“Gradualism is Another Word for License.” No, It’s Not.

“Gradualism is Another Word for License.” No, It’s Not. October 15, 2014

I keep seeing these same six words all over social media:

“Gradualism is another word for license.”

Think so? Really? No possibility that it is the process of grace, working within us?

So, no grace at work, here? an atheist-turned-nun:

I was attending Mass for an entire year before I went to confession. I don’t make excuses for myself. My soul was not in the proper state to be receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, but it took time for grace to work in me in order for me to realize this. Finally, in the same way I was drawn to Jesus in the Eucharist, one day I felt an overwhelming urge to go to confession.

That’s gradualism. It gave us another religious sister.

The rest is history.

No powerful grace laboring in the step-by-step salvation of these souls?

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.

That’s gradualism, too. Those people who were so intent on protecting the church from baptizing this sinner nearly amended the story of a soul, and the formation of a strong Catholic family, including four little kids.

Saint Augustine knew something about gradualism: “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet!”

Anecdotes? Sure. True stories are anecdotes. When has hard data been required for great conversion stories to become credible and meaningful and inspiring for others? It’s not really the Catholic way, is it? We love our saint stories, and all of them are different anecdotes:

  • “I heard of this one guy, Francis, a real whack job, wanted to be a Crusader; then he stripped naked and claimed God told him to rebuild a church…”
  • “There was this partygirl, a real intellectual, with the whole thing, the drinking, the abortion, the shacking up. She started to move along a spiritual path but it took having a baby, out of wedlock, to really bring her around…”
  • “There was this great English writer, Gilbert — a nominal Anglican, who wrote a masterpiece on Orthodoxy, but took another 20 years to actually come into the church…”

I’m already on record voicing my concerns about the principle of gradualism being haphazardly applied, and I meant it. The prudential judgement of a priest or bishop must be prayerfully reached. But there are a lot of hurting souls out there, who assume that if they tried to walk through the church doors, someone would be petitioning a bishop to keep them out, and someone else would be overwhelming them with law, before they’d managed to kneel down and beg for mercy.

And because they assume it to be true, they don’t even dream of ascending the steps and giving a tug on the door.

Conversion of soul is a process. As Saint Benedict of Norcia knew, conversion of manner, what we call ‘conversio‘ is also a process — one that monks and nuns and oblates work at their whole lives. Incarnation is a process.

Paul may have had his Damascus moment — and how glorious for those who make instantaneous conversions — but even the apostles only got it gradually. Thomas didn’t get it until he put his hand into Christ’s very wounds.

Let’s not be too hard on “gradualism” or disdain it as something it most definitely is not: a euphemism for “all is well; everyone keep sinning.” In truth, it is an old way of understanding how to co-operate with grace for the sake of a wary and wandering soul.


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