John Allen points out that the idea of “gradualism” is being floated at the synod, with the expected responses of support from the progressives, skepticism from the orthodox, and outrage from the reactionaries. It’s not particularly clear if either side is really understanding how the word is being deployed in this case, including the people using it. The general cloud of sloppy theology and mawkishness that’s fogged so much of the synod rhetoric (and thank you for that Cardinal Kasper) makes sorting out meaning and truth more difficult than it should be.
“In his opening address on Monday,” writes Allen, “Cardinal Péter Erdő of Hungary argued that Humanae Vitae should be read in light of graduality.”
Cue pearl clutching from the reactionaries and cheers from the dissidents.
In the meantime, we have the words of St. John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio, where he pointed out that, yes, the praxis of implementing Humanae Vitae in a marriage may be subject to a kind of gradualism because “man, who has been called to live God’s wise and loving design in a responsible manner, is an historical being who day by day builds himself up through his many free decisions; and so he knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth.”
However … the truth of Humanae Vitae can never be subjected to gradualism. As he famously said on the issue: “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.”
Applying comments about contraception to the situation under discussion at the synod is not wholly appropriate. Correcting an irregular marriage is not as clear a matter as contraception. A couple can simply stop contracepting, but there is a legal process involved in correcting an irregular marriage.
St. John Paul’s understanding of the way we accomplish “moral good by stages of growth,” however, is a useful point of reference when dealing with anyone in a state of sin, and that includes people engaged in adultery because they have remarried following a previous marriage without the benefit of an annulment.
People progress in their moral behavior by stages. This doesn’t mean that a fully moral life is compromised, but that we must recognize the challenges some have in living that fully moral life. If moral perfection was a simple matter, we’d have no need for reconciliation. We’re all fallen and damaged and yearning towards a perfect Good, and more often than not, failing to achieve it. The Church is here to guide sinners not by compromising moral standards (which of course cannot be compromised) but by providing the medicine of sacraments and guidance of truth, without taxing people with unnecessary burdens.
The current fuss about readmitting people in this state to communion has seemed peculiar to me all along. If people think enough of the Eucharist to refrain from presenting themselves due to an irregular marital state, then that person is a well-formed Catholic who is doing the right thing.
The question is: how do we best help them achieve a more perfect moral state so they will be worthy to join us at the table?
Our problem isn’t that too few people are presenting themselves for communion, but that too many are doing so unworthily.
How many people do you see refraining from communion at mass? Precious few.
How many people do you see at confession? Same answer.
Are all those people presenting themselves for communion in a worthy state to receive? That’s extremely unlikely.
Thus, people who are remarried without benefit of an annulment and are refraining from communion are not a serious problem. They accept the teaching of the church, recognize their state of sin, and desire to return to communion.
The challenge is this: how do we (and, really, can we) admit these people to communion without damaging justice? The whole justice versus mercy debate is nonsense. Neither violates the other. Justice is merciful, and mercy is just.
Simplifying the process is hardly a blow against justice. Processes change. The current process is flawed. If it can be altered without further damaging the commands of the Lord about divorce, then it should be.
Ross Douthat makes an excellent point: a civil marriage is not recognized as sacramental by the church, so why should it be recognized by the church during the annulment process? Given how we form couples for marriage (something that also needs to be improved), how can we behave as though a couple marred civilly or in another religion have met our standards for a true and valid marriage?
Please also note, in the following passages, how much emphasis St. John Paul puts on the role of priests. This is crucial. Priests need to be an essential part of this process. A good priest knows how to council and guide, so people can be led through this process with charity.
Here is the whole section by St. John Paul, so you can read what he says in full context.
Familiaris Consortio: The Moral Progress of Married People
34. It is always very important to have a right notion of the moral order, its values and its norms; and the importance is all the greater when the difficulties in the way of respecting them become more numerous and serious.
Since the moral order reveals and sets forth the plan of God the Creator, for this very reason it cannot be something that harms man, something impersonal. On the contrary, by responding to the deepest demands of the human being created by God, it places itself at the service of that person’s full humanity with the delicate and binding love whereby God Himself inspires, sustains and guides every creature towards its happiness.
But man, who has been called to live God’s wise and loving design in a responsible manner, is an historical being who day by day builds himself up through his many free decisions; and so he knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth.
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. 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.”(95) 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.
As the Synod noted, this pedagogy embraces the whole of married life. Accordingly, the function of transmitting life must be integrated into the overall mission of Christian life as a whole, which without the Cross cannot reach the Resurrection. In such a context it is understandable that sacrifice cannot be removed from family life, but must in fact be wholeheartedly accepted if the love between husband and wife is to be deepened and become a source of intimate joy.
This shared progress demands reflection, instruction and suitable education on the part of the priests, religious and lay people engaged in family pastoral work: they will all be able to assist married people in their human and spiritual progress, a progress that demands awareness of sin, a sincere commitment to observe the moral law, and the ministry of reconciliation. It must also be kept in mind that conjugal intimacy involves the wills of two persons, who are however called to harmonize their mentality and behavior: this requires much patience, understanding and time. Uniquely important in this field is unity of moral and pastoral judgment by priests, a unity that must be carefully sought and ensured, in order that the faithful may not have to suffer anxiety of conscience.(96)
It will be easier for married people to make progress if, with respect for the Church’s teaching and with trust in the grace of Christ, and with the help and support of the pastors of souls and the entire ecclesial community, they are able to discover and experience the liberating and inspiring value of the authentic love that is offered by the Gospel and set before us by the Lord’s commandment. Instilling Conviction and Offering Practical Help
35. With regard to the question of lawful birth regulation, the ecclesial community at the present time must take on the task of instilling conviction and offering practical help to those who wish to live out their parenthood in a truly responsible way.
In this matter, while the Church notes with satisfaction the results achieved by scientific research aimed at a more precise knowledge of the rhythms of women’s fertility, and while it encourages a more decisive and wide-ranging extension of that research, it cannot fail to call with renewed vigor on the responsibility of all-doctors, experts, marriage counselors, teachers and married couples-who can actually help married people to live their love with respect for the structure and finalities of the conjugal act which expresses that love. This implies a broader, more decisive and more systematic effort to make the natural methods of regulating fertility known, respected and applied.(97)
A very valuable witness can and should be given by those husbands and wives who through the joint exercise of periodic continence have reached a more mature personal responsibility with regard to love and life. As Paul VI wrote: “To them the Lord entrusts the task of making visible to people the holiness and sweetness of the law which unites the mutual love of husband and wife with their cooperation with the love of God, the author of human life.”
John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, Apostolic Exhortations (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1981).