A number of responses written to the recent Synod have been focused on the merits and drawbacks of a gradualist approach to sin and error. Gradualism is usually understood as asking people to make small changes, as they try to come back into communion with the church, even if that means praising people for making a change that still involves a serious sin, just one that’s smaller in degree than their old habit. It’s a way of making sure you’re welcoming people into a hospital for sinners, rather than asking them to wait outside til they’ve pulled themselves together. Skeptics of this approach think that “grading on a curve” risks giving the impression that the church isn’t really asking people to “Go, and sin no more” and may make ‘minor’ sins seem acceptable and not really urgent to fix.
Personally, I’ve seen the appeal of a gradualist approach before I was Catholic. And it’s certainly resembles strategies I’ve used in non-spiritual domains.
Gradualism in the Gym
For example, I’ve been going down to the gym in my basement every day to do some weightlifting for about the past month. My friends are moderately proud of me, but baffled that I don’t do any cardio at all. Not daily, not ever.
The reason I don’t is that I hate cardio. I hate it so much that if I had built it into my gym routine at the beginning, I didn’t expect I would have a gym routine.
Instead, I wanted to find something that I was actually willing to do, that would help me establish a regular habit and would offer me tangible signs of progress made. Lifting weights means I can see an improvement pretty soon (I move the peg up a weight brick) and I have reason to trust that regular work does something. I figure that after about six months of exercising regularly in a way I don’t mind, and with results I’m proud of already, I’d be ready to try adding actual (blech) running, without expecting I’d just give up out of exhaustion/disgust.
In designing my exercise routine around small-enough-to-tolerate improvements, I’m trying to build a success spiral. If I try something small enough to actually do, and then do it, I feel energized, and get to enjoy the fruits of modest improvement. When I try the next expansion of my routine, not only I feel hopeful that I can do it, but I’ll want to pull it off, since I know that the last thing I did, even if short of an ideal routine, made my life better.
Gradualism in the Bedroom
The goal of a gradualist approach in spiritual development isn’t to accomodate or indulge someone who feels weak and strained — it’s to give them hope and set them on fire to keep making improvements, trusting that, if they’re patient, the habits that seem impossible now will be something that they commit to. The changes along the way, even if they don’t completely solve a problem, should move people enough in the right direction that they have Chesterton’s sense of the Church as a “truth-telling thing,” because moving in the direction it recommended did change their lives for the better (though not necessarily the easier!).
I kind of used to rely on a gradualist approach when friends in college asked for my advice about romantic and sexual entanglements that I disapproved of. This was a good long while before I was Catholic, but, with my Kantian leanings, I looked askance at campus hookup culture and the way that it seemed to encourage people to treat each other as means to “get off” rather than ends in themselves.
But, as you might guess, responding to a question about how a friend should answer a text with a disquisition on Kant didn’t really have any positive effect. There was no reason for my friends to trust my judgement and ethics far enough to overturn their lives to follow it. Instead, I tried to infuse my advice with my Kantian sensibilities, making sure to ask, “Well, how do you think [the previous night’s hookup] feels? What are his expectations? Oh, yeah, that kind of ambiguity sounds exhausting–I understand why you’re stressed. If you’re not sure, do you want to have a different sort of conversation, so it’s easier for each of you to treat each other well without having to rely so much on guesswork?”
I wanted to make sure that my friends had an affordance for picking (what I thought was) the right option. And I figured that, as long as my friend did care at all about his/her inamorata, my job was mostly to fan the flames of that disposition to kindness. If I were right about the correct way to care for a partner, my friend would wind up re-deriving it–as you can always re-derive any fact about the world, given enough time–my job was primarily to make sure the questions of “What is doing right by my partner?” stayed on the front burner, rather than to hand off an answer that they didn’t accept.
Gradualism ultimately resembles the advice frequently given to writers: “The purpose of the first sentence is to get you to read the second sentence.”
Whatever today’s advice is obviously shouldn’t be followed forever–it’s there to prepare you for tomorrow’s task. Sometimes, gradualist approaches do this by freeing someone from despair, as Calah Alexander movingly describes, sometimes it works by helping us build a good foundation to expand from, and sometimes it helps by giving us a small improvement that will bear fruit, and give us reason to trust the next piece of advice.
At its best, gradualism makes people feel like welcome fellow pilgrims, who, like all the rest of us, want to be able to move farther, faster toward the vocation we’re all called to — being Christlike. There shouldn’t be a sense of complacency or satiety afforded by our present state, but the small triumphs are worth celebrating, as a foretaste of what we could be and the grace we could receive and offer if we patiently keep remaking ourselves and relinquishing the sins we’ve cherished.