|Saint Augustine and his|
mother, Saint Monica: the
tensions of Catholic Sexuality
Ah yes, the complexity of the mystery of sin and grace. That leads us to the point of conflict for many in the Synod and for even more of those following it from our armchairs and monitors.
Now for what I am going to write, I am not a theologian and am not giving a theological evaluation, only an explanation of the phenomenon to the best of my ability. “Gradualism” or “the Law of Graduality” is a proposed principle in moral theology that recognizes that the Moral Law (as revealed in Scripture and Tradition) sets a standard for which we must all strive but to which we do not all achieve immediately. It is sometimes simplified to “you can only do the best you can do” but such caricatures reduce it to moral ambivalence. An example of gradualism, one presented by Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, would be of a woman who marries a man who was abandoned by his first wife and left with three children. Granted, the woman should not have married the previously-married man in the first place until he received a Church annulment. But now that she is married to him, the Cardinal said, she cannot abandon him and the care of the children. Of course, it can be argued, that yes she can stay with him, but live in a brother/sister relationship until his first marriage is resolved canonically. Maybe she can; maybe she can’t. She loves the man, he loves her, and they find great blessings in their marriage—including in the sexual expression of their love. Maybe they can’t find the strength to live without this intimacy. Maybe they try to live in a non-sexual relationship and from time to time they fail. “The grace is always sufficient for us to do the right thing,” one person once told me when I presented a similar situation. Yes, it is. But maybe the right thing isn’t what we outsiders to the situation always think that it is. We need to listen attentively to the stories of sin and grace before we unilaterally—like the scribes and the Pharisees—make up our heavy burdens and lay them on others’ shoulders.
The law of gradualism acknowledges that we develop morally. We are not all the way yet at perfection. We take two steps forward and fall one step back.
This isn’t the same as moral relativism in which there are no moral absolutes—it is the acknowledgement that we all grow in our relationship with God and we all have room yet to grow in our relationship with God and none of us will be all the way there by the time we are summoned to the judgment seat. If we were we would not need a Redeemer.
If you check my entry for July 19, 2014 you will see that I wrote then about the theory of moral development which Lawrence Kohlberg, a Harvard professor of psychology, developed a half-century ago. There has been criticism of Kohlberg’s schema over the intervening decades, but I think it still has great validity. We move in our moral development from a fear of punishment through a fixation on law to a genuine appreciation of the moral good. (I am skipping several steps here—check out Kohlberg for a more nuanced appreciation of his ideas.) I think this corresponds to the principle of gradualism. As I mature both psychologically and, from a Christian perspective, in my relationship with God I come to an ever-deepening appreciation for what is right and what is wrong. As I move along the spectrum, I can not only move beyond a fear of punishment or the hope for some eternal reward, but I can transcend the bonds of the law and see the moral good for itself. I can also see evil, not simply as it is defined by the law, but as it takes on its evil character from the situation in which it finds itself. An example of this—to resort to the trivial for ease of understanding—I like my glass of whiskey at the end of the day. There is nothing wrong with a glass of whiskey. However as the first leads to the second and the second to the third and so on, the moral good (the relaxing glass of whiskey) takes on an evil character. Another example, somewhat more complex. I make love to my wife. That is a good thing. It is, as the Pirolas point out, a celebration of the Sacrament of Matrimony. On this particular evening, my wife is not sexually responsive and I force her, not physically but still force her, to have sex with me. A moral good has become evil in a way that the moral law does not foresee. The moral law says that the wife has an obligation to satisfy the husband—and vice versa. But the Law of Love, which is the true moral good, knows that this must be done freely and without coercion. Those who focus solely on the Moral Law most often can’t get a clear vision of the Law of Love (aka the Gospel), which, again, was the flaw of the scribes, and the Pharisees. There are those who are frozen in their own moral development and confident in their own righteousness without compassion for the complexity of others’ lives. This moral fixedness is neither spiritually or psychologically healthy and can’t be allowed to be the moral guideposts—they are the blind guides leading the blind (Matt 15:14).