Suffer the Sinners: On Gradualism

Gradualism is the new hotness at the Synod, according to John L. Allen, Jr., who reports that gradualism, “which not so long ago seemed on the verge of being stricken from the official lexicon, is back with a vengeance.”

Predictably, hysteria has ensued and the blogosphere has once again lost its ever-loving mind. From equating gradualism with fornicating for Jesus to predicting that when your children need a condom, the bishops are going to “walk with them” to CVS, the voices of reason are quickly being drowned out in cacophony of doomsaying. Meanwhile, what’s at stake is not the theological and moral foundations of our faith but the multitude of souls caught in the no-man’s-land of mortal sin. The problem is that some of them are truly longing to jump in the trench with us, if only we’d stop shooting at them.

A wise priest once told me that “the law is for the people, not the people for the law.”

That could be a dangerous statement if it’s not properly understood. Here’s what it does not mean: it does not mean that the law can, or should, bend or break to accommodate the will or emotions of the people. It does not mean that the law can, or should, change to suit the people’s whims and weaknesses.

It does mean that the law was written to serve the people, to aid in their spiritual formation, to bring them into the fullness of truth and virtue. The law, in and of itself, is not a holy grail worthy of worship; the law is a tool meant to bring all souls to Christ. All souls, mind you…not just those souls worth saving.

It means that people cannot be boiled down automatons who either follow the law or burn in hell. The law is not the yardstick by which we measure the worth of human beings. If we put a person, any person, and the law on a divine scale, it would elevate the person every time. People have immeasurable worth as created beings who share in the image and divinity of God Himself. The law can claim no such inheritance, being merely a tool, albeit a divine one, given to us to aid us in the journey to God.

The law being for the people means that its purpose is to aid in the salvation of souls. It can’t be thrown out or changed without throwing away souls in the process; but neither can it be used as a spiritual threshing machine without throwing away souls in the process.

When I go to confession, I usually confess the same sins. The same sins, over and over, over and over, like a litany of awfulness. Each confession seems to verbally confirm all my secret fears about myself…that I’m weak in both will and character, that I’m helpless to accept God’s grace and change, or worse yet, that I’m too afraid. I fear that I will live my life entrenched in these habits of sin, and God will greet me with disappointment, if He greets me at all.

The thing is, though, that the sins I confess over and over today are not the same sins I confessed over and over seven years ago. They are, in fact, radically different. Sometimes I sit down and trace out the evolution of my sins, as if I can analytically figure a way out of them. There’s no silver bullet, of course, but it comforts me to know that they’re just slightly less serious manifestations of the same old faults. Vanity, intemperance, sloth, and pride, pride, pride. I’ll battle them my whole life, but although it seems that I am daily spinning my wheels, I can track my progress through the years. I am growing in virtue, just gradually.

I’m given to understand, from reading the lives of the saints and living in community with brothers and sisters in Christ, that this is what it means to live a Christian life. Even Paul, struck blind on the road to Damascus and changed forever, was not miraculously freed from his “thorn in the flesh”. It’s true that Christ tells us to “go and sin no more,” but He also gave us the sacrament of penance. This apparent contradiction is a profound paradox, a divine recognition that the grace of God and the weakness of human nature have to work in tandem, and gradually. That’s a cornerstone of Catholic belief.

We allow that with each other, with our friends and neighbors who aren’t (at least visibly) living in a state of mortal sin. We allow that change is slow and sin happens, or else we’d be too ashamed to stand in line for confession. Why, then, do we not allow it with those who are still in the clutches of mortal sin?

Mortal sin is much more serious than venial sin. It is serious both in the offense given to God and the damage done to our souls and wills. Mortal sin literally separates us from God, making it so much harder to turn back, to find grace, and to repent. A person in mortal sin is cut off from the grace of the sacraments and the divine aid offered through them. How much harder, how much slower, and how much more desperate must their struggle be?

It is dangerous, very dangerous, to use gradualism as a universal answer to difficult cases.  Individual situations need individual, pastoral care. There is no good, across-the-board answer to the question of how to deal justly and mercifully with those whose life keeps them in near occasion or actual sin. Only someone’s pastor can know the person well enough to know what they need, because our priests have the gift of grace and wisdom from Christ to act as shepherds. So the long road that worked for my husband and I might not work for someone in different, or even similar, circumstances. But only the pastor can determine that.

The danger inherent in the idea of gradualness lies in losing the distinction that JPII made — the law of gradualness is not the same thing as gradualness of the law. We knew we were in sin. That was clear. No one told us that it would be okay if we went ahead and took communion, since we were working on that whole “not sinning” thing. We went to Mass with our friends and the Ogre’s family and stayed in the pew during communion, and everyone knew why. But we kept going, and when we finally got to receive with everyone else it was amazing. That approach would probably not be healthy or helpful with some people…the point is, only the pastor can know when, where, and how to apply it.

But for ordinary laypeople, our job is not to figure out when, where, and how someone is sinning or not sinning. Our job is not to cast out those among us who smell suspiciously like sulfur, or whose hair looks a bit tinged from brimstone, or whose companions in Mass cry “irregular!” from the bare ring fingers of their same-gendered hands.

And that is not our job for a very simple reason: if we’re always looking for scandal, we’ll find it everywhere.

What is also everywhere, whether we’re looking for them or not, are souls trapped in the mire of mortal sin and desperately in need of Christ. Please don’t cast them out. There were people in the Church who tried to cast me out, who went to extraordinary lengths to bar the door against me. I can’t begin to tell you how much it hurt to feel unworthy and unwanted by the people I recognized as keepers of Truth and bearers of Christ.

The night I learned that the bishop had been petitioned to bar me from baptism and confirmation, and to prohibit my marriage, I called my godmother in tears. “Why are they doing this?” I wept. “It already hurts so much to leave my family and  my faith…why don’t they want me to have the sacraments that they’ve had all their lives? Am I not good enough? If this is the true Church of Christ, is He saying that He doesn’t want me in it?” She reassured me, and so did my godfather, my husband, and my friends. My priest went to battle on behalf of my soul — a soul that was, even then, in mortal sin.

The truth, goodness, and beauty of the Church made me want to be a Catholic. But it was the love and patience of my friends and family that carried me into the Church. They bore the weight of soul when I couldn’t, and gradually, I learned that with the help of God’s grace I could stand on my own, resist sin on my own, and conform my own soul to God’s law.

That’s what gradualism is. Suffer the sinners in your midst, because we need you more desperately that you know.

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