The Synod on the Family taking place in Rome has awakened interest in what is called “gradualness,” the recognition that people are not either holy or unholy, moral or immoral, “good Catholics” or “bad Catholics".
Holiness is not a state so much as a lighthouse whose beam guides us as we travel through the frequently stormy voyage we call life. Gradualness focuses not so much upon the arrival at and residence in an ideal as upon the struggle, usually fitful and sometimes failing, to stay aware of the ideal and aim toward it.
People are dynamic, moving in various directions at different times. Sometimes that movement is away from an ideal, but often movement is towards it. We grow in holiness and in our ability to follow Church teaching. Spiritually as well as biologically and psychologically, we evolve.
The Church presents ideals, for example, about sex, marriage and family life. But, the Synod bishops seem to be saying that without abandoning those ideals, it is important for pastoral practice to give priority to the people who live in various degrees of conformity to those ideals, recognizing that people may be doing as well as they are able in the circumstances in which they live.
For example, the Japanese bishops pointed out in their preparatory comments for the Synod that, “In developing a pastoral orientation, it is perhaps important to recall that the only time in the gospels that Jesus clearly encounters someone in a situation of cohabitation outside of marriage (the Samaritan woman at the well) he does not focus on it. Instead, he respectfully deals with the woman and turns her into a missionary.”
That does not mean that Jesus condoned living together outside of marriage. He knew, though, that her marital status was not the most important thing about the daughter of God in front of him and he dealt with her on that level. It may be that his approach enabled her gradually to make changes in her life.
The Church’s role is to guide, encourage, and give thanks for even small progress and offer comfort in failure.
It is the same old battle that Jesus and the Pharisees waged: Are the rules, even God’s rules, most important, or are the sometimes rule-bending, rule-breaking people more important? After four decades of emphasis among Church leaders upon rules and a definition of the Christian life as conformity to those rules, the Synod seems to be reaffirming the Vatican II insight that the Church is first of all a community of people—God’s people.
That shift has not been universally applauded even among Synod participants. That is to be expected. After all, bishops, too, live with gradualness, growing (one hopes) into a deeper appreciation of how they might follow the Lord and serve God’s people, a more dedicated willingness to do so and a more successful pursuit of that desire.
There seem to be three areas where gradualness is the lens though which pastoral decisions and care will be provided as the Church moves through a synod process that will take a few years.
One that is likely to see change sooner than other areas is the system for granting annulments. It is presently a cumbersome process that can cause pain to those involved. Streamlining it by, for example, doing away with the automatic appeal process against declarations of nullity will offer more timely pastoral care to people seeking release from what might be an intolerable situation, as when, for example, domestic violence is involved.
Reception of the Eucharist by those who have remarried following divorce is another area where a flexible attitude may be combined with a commitment to the ideal of marital indissolubility. Officially, anyone in that situation is not allowed to receive the sacrament unless he or she changes the status. Of course, many Catholics know cases where the rule is already ignored in practice. The Orthodox and Protestant Churches have found ways to live with the teaching of Jesus and the sometimes pain-filled reality of people without adding to their burdens or punishing them for being less than perfect.
Another change seems to be beginning with a softening of language about an “intrinsically disordered state” as the description of homosexuals. It may evolve to a willingness to accept, though not sacramentalize, same-sex relationships, which would lead to a broader examination of gender issues.
At the Synod, bishops are speaking not only from ideas and pastoral experience, but from the deeper experience of their own lives. Probably all have family or friends whose marriages have failed. Many have family or friends who are gay. There may even be some who have admitted to themselves, if not yet to others, that they are homosexually oriented.
In other words, the leadership of the Church in itself is involved in a process of gradualness: recognizing ideals, but recognizing as well that no one, not even a bishop, is exempt from the journey toward a perfection that will never be achieved.
So, we watch the Church move along as it has throughout history, following the light of Christ, but knowing that we all need encouragement and help for the journey more than we need reminders that we have not yet arrived.
Fr William Grimm is publisher of ucanews.com, based in Tokyo.
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