in a marriage not sanction by the Catholic Church.

I discussed the birth control situation in my book.

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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