Tag Archives: Christian History

“Gradualism” and the Inevitability of Doctrinal Change

One of the key themes of the family synod has been the idea of “gradualism”, which has meant in this context, the idea that those whose lives currently fall outside of the approved moral norms, can move step by step closer to ideal moral states. The task of the church then, should be to encourage such transitions, rather than simplistically condemning the initial state as unacceptable. One example which makes clear what is meant, is that of cohabitation, which is clearly unacceptable in standard doctrine. However, cohabitation and commitment to a single partner represents a clear improvement on a single life of sexual promiscuity, with a succession of one – night stands In turn, civil marriage, while not formally recognized by the Church, is a public commitment to fidelity and permanence in the relationship, and so is an improvement on mere cohabitation – and leaves open the possibility of later upgrading to sacramental marriage, in church:

In this respect, a new dimension of today’s family pastoral consists of accepting the reality of civil marriage and also cohabitation, taking into account the due differences. Indeed, when a union reaches a notable level of stability through a public bond, is characterized by deep affection, responsibility with regard to offspring, and capacity to withstand tests, it may be seen as a germ to be accompanied in development towards the sacrament of marriage. Very often, however, cohabitation is established not with a view to a possible future marriage, but rather without any intention of establishing an institutionally-recognized relationship.

Imitating Jesus’ merciful gaze, the Church must accompany her most fragile sons and daughters, marked by wounded and lost love, with attention and care, restoring trust and hope to them like the light of a beacon in a port, or a torch carried among the people to light the way for those who are lost or find themselves in the midst of the storm.

From this perspective, “gradualism” is a one – way process, whereby Catholic practice by individuals and couples, is brought into ever increasing conformity with Catholic doctrine. There is however, another use of the word in Catholic discourse, but one which has not featured in official summaries of synod discussions – that “gradualism” can also apply to slow and incremental change in Catholic doctrine itself, bringing it by degrees into ever closer conformity with real world Catholic practice. This could be why the more conservative bishops are setting themselves so resolutely against significant change in pastoral practice, as well as against change in doctrine. They know, and are afraid, that change in pastoral practice frequently leads to subsequent change in doctrine.

One simple example of how change in official doctrines must change if the proposed adjustments to pastoral practice are accepted, is in the matter of language – specifically, phrases like “contraceptive mentality”, “intrinsically disordered”, and “living in sin”. The first two of these at least are embedded in the Vatican documents: “contraceptive mentality” in the writing of Pope John Paul II, and “intrinsically disordered” in that of Cardinal Ratzinger as Prefect of the Congregation for the Protection of the Faith. It is difficult to see how to get rid of such language without rewriting or replacing the relevant texts, or how such rewriting with more appropriate language would not also institute a change of emphasis in the underlying doctrine.

Moreover, although the synod was quite specifically not called to consider any change to doctrine, at least some of those attending have been openly saying that such change is essential. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin is one, and (I think) Cardinal Baldisseri, overseeing the entire synod process, is another.

The opponents of change may insist as much as they like that it is “impossible” to change Church doctrine, but they are simply wrong. In his widely publicized lengthy interview last year with …… Pope Francis himself acknowledged that what he described as “evolution” in church teaching (i.e. gradual change) is inevitable.

There is great irony in the use of this argument of “impossibility” with respect to communion after divorce and remarriage, because if it really were true that change in the matter is impossible – the synod would not now be having the debate in the first place. The whole thrust of the argument for change by Cardinal Kasper, who raised the idea in the first place, is that current rigidity does not reflect the practice of the earliest church, which accepted the doctrine of indissolubility of marriage – but also displayed greater flexibility and nuance in practical responses to individual Christians in such situations.

Some might argue that this earlier practice was a difference in pastoral practice, not doctrine – but part of the resistance to any change at all, is precisely based on the argument that in this matter, both the question of remarriage after divorce itself, and that of the refusal of communion, are matters of doctrine. Those resisting change cannot have it both ways: either the refusal of communion is a simple matter of pastoral practice (or of church discipline), or we must acknowledge that the doctrine has changed in the past, and can change again – just as it has done, and will do, on so many other matters across two thousand years of Christian history.