Is that what you call it?

As part of the information and communications that came out of the recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family was a debate over “gradualism.” Some saw this as a good thing, others not so good. For those that are not up on the debate or even the concepts and terminology, here is a link to a good presentation by Monsignor Charles Pope out of the Archdiocese of Washington DC (no need for me to go to all that work myself). Anyway, I guess I’ve always understood the concept to be more about pastoral practice rather than a theological concept.

When I was a seminarian (many years ago), I remember a long conversation I had with one of my priest mentors around the whole issue of the Church’s moral teaching and the pastoral application of that teaching. I was a transitional deacon at the time and was beginning to deal with the many real life pastoral situations of the folks in my assigned parish. I was struggling with trying to be faithful to the Church’s teaching while dealing with the person or couple right in front of me. How do I mediate between the Teaching and the person? I was new to all of this. I had a lot to learn.  But I wanted to do the right thing as the Church’s minister.

The priest, who was ordained prior to Vatican II, shared with me that much of what I was struggling with was a result of the breakdown of the Confessional sacramental practice. He said that in the past many would go to Confession regularly, confess their sins, encounter the teaching of the Church in its fullness, and then hear from the priest encouragement and forgiveness. My mentor shared that it was in the confidentiality of the confessional that he was able to encourage people to not give up but to gradually grow in their acceptance of and living out of the fullness of the Church’s teaching. Within the privacy of the confessional, people encountered grace and mercy. So, for example, if you had a young person who was struggling with chastity, the priest would encourage him or her to keep trying to become more chaste, to not give up, and to continue to take advantage of the Church’s sacramental life. But it was all done within the Confessional.

Then came the post-Vatican II changes to the Liturgy and pastoral practices and the resultant dramatic decrease in people going to Confession. As a result, the confessional-penitential structures and practices disappeared as well. Now the issue became  – among many – where does the person hear the fullness of the Church’s teaching, hear it applied to the particular situation of his or her life, and then receive advice and encouragement and perhaps, forgiveness? We’ve all seen what happens when one tries to discuss publicly the Church’s moral teaching as applied to particular pastoral situations: you can end up at one extreme with a rigidity of law that allows for no mediation or with something called “exceptionalism” – the moral teaching of the Church becomes watered down or even understood by way of exceptions rather than the rule. On the one extreme you have the hand of mercy that is closed in a fist. On the other end, you have hands that are so open that everything falls through the fingers and nothing is ever grasped or held as true. Among many things, it leads to a feeling that everything is “up for grabs,” that there are no hard and fast moral rules anymore.

I know there is a lot more to say on this matter.  I’m not a moral theologian but a pastor. Still I wanted to share this in this blog post because this conversation with my priest-mentor and subsequent ones helped form me so as to be a priest and now bishop who has been, I hope, a consistent teacher of the truths while being a pastor who encourages and helps those with whom I speak to live that fullness while never losing sight of the Church’s mission of mercy. I try and help people to gradually grow in their faith, always striving forward in the life of holiness, never “settling” for something less than that, but always moving forward.

So when I read a lot of the information that came out of the Synod and the blog posts that followed, I thought to myself, “Is that what you call it – gradualism.” Nice to have a name to it after all these years.



3 Comments. Leave new

Thank you, Bishop. That is the missing link that I felt must be out there but was unable to grab properly.

Halbert Weidner
December 22, 2014 12:26 pm

Thanks Bishop. When I was a campus minister I was faced by many questions especially sex. My response was always “Do the best you can.” I always looked for ways into the values of the Church that were actually being honored by the struggling students. If so much of what we teach is part of natural law, then this approach should and did produce good results. Again thanks. And congrats on the challenge of Burlington, Vermont.If it were not for that I would not have known about your great blog.

Brilliant comment about the confessional. It illustrates how much is lost by the de facto abandoment of the confessional and the opportunities it presented. When they switched to having confessional rooms where you and the priest sat across from each other, they virtually insured that no one would go.

All the more reason for priests to keep encouraging confession, in a confessional, anonymously.