Synod on the Family: What Do They Mean by Gradualism?

Synod on the Family: What Do They Mean by Gradualism? October 8, 2014


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 Passion Of Christ Movie HD Wallpaper

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

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26 responses to “Synod on the Family: What Do They Mean by Gradualism?”

  1. Well, gradualism in the sense of policy is not a theological term. It’s a political term. It’s when politicians want to go in a particular direction but the people don’t. So they move gradually in the hopes that they will not rebel in the near term, and when they have gotten used to this change they can then move another step forward. it’s a term to dislike.

    • There is nothing wrong with walking with people to lead them gradually to following church teachings.

      There is however, something wrong, when the sacraments are not changing lives, the Eucharist is not transforming people.

      This might be a result of wanting to receive the sacraments at any cost, no matter what, basically receiving the sacraments in a state of grave sin.

      • Just getting in line at church once a week doesn’t change a person unless the person is actually willing to receive what they take and act upon it. The Eucharist has to permeate someone’s life. God doesn’t force people to do things. It requires that people give consent to God in all the areas of their lives. That’s not been taught appropriately to people and people haven’t realized it for themselves.

  2. A long time ago, from a rather liberal priest who *really hated* fundamentalism, I heard that the proper Catholic answer to the question “Are you saved?” (implying Once Saved Always Saved doctrine, which the Church rejects) is that Our Lord asked us to “be being saved”, not “be saved”.

    None of us in this life are already saved. Not until we see that beatific vision in Heaven.

    Dogma is the preaching of Jesus Christ as handed to us by the Apostles. Doctrine is that which is logically derived from Dogma in accordance with our current understanding of the universe. Discipline changes quickly, and is how we match Doctrine and Dogma to where people are right now. Pastoral gradualism is a method of the Discipline of the Church.

  3. Thanks for sharing. God is much more patient and gentle with us and our failings and sinfulness than we usually are of ourselves or especially each other. The older I get, the gladder I am of His kindness in this manner of dealing with us. I still have the same firey wish of my early days in the faith (my 20s) to root everything bad out, to understand and be “perfect” in everything, but at least it is now tempered with realism that it isn’t GOING to be that way, and in fact none of us could withstand the burning light of His full, purifying perfection shining on us as we are in this life. We are definitely called to immediately stop our old ways, to begin following Jesus, but how firmly we do it varies not just from one to another but over the span of our own lives. As you said, there’s no easy excuse for WILLFULLY disobeying, but what we presbyterians know as Sanctification, the walking out of a life conformed more and more to the likeness of Christ, is indeed a lifelong process. The only hard part, really, is knowing what TO say to others and when. I don’t think it’s helpful to shy away from calling new converts OR old Christians on their sins, but it has to be done with love, in the “brother/sister, this is not good for you to do!” way, vs. the “you are an evil pile of doggie doo doo and Jesus hates you for this, so you’d better shape up!” kind of way. Unfortunately, even if you do it in love, people often hear you as “judging” them, because they do not WANT to change. At least not yet. Still, Scripture does say to warn a brother, and pray. And love. Hard to do. But then if following Jesus was alway easy and always led to long life, wealth and happiness, everyone would follow Him, I suppose. 😉

  4. Catholic life is a journey. The clerical establishment needs to get as many as they can to walk with them, even if those fellow travelers aren’t coming along for all the reasons they would like them to. The church must trust that just by traveling along, they will get to many of the places that they need to, even if they are not specifically seeking them.

    Can the hierarchy tolerate this kind of cat herding craziness? I kind of doubt it. They aren’t really princes of the church but more like fussy old queens. We’ll see.

  5. To sum up imho we have to be as crafty as snakes and as approachable as doves or however that saying goes; iow don’t let the sin you are opposing distract you from virtue; the devil loves it when we get so focused on sin that we begin to almost see our self only in reference to it; if you stare in to the abyss too long it will begin to stare back at you and all that.

    So, trust the holy spirit and remember that we should be thinking in centuries not in terms of 24 hour news cycles.

  6. Thank you for the explanation. “Gradualism” certainly sounds ominous. Your explanation made me feel better about it, but it took some time for me to understand it fully.
    But can you expand on why John Allen are apparently fretting over it? And why is it even a point of discussion for Bishops, and why at this particular Synod?

      • That, and this synod is only a part of a much larger process that includes things that have gone before it, and things that will follow it, like the synod next year. This synod is not expected to come out with the same kind of output as previous synods have, in terms of documentary forms. That was discussed in the Press Briefing of 10/11.

    • Because it’s intimately related to the New Evangelization.
      (I don’t know what John Allen is fretting about. I’ll have to read what he’s written.)

  7. I actually see gradualism at work in myself. But it is not a gradualism that leads to God. It is a gradualism that leads to nothing. I remember becoming a complete Jesus freak at my Cusillo in February 2009. I have been on a five-year decline since then. I started to have my doubts one day while reciting the rosary and meditating on the glorious mysteries. All of a sudden I just felt like this is really stupid. I quickly came to the conclusion that none of them were true. The strong possibility occurred to me that the atheists were right. I had to read what they had to say. And I must say I am quite convinced now that they are right.

    • Their gradualism leads to nothing also. Which is why the Church is in a mess. and as he sowed, some seeds fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate them up. Parable of the seed…”Others fell on the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of soil. But when the sun had risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.”

      Being a Jesus freak does not work. You need to take conversion a step at a time and not get overcome by the sugar-rush.

      • There’s nothing wrong with ardor or happiness about discovering God. Rather, it’s a matter of what the ardor is directed at. If you fall in love with a human ideal, like a culture or a way of doing things, and that’s all the deeper it is, yes, of course, that will lead you nowhere. It’s powered by you!
        What the synod is talking about isn’t just adherence to a bunch of cultural dictums or a way of doing things. They’re talking about what happens when you step out to form a relationship with God and give your life to him in love. That leads everywhere and ultimately to eternal life.

    • Well, yes but that isn’t the gradualism they’re talking about because what you’re describing might not be spiritual growth. Don’t let it lay there. Really–keep working on it. There’s more to this and it’s not what you think.

  8. **Do not take the concept of gradualism and mis-use it as a get out of jail free card**

    Of course, that is exactly the way it is being used, same as the concept of “conscience,” so it really matters little what the real and true usage of it is. Instead of simply recognizing the reality that we are all works in progress, that we all need to take steps toward Jesus telling us “be perfect,” it is being used to essentially say, “you’re OK just the way you are.” And that having the effect of the person not bothering to take any more steps.
    In time, what we see the de facto use of gradualism is to turn it around. Instead of encouraging growth in holiness, it is the old “slow-boil of the frog,” with Church teaching being the frog. It is giving a wink and a nod when insisting that you are upholding that teaching, but in effect undoing it all.

    • No, it’s really a recognition of what’s actually going on. People are making claims and not living up to them. It’s time we recognized that and dealt with it. That’s what “gradualism” is really about.
      The fact is that many Catholics have very low levels of spiritual growth. Moral behavior for the right reasons tracks along with spiritual growth such that it improves when spiritual growth improves. This is a recognition of that simple fact.
      Spiritual growth happens in a series of steps. You don’t expect a baby to tap dance at 1 day old. They have to learn to stand and walk first! In the same way, pretending someone with low spiritual growth can do all the things that a person with higher spiritual growth would do, for the same reasons , is just as wacky. And it doesn’t happen. Period. We have lots of evidence of that.

  9. The Church changes. That is the reality. Just look at what it condemned (under pain of excommunication) in past centuries and what it embraces now. Be guided by your better (and more informed) natures.

  10. Thanks very much for your thoughtful post.

    “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 can definitely identify. Maybe worse still, the cynic might imagine that some of these religious leaders would scapegoat us, making a common enemy of the pew-sitting and obedient Catholic as the easiest way to rise in the ranks of popular culture who loves to engage in criticism of the Church.

    I love the vision of a tolerant church, of a church that shares in rejoicing the return of the prodigal son. And yes, some of us pew sitters are like the ‘obedient’ son who feel forgotten, less important simply because of the mercy being shown others. And we need to get over that. Yet it’s another thing to be slandered as ‘Pharisees’ for not embracing relativism, for sometimes speaking out against harmful ideas and policies when it is appropriate to do so.

    It would be nice instead if we could simply hear the words, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.’ so that we can build up the Church and welcome back those who had been lost together.

    • A thought Mike:

      “It would be nice instead if we could simply hear the words…”

      In the parable it is the Father, in other words God, who says that. Do you really think He isn’t saying that to you? Assuming you truly “have always been with” Him (I’d say I envy you, but that’s a sin :)), I can’t imagine that He wouldn’t.

      Now, whether the Church or a particular bishop tells you this might be a different matter. But in the parable it wasn’t the master servant who said it either.

  11. Perhaps we are still stuck on a religion based on reward and punishment. Only by making the distinction between punitive and restorative justice can we begin to understand God’s redemptive justice. Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM, one of my favourite spiritual teachers, suggests that for many God’s love or grace is sadly based on a false sense of justice which demands that sin must be punished and followed by a lengthy period of repentance. Fr. Rohr calls this a religion based on meritocracy. But Rohr provides the following beautiful illustration of God’s intended grace pattern as follows:

    As some of us still understand it:

    Sin – – – >punishment – – – >repentance – – – > transformation

    But the actual grace pattern is:

    Sin – – – >unconditional love- – – >transformation – – – >repentance

    Note how this pattern is perfectly mirrored in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well and again in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Here you will not find the slightest hint of punishment, only redemption in the form of God’s healing and restorative justice. Perhaps by seeing divorce and remarriage in this new light may we finally bring the necessary compassion and understanding to this controversial issue thus fulfilling Pope Francis’ desire to bring a deeper pastoral care of marriage and divorce.

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