Synod Fathers discuss the Synod on the Family, 2014.
Cardinal Willem Jacobus, Netherlands
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, USA
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, USA
Cardinal Caffarra, Italy
Final Report Projections
Synod Fathers discuss the Synod on the Family, 2014.
Cardinal Willem Jacobus, Netherlands
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, USA
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, USA
Cardinal Caffarra, Italy
Final Report Projections
Public Catholic reader Ken alerted me to the fact that Pope Frances has added another member to the drafting committee for the final report from the First Synod on the Family.
This report will not directly affect Church teaching. It will be used for further discussion during the next year.
The new member is rather interesting, considering Cardinal Kasper’s foot in mouth comment about African bishops a couple of days ago. He is Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, of South Africa.
The Holy Father also added Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne to the committee.
In the meantime, Cardinal Pell has given an interview to Catholic News Service in which he says,
We’re not giving in to the secular agenda; we’re not collapsing in a heap. We’ve got no intention of following those radical elements in all the Christian churches, according to the Catholic Churches in one or two countries, and going out of business.
The midterm report was ‘tendentious, skewed; it didn’t represent accurately the feelings of the Synod fathers. In the immediate reaction to it, when there wa an hour, an hour and half of discussion, three-quarters of those who spoke had some problems with it.
It promises to be way past interesting, reading the final report and seeing what the “Synod fathers” have done. I imagine that this “final” report will be drug around, cut apart, analyzed, applauded and attacked until we get to the “real” synod and the whole things starts over again.
Cardinal Kasper says he didn’t say it.
The reporter says he’s got it on tape.
“It” is the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad interview that Cardinal Kasper gave yesterday. I can understand why Cardinal Kasper is doing his best to unsay what he said. He truly did open his clerical mouth and insert both his priestly feet.
His terrible, horrible, no good, very bad interview began with a few off-the-cuff remarks about how the bishops from Africa were opposing what Cardinal Kasper wants the Synod on the Family to do. If the quotes are correct, the Cardinal came across like a grand dame sniffing her titled nose at the effrontery of serving salads on warm salad plates. He might as well have said, It is, you see, just not done, but then, you know these colonials; all feathers and drums with no class.
He ended that little riff with a snippy comment to the effect that, while African bishops had to deal with their reality, that didn’t mean that their opinions should be taken seriously by the bishops from the more enlightened parts of the world.
If you want to listen to the interview, go here. If you can read German (I can’t) I’m told you will find the Cardinal’s denial of the whole thing here. If you’d like to read intelligent commentary — as opposed to the big nnnnhhhh I’ve giving you here — check out Deacon Greg Kandra and The Anchoress.
I punted on “the interview” and didn’t write about it yesterday because I’d already decided that Cardinal Kasper was a few cards short of a full theological deck.
I know. Who am I to say that? The answer, of course, is that I’m nobody. I am a pew-sitting convert from Oklahoma, of all backward places.
But I can’t help thinking with my backward little Okie brain (which I’m sure would rank considerably below an African brain.) What I’ve been thinking for a while now is that Cardinal Kasper’s recent spate of press conferences sound like an interview for the position of Catholicism’s answer to Episcopalian Bishop Shelby Spong.
Cardinal Kasper seems to like being interviewed, at least most of the time. He’s been running to the press on a regular basis to engage in an unseemly spite fight with his brother bishops. The quotes from his foot-in-mouth interview were a bit of a face-palm moment for some people, but I was, by the time I read them, all done with paying attention to Cardinal Kasper and his press peccadilloes.
Cardinal Kasper’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad interview doesn’t, in my opinion, reveal him to be a racist so much as it pinpoints him as a self-important snob. That’s pretty much the message I got from Cardinal Kasper’s comment.
Those “Africans” and their backward countries just can’t be expected to exercise the enlightened Christianity of the Church of What’s Happening Now. Poor things. They can’t help it. We need to be nice to them, but certainly not let their third-world hang-ups get in the way of our first-world compassion and tolerance.
The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Interview has boiled itself down to a he-said-it-and-I’ve-got-him-on-tape-saying-it/I-didn’t-say-it-and-I’m-not-that-kind-of-guy deal between Cardinal Kasper and Edward Pentin, the reporter who told on him. I can’t see any way that is going to end well for the Cardinal. My advice to him is just belly up to the bar and tell the truth, which is most likely “I didn’t mean it the way it came out.” He can follow that by saying “I denied it because I was embarrassed to admit it.”
That would be humiliating, especially for someone as much in love with himself as the Cardinal appears to be. But it might also end up being spiritually edifying to him.
As for me, I have no desire whatsoever to flog the poor Cardinal for his foot in mouth disease. It really does happen to all of us from time to time. The truth is:
Things often look all different in print than they sounded in your own ears when you were saying them. That’s just a fact.
Anybody who talks to the press a lot is going to, as we Okies say, come a cropper at some point. That’s another fact.
I don’t want to keel-haul Cardinal Kasper for his Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Interview.
I don’t even want to scold him for it.
My beef with the Cardinal is more fundamental. It’s about that Jesus guy.
You know. The One Who said What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
Note: The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Interview is a play on the title of a book by Judith Viorst.
I had high hopes for the Synod on the Family.
I had hope that it would find ways for the Church to support and strengthen traditional marriage, that it would address the real problems of children of divorce who grow up with half their souls amputated by the constant roiling.
I had hope that it would take a look at ways to help people who are trying their best to follow Catholic teaching in a hostile world where one McJob won’t support a family, so both parents end up with with two or three jobs, leaving the children to raise themselves.
I had hope that the Synod would address the clanging juxtaposition of overprivileged kids in too-expensive Catholic schools staging walk-outs from their fine educations while inner city kids are forced to share textbooks and don’t even feel physically safe.
I had hope that the Synod would find ways to strengthen the family, not abandon and destroy it.
In truth, I not only had hopes for the Synod, I had trust in it. I believed in it and in the men who were participating in it. Now, I’m afraid of what they may do.
Here are 6 things I wish the Synod on the Family would consider that it doesn’t seem to be considering now.
1. Poverty and its deleterious effect on families. As I mentioned above, even here in America, poverty grinds families to bits. American children aren’t forced to scavenge in garbage dumps for food. But they spend most of their lives being raised by everything and everybody except their parents.
There is such a divide between the elites and the rest of this country that I honestly don’t think they know or believe what their policies are doing to ordinary people. Low wages and a stagnant economy caused by exporting our industrial base has led to the need for mothers and dads to work two or three jobs apiece, just to put a roof over their kids’ heads.
There’s no nanny or au pair for these kids. They end up raising themselves, and being raised by other kids and the second-rate schools they must attend. As soon as the law allows, they get McJobs of their own, often working long hours to help support the family. The resulting exhaustion often ends their education.
Too many of them opt out altogether. Their real family, their real parents, are the gangs and the other kids. They have no moorings to make decisions, so they fall into early and promiscuous sex, babies without dads, drugs and gangs.
That’s in America.
I’m sure it’s much worse — by powers of ten — in developing countries. After all, the reason our corporations shipped our industrial base overseas was to be in places where it could treat people any way it wanted.
Divorce among the working class and lower classes in America is a plague; as is shacking up and having kids out of wedlock.
It destroys families. And the destruction of families destroys lives.
Perhaps the Synod should look at what it can do to help Catholics who want to have families and raise them well but are crippled by poverty that makes living out their vocation a desperate and losing fight. How can the Church support families in the face of poverty and corporatism? I wish they’d look at that.
2. How the Church can actually teach its teachings to the people in the pews. Re-writing the Gospels to fit the times is not the correct pastoral answer. The correct pastoral answer is to take a look at why the Bishops have been such abysmal failures at teaching Church teaching.The arguments these men are having now are a direct result of their failure to teach in the past.
The Church leadership has gotten soft and disengaged. It has lost its missionary fervor. Its operating ethos is build-a-church-building-then-wait-for-the-parishioners-to-come. Follow that by preaching fine homilies that are nonetheless removed from the fact that ordinary pew-sitting Catholics are out there without ammunition or support on the front lines of a cultural war.
I don’t think that Catholic clergy really “get” what the Catholic laity is facing every single day. I don’t believe they understand the many social martyrdoms that many devout Catholics endure.
My hope is that the Synod could address this failure as it applies to the family and actually talk about how to help Catholic laity be the Light of the World that Jesus calls them to be.
3. Stop speaking in indirections and obscure language. I would love to see our religious leaders take the marbles out of their mouths and actually communicate in a straightforward manner. The flap over the relatio is a case in point.
I’ve heard comments that people are “stupid” for not understanding that the document is just basically minutes of the previous meetings and nothing official. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my dealings with the public, it’s that if you say it, and they don’t get it, it’s on you to fix that. Leadership is mostly a matter of being understood.
This inability to speak in simple declarative sentences may be a large part of why the bishops have failed so disastrously these past decades in their job as teachers of the faith. If I could make one reform of Catholic clergy it would be to teach them to talk to people about the faith from the heart.
4. Bring Catholic education back in line with Catholic belief, and provide it to the poor. Catholic education is losing its Catholic savor. It is also more and more the inaccessible privilege of the privileged. It smacks of hypocrisy to preach about “the poor” while shutting the doors to a good Catholic education in the “the poor’s” faces.
Catholic families of every social strata need the Church’s help in raising their children to be Catholic. If Catholic schools fail in this mission — and many of them are demonstrably failing horribly — then what are parents to do? By the same token, if access to a Catholic education is denied to parishioners who are trapped in the McJob syndrome, that will only quicken and deepen the destruction of their children.
5. Address the plague of drug addiction that destroys our families. Drug addiction destroys the personalities of the people who suffer from it, and it also destroys the homes and happiness of everyone they love. It is a plague that is filling up prisons, destroying families, leaving children damaged and too bereft to become functioning adults, and hollowing out whole societies.
It leads to corruption and massive violence on a governmental scale. If the Synod wants to help families, it needs to discuss ways the Church can aid them in their anguished fight against drug addiction.
6. Talk about Jesus, not one another. The priesthood is not supposed to be all about the priests. From the sex abuse scandal to some of the things I’m hearing from this Synod, the trouble stems, not from a lack of leadership, but a lack of followership.
Many of our religious leaders seem to think that their world is the whole world and that they have no need for the humble reliance on Christ that is the mark of true Christians the world over. My hope for this Synod is that its participants will follow Christ, and not each other. My number one wish is that our religious leadership would preach Christ. If they would do that, everything else would follow.
The Vatican is already trying to calm things down.
The Synod issued a summary document of the speeches and debate which have taken place in the Synod so far. They called it the Relatio post disceptationem, which probably added to the confusion. If they had just titled it the Official Minutes of the Synod Thus Far, it would have gone a long way toward keeping reactions from going off like bullets in a campfire.
But they didn’t. They called it the Relatio post disceptationem, and now the word is out that the Synod has decided that the Episcopalians were right all along; marriage is a civil contract and entirely flexible and, oh yes, it’s not even all that necessary to sexual liaisons.
Seeing the mess they’d made, the Vatican issued a “caution” or whatever they call it saying:
Relatio post disceptationem, and the fact that often a value has been attributed to the document that does not correspond to its nature, reiterates that it is a working document, which summarises the interventions and debate of the first week, and is now being offered for discussion by the members of the Synod gathered in the Small Groups, in accordance with the Regulations of the Synod.
The work of the Small Groups will be presented to the Assembly in the General Congregation next Thursday morning.
What the Vatican is trying to communicate in that painfully indirect paragraph is that the document the Vatican issued yesterday is NOT a final draft. In fact, it’s not a draft at all.
It’s just a summary of the speeches that the cardinals made during the first week of discussion. The Vatican had to issue this comment today because the relatio (my shorthand for the document) which is a ramble, summarizing a lot of speechifying, has lit a lot of fires.
Releasing it was a bit like emptying a feather pillow in front of a fan. Since it was just a summary of the speeches made by Synod participants after the Pope told them to be unafraid to say whatever they thought, and since, at least based on how they sound in their statements, the cardinals are almost as polarized in how they view the Gospels as our larger culture, it has something in it to scratch everbody’s itch, but is flat-out scandalous to the average pew-sitting Catholic.
Which is why it should have been published with a warning label — at the top, in big, bold letters — saying that it was not Church teaching but just, basically, minutes of the meeting.
The reason this matters is that the Synod is treading dangerous ground. It is trying to move bricks in the wall that forms the Church’s foundation: The sacraments.
The relatio is not Church teaching, but it’s being taken as Church teaching. Even worse, nobody’s going to read it.
The media and those with agendas are the only ones who will read this thing all the way through, and they are looking for things they can pull out to advance their own ideas. With a document like the Relatio, that’s short work.
It is not a problem for anyone who wants to find it to pull out verbiage that could be used to convince people that the Synod has decided to continue proclaiming Holy Matrimony as a sacrament between one man and one woman, but to only do it in speech-making and sermonizing. It’s easy to assert from the relatio that the Synod actually sees Holy Matrimony as an arcane, “official” ideal and not something to actually live.
In the meantime, it would be equally easy to produce verbiage supporting the idea that the Synod is moving toward allowing divorce-remarriage, divorce-remarriage, divorce-remarriage, shacking up and sleeping around, with an inevitable gay marriage/polygamy chaser as its actual practice. In other words, the Episcopalians were right all along, but the Synod won’t admit it. They just plan to live it.
That, and not the nuances, are what the larger culture is going to teach from the relatio.
Meeting minutes are not official documents. I’ve been in a lot of meetings. The most productive of them included discussions that wouldn’t play well in the press. That’s the way of human nature. People think best when they’re free to be foolish and say stupid things.
I’m going to link to the relatio here. Read if it you want. But don’t mistake it for doctrine.
Let’s give the Synod time to finish and see what it produces.
I’ve put together a set of comments from the various cardinals about the on-going Synod of the Family. I think it’s best right now to let them speak in their own words, rather than try to interpret what they mean.
One thing that seems apparent is that there is a wide gap between the Cardinals of the developing world and those from the wealthier nations.
Cardinal Napier on Polygamy
Cardinal Tagle Poor Families Need Synod’s Help
Cardinal Wuerl on Who May Receive Communion?
Cardinal Nichols on Marriage and Fidelity
I’m haven’t been writing about the Synod on the Family because I don’t have a clue what’s really happening.
The quotes from various bishops are confusing, to say the least. They’re also disturbing.
That’s what happens when the press gets their hands on public statements. It isn’t usually a deliberate thing on their part. It’s more a function of what occurs during a game of gossip.
Did you ever play gossip?
The way we did it when I was a Brownie Scout, is that we’d all sit in a circle and the Scout leader (who was usually my mama) would whisper something to the first girl, who would then whisper it to the next. By the time it got all the way around the circle, a simple statement like “the sky is blue” would have become “Godzilla is attacking at dawn.”
Scout leaders used the game to teach little girls the inaccuracy of gossip. As I often tell people, “If you don’t believe the garbage that’s said about me, I’ll return the favor and not believe the garbage I hear being said about you.”
Many of the quotes coming out of this Synod are not only enough to chill a faithful Catholic to the bone, they are flat-out stupid. I’ve read a couple of them and thought, either this is taken totally out of context and probably misquoted a bit on top of that, or this bishop is an idiot.
I decided, not in the name of charity, but in the name of common sense, to take all these quotes as background noise and wait and see what the Synod actually says and does in an official capacity. Even if all our worst fears are realized and the Church does decide to rescind marriage as a sacrament and allow what it has always taught us is sacrilege and begin performing gay marriages and basically drop kick Jesus Christ off the altar, even if every bit of that turns out to be rock-hard true, there is no percentage in wringing our hands over it now.
Besides, how likely is that?
It looks to me like various factions among the bishops and cardinals are trying to lobby the public through the press to exert public pressure on other bishops and cardinals in other factions to go along with what they want. Ergo, we have been treated to blabbermouth bishops and cardinals, (mostly cardinals, from what I’ve seen) running to the press to spill their stuff.
What does this mean in the bigger picture?
All I can say for sure is that it appears that some of the cardinals and bishops have a problem with their big mouths. It also appears that they have the mistaken notion that they can control a story once it’s out there.
I wish they’d asked me about this first. I could have told them that once you say something in a public forum, it’s like launching a handful of helium balloons. Where it goes, or if it even flies at all, is entirely out of your control. You can’t call it back. You can’t unsay it. And you can’t dictate how it will be presented or how people will react to it.
What these bishops and cardinals have accomplished with their talk is scaring the tom fool out of faithful Catholics who are really trying to follow Church teaching. They’ve also got a whole lot of people who have already demonstrated that they don’t care at all about Church teaching by the way they live their lives, slavering at the post, ready to take the bit between their teeth and run with whatever the final outcome is, claiming that it validates their sinfulness.
Just for the record, let me say the obvious. Even if the bishops rescind the law of gravity, I would not recommend jumping off the side of the Grand Canyon. That goes double for things like sleeping around and engaging in serial marriages with this person and the next person.
Jesus made marriage a sacrement. He also put the kibosh on divorce.
If the bishops try to undo what Jesus said, if they try to limit the sacrament of marriage and make it conditional, they will also pretty well do away with their own authority. The Catholic Church is built on the sacraments. If marriage is conditional, then so is Holy Orders, which means that bishops who step all over marriage as a sacrament are also setting up the end of their own authority.
Things roll down hill from the marriage-is-conditional theory of sacramentality pretty quickly, and the Church itself comes unraveled in the process.
So, are the bishops going to do all the things that their quirky statements which are coming to us through the press filter seem to say?
My thought is don’t hold your breath.
If the Eucharist can be had by cultural force, and the sacraments can be watered down to fit the times; then what is the Church?
How likely is it that the bishops are going to do such a thing?
This Synod is not going to overturn 2,000 years of Christian teaching. I think we can trust that. However, it may very well develop ideas for new ways to reach out to those who falter in following those teachings. After all, the business of the Church is bringing people to Jesus, not casting them into hell.
That’s why I’m not writing about the Synod. Because all I know about it is coming from one-sentence quotes coming from bishops and cardinals who are obviously using the press to hit at one another. That, and the garbled commentary that the Synod itself releases.
There appear to be factions within the bishops and cardinals, and they appear to be playing to the press.
Things said to the press never come back around sounding even vaguely like what the speaker thought they said in the first place. It’s like playing that children’s game of gossip in real time and to a wide audience.
My advice, brothers and sisters, is go to mass this weekend. Pray a Rosary for the Synod. And live your lives.
As to what the bishops are really intending, we’ll find out soon enough.
Note: I published this post a few years’ back. It seemed apt to republish it today.
The folder with this name sits on my hard drive.
Whenever I get an email that merits the title, I drag it into the “Crazy People” file. After 16 years in public office, the file has swollen to gigs of nutty emails that most likely would embarrass their senders if they read them today.
I have a theory that people don’t know how they sound in the emails they send to elected officials. They forget that other people are on the opposite end of these nasty diatribes; that they read them, react to them and file them away.
Several years ago, members of the Oklahoma House were spending what seemed like an endless day on the House floor. We were hearing one bill after another. Since it was close to the end of session, we’d voted on all these bills many times before; in committee, in the full House the first time, then again in the full House when they came back from the Senate, and now, in the full House again after they came out of conference committee.
We spend a lot of time together in the House of Representatives, kind of like people locked on a ship that’s adrift at sea. We’d heard each other’s speeches on these bills until we could all recite them together.
On that day, we were tired, over-stimulated and stressed; all combined with an almost numbing boredom. It gets like that late in every legislative session.
Mainly due to the boredom, we started talking about the emails we get. Now there are certain people who evidently get up every morning and fire off a nasty email to all the members of the legislature before breakfast, kind of like some people go to daily mass and others run on their treadmill. Their names and the names they call us become familiar to all of us. We started trying to figure out whose district these emailers were from.
Finally, I emailed the one who we all felt was the most flamboyant and asked what part of the state he lived in. Nobody answers these kinds of emails, and I think it was the first time any of us had clicked “reply” on one of his. The person responded and asked why I wanted to know. I said that we’d been talking about him and were wondering whose district he lived in.
If it’s possible to sound abashed in an email, this person did. I really don’t think he realized that people read the stuff he was sending. In all the years since, he has never sent another blanket email to the Oklahoma House.
Of course, this person, hateful and goofy-sounding as his emails were, did not rise to the level that gets someone into the “Crazy People” file. It takes a special kind of venom, and usually a couple of threats, to land there.
The point I’m making is if you’re writing your legislator in support of Christian values, remember that someone will read what you send. Do your best to sound like a follower of Christ and not an escapee from a wingnut radio talk show. You can make your point just as well without calling people names or attacking their intelligence, beliefs, children, parentage or appearance.
Remember: When you say your are a Christian, other people judge Christ by you. Don’t be a negative witness for Christ just because you think it’s clever and witty to degrade other people with your speech. Civility will not only make you a better witness for Christ, it will make you more persuasive about the positions you are advocating.
It can also keep you out of the “Crazy People” file.
You can buy a copy of Trusting God with St Therese here.
Does news of ISIS, the Ebola virus and the Synod on the Family fill you with anxiety?
Are you downcast and disheartened by the unraveling of our society and its descent into amoral self-destruction?
Maybe your problems are closer to home.
Do you worry about your children’s friends? Are you caring for a sick child or an elderly relative? Does it seem that you’ll never make enough money to get ahead? Do you fear for your job? Are you faced with a scary health problem?
Is life beating you to the ground on a daily basis?
Trusting God with St Therese is for you.
Connie Rossini does a good job of teaching St Therese’ “little way” in a comprehensible manner that makes it easy to apply to our daily lives. Since reading the book, I’ve been reminding myself to say “Jesus I trust you,” whenever I consider the problems that face me. It helps me a great deal to remind myself that I am not in this life alone. I have a companion who will never desert me, and who, ultimately, has already claimed the victory over all that assails me.
St Therese practiced a life of sanctity based on living each day for Him and through Him. She did not focus on being sinless, but on trusting God for her salvation. She did not attempt great deeds, but entrusted her every action to Him on a daily, and even momentary, basis.
It’s so simple, really. When my mother interrupts me for the 50th (I’m not exaggerating when I say 50; over the course of a day it’s accurate) to ask me something she’s already asked me 49 times and I snap at her, What do you want? St Therese reminds me to turn to God and ask Him for a kiss, or a bit of comfort rather than falling into guilt and despair.
She teaches us to view God as a loving parent, which, for me, is a good analogy. In that way, my own imperfect Daddy is a good model for God. I understand unconditional love because I had it all my life from my Daddy and from that elderly Mama I now care for.
St Therese teaches God as that same sort of loving parent, only writ eternal and almighty.
Think about it for a moment. Is there anything you can do, any accomplishment you can accomplish, that will make God love you? Conversely, is there anything you can do that will make Him stop loving you?
Too often, people come to the conclusion that the answer to the last question is yes. Yes, you can make God stop loving you.
But that simply is not true. Hard as it is to fathom, God loves the murderers of ISIS as much as He loves you and me. They have rejected Him, and sadly, they’ve done it in His name. They are running away from Him and from salvation as hard as they can, and they are laying waste whole areas of the world in the process. They have made themselves the servants and the disciples of satan.
But that does not cancel out God’s love for them. It does not change His willingness to forgive them and change them from sons of darkness to children of Light. The message of the Cross is that no matter what we’ve done, Jesus has paid the eternal price for it. All we need to do is say “yes” to His offer of forgiveness and newness of life.
God’s love lets us roam free, even of Him. We can do our worst. He will still love us.
And if we turn back to Him, the rejoicing in heaven will fill us with love and peace enough to change our souls.
For those of us who do not commit the ghastly barbarisms of ISIS and their fellow mass murderers, this may seem like an odd example. After all, what does me, speaking tartly to my Mama when she interrupts me repeatedly to ask me what day it is or where she put her cane, have to do with the destroyers of life and civilization?
Nothing. And everything.
God’s love for them is the same as His love for me. It is, in both cases, unconditional.
Which is why St Therese and her little way are true. The Bible tells us that God remembers our frame, He knows that we are dust, which is a poetic way of saying that He knows our weaknesses, our tiredness, our sadness; our anxiety and our fears.
He knows us. All the way through. And He loves us with an everlasting love.
We can go to Him like disobedient children because that is exactly what we are.
Connie Rossini has written a fine book, explaining how to live the Little Way in our daily lives. I recommend it.
We’re getting snippets of this, and snippets of that out of the Synod on the Family.
One word that has appeared and is floating around like one of those word bubbles above characters heads in a cartoon is gradualism. Even John Allen over at Crux, has made note of the sudden uptick in gradualism talk. “Gradualism … seemed on the verge of being stricken fem the official lexicon, is back with a vengeance,” he tell us.
Unfortunately, ordinary pew-sitting Catholics like me have been pummeled and pounded with moral relativism these past few years. We’ve had the cant of what’s-happening-now talking-head theology thrown in our faces as we’ve been called everything from bigots to birdbrains for attempting to stay true to the Church’s teachings. In times like this, the sudden employment of the word “gradualism” by our bishops as they talk about those teachings fills us with anxiety.
Are our religious leaders going to pull the rug out from under us and announce that the teachings we’ve given real emotional blood to support are now as relative as the larger society has told us they are? The anxiety, which runs deep in a lot of hearts, is that our bishops are going to end up playing us for chumps for having believed them in the first place.
I’m no theologian, but I think — emphasis think — that gradualism, as it applies to Catholic teaching is that you don’t have to be all the way home to perfection or order to be on your way there. It sounds like shorthand way of saying that we are all on a journey in this life, and, in terms of our walk with Christ, we fall down a lot and have to get back up.
The easiest way I can explain what I’m trying to say is to describe my own self at the time of my conversion experience. I had committed the whole library of serious sins. I could go down the Ten Commandments and tick them off. Took the Lord’s name in vain? Check. Bore false witness? Check. Killed innocent people? Done and done.
I was rotten with sin, but the only sin I believed was a sin happened to be something that neither the press nor most of my friends know about. I confessed it to my priest and I’ve certainly taken it to God. I think I’ll let that ride and not confess it here.
Suffice it to say, that I believed I had done something cruel to another person and I was grieved to my core over it. So grieved that, after 17 years of telling God to buzz off, I reached out to Him. “Forgive me,” was all I said, but it was enough.
I experienced a homecoming that puts the welcome given the prodigal son to shame. I was, as Protestants say, washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb.
Buutttttt … I stil didn’t know my other sins were sins.
I know that sounds daffy.
But I had lived by my own lights, been my own little g god for so long, drunk so many gallons of my own Kool-Aid that I honestly believed that, say, abortion, was a positive good that saved women’s lives. I believed that right down to the ground. No questions. No doubts.
I could go on for a long time, cataloguing what I didn’t know about my own sinful state. But the point I’m making needs no further explication, and here it is:
God accepted me just exactly as I was.
Let me say that again: God accepted me just exactly as I was.
I didn’t have to go to the spiritual dry cleaners and get all spiffed up to be acceptable to Him and loved by Him.
I didn’t need to have my nose rubbed in my sins and be humiliated for them.
I didn’t even need to know what my sins were.
All I had to do was say “yes” and God loved me from death to life in an instant of overwhelming grace.
The interesting part is that He didn’t start educating me right away. At first, it was like a honeymoon of sorts. I fell blindly and absolutely in love with Jesus and He loved me back. I felt so free, clean and loved.
And I was.
Gradually, this Being (Who I did not understand at the time was the Holy Spirit) Who had been walking with me since I said “Forgive me,” began to show me my sins. It was gently done. He would show me something I had done, and I would realize that it was wrong.
It was — get ready for this now — almost a year and a half before He raise the question of abortion, and then it was as gently done as all the rest. Just, this is wrong.
A lot came later, but once again, this suffices for the point I’m trying to make.
Gradualism is not just a theological construct. It is a lived reality. What I experienced when the Holy Spirit began the process of re-shaping me into what He wanted me to become, what He had always intended me to be, was God’s own gradualism.
He can knock you flat just as He did me. But when He picks you up, it’s like a mother holding her own precious child. He does not expect you to “get” it all at once, even more than I expected my newborn babies to hop down off the delivery table and start tap dancing.
I knew, and God knows, that we learn slowly or not at all.
And, perhaps more to the point, we learn when the time is right for us to do it.
This gradualism I describe does not say that God’s Word, His Gospels and His Righteousness are relative. They are not. In fact, they are so absolute that none of us can live up to them. That is the reason for the Cross. It is why God had to become human and suffer what we suffer and die as we die to open a way out of our lostness for us.
We can never live up to God’s absolute righteousness. Thanks be to God, we don’t have to.
We are, all of us pilgrim people on the road through this life and into the next one.
Gradualism is simply the acknowledgement of two things:
1. None of us is righteous is His sight, and,
2. He accepts us just as we are.
What we must do — what we must do — is trust Him and give Him our lives and our wills. We must let Him shape us into what we were meant to be, one gradual step at a time. If we presume on His mercy to declare that we do not need to change, that our sins are not sins, then we refuse Him and we will die the ultimate death.
God accepted me just as I was, and then He began to slowly change what I wanted to be. He showed me my sins and I reacted by believing Him and letting Him change me, from the inside out.
That is the key to salvation.
It is also why gradualism is not relativism. Gradualism does not say that sins are not sins. It simply says that we are, all of us, at whatever stage in our Walk with Christ, in need of improvement.
Do not take the concept of gradualism and mis-use it as a get out of jail free card that allows you to willfully continue in your sins and thumb your nose at the Gospels. That is a fearful and, if it’s not given up, fatal sin. “God is not mocked,” St Paul told us, and those who claim God’s forgiveness as a fiat to sin are mocking God.
Gradualism is not relativism, although I suspect it will be bandied about as if it was. Gradualism is simply a word expressing what the old hymn, Just As I Am, expresses. It does not teach that sin is not sin. What it teaches is that the hopelessness of our sins need not be our story.
We can be washed clean of our sins by the Blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ side. We can become true pilgrims who are walking faithfully with Him on the Narrow Way that will lead us to Glory.
Gradualism tells us that we don’t have to get perfect to go to God. That, no matter what we’ve done, we can change and become new creatures in Him.
Because the same Jesus Who told us He was the Way, also promised that He would make all things new.
Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith takes his own view of gradualism here