Gradualism and the two senses of Grace

Gradualism and the two senses of Grace October 24, 2014

Roman Catholic theologian David Cloutier gives a lucid explanation of “gradualism,” that take on moral theology that allows for greater acceptance of same-sex and cohabiting couples without, supposedly, compromising traditional morality.  (This is the view that gave us the first report from the Vatican’s synod on the family, though not the final report.)  What do you think of this reasoning?  (I’ll offer some thoughts after the excerpt after the jump.)

From David Cloutier, Is the Vatican evolving on sex and marriage? Not the way politicians do. – The Washington Post.

At the Vatican this past week, “gradualism” was the term emphasized by the bishops and cardinals from around the world meeting to discuss issues of sexuality and family that have divided the church.

The bishops and cardinals didn’t use the term to describe a shift in their thinking. Rather, in the provisional report of the Synod on the Family, they invoked gradualism in recognition that even those who strive toward a moral ideal tend to fall short; for all of us, morality takes time and practice. They urged appreciation of the good in relationships that don’t meet the church ideal of monogamous, til-death-do-us-part marriage.

In accordance with the “law of gradualness,” unmarried couples living together might be encouraged to find deeper commitment in a relationship that has obvious value. Individuals who have remarried after divorce may perhaps be able to take Communion if, for example, the second marriage is stable and clearly benefits the children. Some of the church leadership talked about affirming long-term, committed same-sex relationships in the same way the Catholic Church affirms the virtue in other religious traditions. “One simply cannot say that a faithful homosexual relationship that has held for decades is nothing,” Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich elaborated to a reporter. . . .

Unlike secular political movements, the church is not staking out positions on social issues with the goal of effecting — or blocking — legal or cultural change. It does not see social change (however important) as an end in itself. Instead, the goal is to facilitate the encounter with God, in the person of Jesus and the community of the church. The deliberations of the synod make clear that Francis and many other bishops worry intensely that a focus on certain moral ideals, especially when they sound like a simple “no” to many people, constitutes a barrier to that fundamental spiritual encounter.

Thus, unlike secular advocacy of this or that stance on an issue, gradualism rests on the more important theological conviction that God is really at work in the world. People’s growth ultimately comes from God; the pastoral leadership of the church must simply protect and encourage it. They tend a vineyard that God plants. Francis (when he was Cardinal Bergoglio and had yet to be named pope) warned a conference of priests against “wanting to separate the wheat from the weeds too quickly,” insisting that “it is impossible to force the pace of any human process.” For in these processes, God is at work. “God is not,” he said, “a far-off deity that does not get involved in the world. . . . The structures of the world are not essentially sinful.” God is one “who accompanies all growth; he is the daily bread that nourishes; he is the merciful one who is near at hand in the moments when the enemy would exploit his children.”

This faith in God’s actions, even amid human limitation, should “distance us from the ideas of those who think they have the key to the world, those who know nothing of waiting patiently and working hard, and those who are easily swayed by hysteria and illusion.” In essence, those who think they see everything are the ones who become blind to God’s activity, relying instead on their own.

The ultimate aim is not to mandate or resist social changes, but to accompany people; not to fantasize about being “kings and queens” (as Bergoglio chided his clergy in another talk), but to encourage and shepherd people starting from where they are. Indeed, if there is a real loser in the synod’s discussions, it is the bishops who sought a high-profile position in the culture wars. Francis wants the church to be a “field hospital” for those wounded in our culture and who seek healing, not a mighty warrior whose actions may well add to the wounds.

You could say that, in highlighting gradualness, the synod is saying something very, very old, and not all that political: We are all sinners, and we must rely on God’s grace, not just our own resources. That’s not a gradual realization on the part of the church but something ancient. And it arises not out of a kind of laxism, but out of a recognition of how demanding and challenging Christianity is. I myself need gradualism whenever I read about loving enemies, forgiving people over and over, letting go of the illusory security and charm of possessions. How fortunate we would be if we applied gradualism toward high ideals of sustainable energy use, care for the poor and the immigrant, and sexual respect and discipline — all of which are vigorously proclaimed by the church. Instead, we often sacrifice such ambitious ideals, perhaps for the comfort of a little extra personal freedom and liberation.

The church wants much more than these private victories. God wants nothing less than love out of us. But God also knows: It takes a long time.

As I understand it–and, Catholics, correct me if I’m wrong–Roman Catholic teaching is that there can be no good work apart from God’s grace.  So that any good that we see is from God’s working.  This is how Catholics can emphasize that salvation is by grace while still all emphasizing that salvation is by the “merit” of good works.

So a non-married or same-sex couple may be living together “in sin,” but insofar as they help each other and are loving to each other, that is a sign of God’s grace.   That may grow gradually into explicit faith and more perfect obedience, but, in the meantime, the good works in those relationships must be acknowledged as coming from God.

We Lutherans, as I understand it–and, again, you theologians can correct me, simple layman that I am–can acknowledge goodness wherever it comes from, but we see it contaminated by the sin.  Grace is not a power that creates goodness, but the forgiveness of sins.   All sinners–including gays, out of wedlock couples, other sexual sinners, but also everybody else, since sin contaminates everything–can find forgiveness in the Cross of Jesus Christ, who bore those sins and their punishment and who imputes to us His good works.

What we cannot say is that a person is not a sinner or that a sin is not a sin.  If we did that, it would, ironically, shut out the forgiveness, since those who do not believe they are sinners, who are convinced of their own righteousness, feel no need of forgiveness.

I’m curious how those of you of other Christian theologies take these issues.  Reformed can say some people are just not of the elect.  Arminians can insist that the sexual sinners should just choose to do what it is right and do it.  (I know–those characterizations are over-simplified.  Again, those of you from those persuasions, please correct me.)

I’m also curious if other Christian theologies can buy into or at least agree partially with Catholic gradualism.

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