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A Tale of Two Cities

by Tony M.

It was the clearest of times, it was the most confused of times.
It was the free-est of times, it was the most enslaved of times.

Those who have eyes to see can see the workings of Satan more clearly than ever before, those whose eyes are untrained can be puzzled and in doubt even about simple and straightforward matters (is murder wrong?, is sodomy just another form of love?)
This age gives men the most freedom of any age of man, but men use it to become more enslaved to sin than ever before.

What we have here is the City of Neo-Pelagian Consequentialists and the City of Christians.

The mid-stream “Relatio” for the Synod on the Family in Rome gives every appearance (if you know how to read between the lines), of attempting to push an specific agenda: that the Church can accommodate a gradualism of approach to perfection, a gradualism of a certain sort. In addition to being an agenda mostly made up in smoke-filled back rooms rather than the positions of the Synod Fathers themselves, this gradualism allows that persons (and couples, and families) can normally and fruitfully be expected to progress from a situation, (or relationship) that is evil in many respects but encompasses a good of some aspect, and gradually grow into another aspect of good, and then another aspect of good, and yet another, and so on until it eventually approaches to perfection.

From the moment that the order of creation is determined by orientation towards Christ, it becomes necessary to distinguish without separating the various levels through which God communicates the grace of the covenant to humanity. Through the law of gradualness (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 34), typical of divine pedagogy, this means interpreting the nuptial covenant in terms of continuity and novelty, in the order of creation and in that of redemption.

This gradualism intends to take men “where they are” and lead them by minute but every improving steps, from the evils of cohabiting, or SSM, toward the more complete nuptial understanding of the Church as prophetically witnessed by Pius XI in Casti Canubii, Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, and JP II in Familiaris Consortio.

This is a revolutionary concept. Before today the Church did not attempt to propose that. Instead, the gradualism proposed by the Church earlier was a gradualism starting in a different place, that of IMPERFECTION, not of grave evil.

Wait, what’s the difference? That which is evil is imperfect, that which is imperfect fails to be good precisely in that it is evil in some aspect, right?

No, that’s not quite it. Let’s take a straightforward example. Suppose a mafia don goes to church once a month on Sunday to do the following: Intimidating people to collect his “insurance fees” from certain parishioners (pride), collect his share of the bookies’ take (love of power), order his henchmen to push his territory another block over (greed), and to set about conquering a new mistress for a while (lust). Oh, and he also enjoys the choir, which is professional quality and worth hearing.

The attitude of the Relatio is this: the Church can use the man’s “going to church” with his good love of music to gradually open his heart to a BETTER love of the mistress than sheer personal satisfaction. And he can grow from this better love of the mistress to a more benign attitude about the “insurance fees” – maybe he will actually provide a real service instead of just taking. And maybe he will from there change the numbers rackets so the odds are a little less burdensome – the gamblers have a little better chance of winning. And so on, so that the don can by gradual steps turn his loves better, and better, and still better until they are pristine. This attitude makes the act of “going to Church” an act that is partly good and partly defective, it is not a bad act properly speaking. The act is thus characterized by its parts individually. Thus there is no such thing as a "Bad Act" because every man, when choosing, chooses for a good.

Before this, the Church seemed rather to reject this theory. It said, instead, that the evils of pride, greed, and lust, of themselves vitiate the act of going to church and even the love of music, so that his act of going to church is a morally evil act, not a “mostly bad act but partly good act”. That is, the deformities in his soul in placing the “going to church” at the service primarily of grave evils are deformities that infect the going to church that is a secondary aspect which (considered as if on its own) would be a good. Even his going to church for music is a moral evil because of its riding on gravely disordered coat-tails.

Opposed to this, consider the alternate example: a man goes to church every Sunday because he loves the music, and because he enjoys talking to Peggy after church, and because he wants to pray and worship God, and because he believes good people should support each other in community – in roughly that order. None of these desires and intentions are in themselves evil, but the order is not perfect. The man wants the highest good (worship of God), he just doesn’t want it as earnestly as he ought: He still goes to church when the choir is off, and when he knows Peggy won’t be there. That imperfection in his soul is a defect, and if it is entirely voluntary that defect is sinful, but it is not utterly destructive of all the good intentions. The defect is one of degree, not of kind. He does not hate the true good, he merely does not love it enough. The defect does not vitiate the worship into an evil act, it merely makes the worship less pure.

Based on long tradition the Church says of this second man that his loves are not in apple-pie order, but that they can become gradually perfected through proper application to intentional acts by which he wants and strives to want the higher more than the lower. In Catholic terms (but by no means wholly opposed to many other Christian approaches) the man’s venial sins can be gradually overcome by ordinary graces helping him form habits of virtue, leading him toward perfection so that his will is orderly from top to bottom. There is no mortally grave defect that impedes the ordinary operation of such graces to, bit by bit, eradicate one flaw and defect after another. God’s grace is alive in his soul, leading him on from partial rightness toward complete rightness.

Whereas, for the mafia don, since the evils in his will deform even the love of good things so that they become morally evil acts, there is nothing for ordinary graces to grab onto to for a gradual improvement of his moral life. He has not the substrate of good intentions and good hopes for gradual improvement. No, what he needs is an EXTRA-ordinary grace, one which can so revolutionize his soul as to completely reverse his grasp onto evil intentions and turn his will 180 degrees around. This is no gradual change, not growth of a tree from a sapling, it is being born into life out of death. God’s grace is NOT alive in his soul, and nothing can correct this state but something radically DIFFERENT. Even the very first tiny spark of Divine Life in his soul, if it comes to be there, must be utterly other in kind from his past deformity of loves.

They must also be supported by an upright and generous willingness to embody these values in their concrete decisions. They cannot however look on the law as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future: they must consider it as a command of Christ the Lord to overcome difficulties with constancy. "And so what is known as 'the law of gradualness' or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with 'gradualness of the law,' as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God's law for different individuals and situations. [Familiaris Consortio, my emphasis]

There is a big difference between an imperfect but valid marriage where husband and wife do in fact love each other, though their love is immature and imperfect, where they each need to learn better about self-sacrifice and love of God’s will rather than their own, versus a cohabitation relationship where each person lusts after the other, and in the throes of the affections associated they do nice things for each other. The big difference is not one of large degree but of kind. You cannot gradually change what is primarily lust-with-kindly-affections into true love, because they are of different species. A rabbit cannot gradually become a dog (it can happen quickly, only by the dog eating the rabbit), they are of different kinds altogether. It is true that grace can overcome even the un-love of lustful cohabiting, but it is no ordinary grace that can do this, only extraordinary grace. By and large, what successfully turns such a couple around is a shock of some sort, (an illness, an accident, etc) leading to a profound re-evaluation of their condition, not a bit by bit “improvement” in their love for each other. You can’t make what is dead grow a little bit at a time. The change from dead to alive does not happen by gradual accretions.

When the Relatio refers to the passage of Familiaris Consortio, it misuses the notion of the “law of gradualness”. In FC, the gradualness is from a state of alive in Christ but not yet perfect, toward a state of perfection where every act is done with and for Christ. But FC rejects the notion of gradualness of change from death to life, from a state of open rebellion to God to a state of acceptance of him. Here is more of the passage.

But man, who has been called to live God's wise and loving design in a responsible manner, is an historical being who day by day builds himself up through his many free decisions; and so he knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth. Married people too are called upon to progress unceasingly in their moral life, with the support of a sincere and active desire to gain ever better knowledge of the values enshrined in and fostered by the law of God. They must also be supported by an upright and generous willingness to embody these values in their concrete decisions. They cannot however look on the law as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future: they must consider it as a command of Christ the Lord to overcome difficulties with constancy. "And so what is known as 'the law of gradualness' or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with 'gradualness of the law,' as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God's law for different individuals and situations. In God's plan, all husbands and wives are called in marriage to holiness, and this lofty vocation is fulfilled to the extent that the human person is able to respond to God's command with serene confidence in God's grace and in his or her own will."(95) On the same lines, it is part of the Church's pedagogy that husbands and wives should first of all recognize clearly the teaching of Humanae vitae as indicating the norm for the exercise of their sexuality, and that they should endeavor to establish the conditions necessary for observing that norm.

The norm laid down by Humanae Vitae does not provide for men and women to gradually become chaste enough to eventually practice sex without contraceptives after many years of contracepted sex – it is not a gradualness of the law. The process is that of practicing in the flesh the objective moral norms with constant attention to the mind and heart of God in so forming the law, they will eventually and ever so gradually make that godly view of sex so vibrant in their own souls that they no longer desire any other way of being intimate. The gradualness starts with moral behavior and ends in moral habits and purity of soul. But the start of this process requires that the couple be alive with the grace of God in their souls already, something impossible if they are in clear rebellion of the law of God and nature.

Comments (6)

It is thoughts like this that uncover my own lack of clarity on such issues that keeps me coming back. Thank you Tony, and all the others involved.

Did the stuff about gradualism and cohabitation (or homosexual unions) get the 2/3 vote?

Ultimately, the Synod was really underwhelming. My take on the final results that got published was that pretty much nothing new occurred...which is a victory, I suppose, given the proposal.

Lydia, the stuff about gradualism in reference to SSM and cohabiting / remarriage-with-communion did NOT get the 2/3 vote. So, if the process goes honestly, the final document will reflect that view by the Synod Fathers and will not push the SSM and cohabiting / remarriage-with-communion. However, I would expect to see snide little forays of those agenda items in minimal form pushed in anyway, under cover of "questions" and the like. So the bishops will have to be alert still.

The real test will be the follow-up event next October, where the revolutionaries will have their backs against the wall time-wise. If there is no thoughtful planning and pre-positioning by the faithful bishops on how to capture the process or at least undermine any definitive victory by the revolt, they will set the stage for another great leap of horrors into the Church. Nothing that will be definitive and directly contrary to doctrine, but that's little comfort to all the faithful who will be damaged by the non-doctrinal idiocy that could follow.

I'm a little confused myself, even though I've been following this fairly closely (as a friendly, interested Protestant), as to the relevance of the 2/3 vote. I had thought that a failure to get the 2/3 vote meant it didn't go into the final doc. Then I saw stories that seemed to indicate that the final doc. will include (or already includes?) even paragraphs that didn't get a 2/3 vote, but with the numbers given (somewhere) showing the votes each paragraph got! Which is pretty weird, if true. The idea being that the paragraphs that didn't get a 2/3 vote are included for later "discussion" in the parishes.

From what I gather, the inclusion of the "not approved" paragraphs is contrary to traditional practice for synods, and happens here because of the direct intervention of the Pope. As well as the citation of the votes for each paragraph.

One might suppose that this is all in the pursuit of transparency: even the not-approved paragraphs got considerable support, and showing that is part of showing the truth. But one would be naive to leave it at that. The Pope, just like his colleagues and his predecessors, has a personal point of view on the matter, and he is apparently no more likely than any other autocrat to check his personal view at the door and just "let things play out the way the Holy Spirit provides" when he can modify the results to suit himself. I would DEARLY like to know just exactly when the Pope decided that even the not-approved paragraphs would be published. Knowing that, indeed, would be a victory for transparency. (I would also like to see how the bishops would have voted if they had a range of about 6 or 8 paragraphs on the gay issue before them, ranging from "keep doing what we have been" to "everything short of actual gay weddings in churches", and let them decide what sort of "welcoming" they want when they have several choices available to them. I am sure I would be appalled by the vote, but it would still be a better way of locating actual intent than the existing method.)

The Pope has ensured that the disapproved paragraphs will continue to be included in Part B of the Synod next year. That was probably a given anyway, since he still has complete authority over both the process and the texts that will kick off the discussions.

It's funny, but as conservative as I am, I can easily imagine some softening or rules and some moderations of current practices that would make at east some liberals happier with the Church, that would not in the least damage doctrine. And some other practices that might give the appearance of maybe diminishing the quality of some doctrines, without doing anything critically opposed. The Pope and his party could have been more forthright for example by suggesting outright some such changes in order to get a push toward openness and welcome for those who feel sidelined (divorced and remarried, gays). But doing so would have, also, put a large crimp in the possibility of getting truly revolutionary changes accepted. Mechanically, when you set out one line in the sand that is a kind of a compromise position, you might ensure that the final result cannot entail anything beyond that line, even had your opponents been theoretically willing to consider something further had they been forced to. I.E. the first person to offer specifics on where they are willing to settle is at a disadvantage.

If the past is any indicator, the final result after next year will still be posed mostly in generalities, and actual implementation will still require concrete decisions by the Vatican's juridic offices - the Congregations as directed by the Pope - and then passed down to the bishops and to the national conferences of bishops. The Pope, as an autocrat, can choose to push further than whatever the generalities say or actually mean if he chooses, or he can "interpret" them more liberally than the actual intent of the majority of approving bishops had in mind. That certainly happened after Vatican II, when the Vatican's Secretariat of State effective forced Catholic countries to modify their constitutions to minimize the presence of Catholicism as the national religion, even though Dignitatis Humanae certainly did not require such intervention nor such diminution of the religious aspect of the constitutions. And even when the Vatican's juridic offices don't necessarily give the liberal set everything they ask for, sometimes the bishops take it anyway, claiming the authority of the "spirit" of general documents rather than any specific authorization - which happened so often following Vatican II that it became the norm, at least here in the US. Nobody would expect this pope to brush off long-unused canonical punishments for bishops who exceed their authority in such a way. Indeed, the Pope (or at least, his more wily but less honest advisor-agitators), could have this very fact in mind in proposing the extraordinary synod: the cat will get out of the bag in terms of actual practice in various dioceses no matter what the final vote tallies show. As, for example, girl altar boys between VII and the 1994 decision to "allow" it. It is mighty difficult to stuff the cat back in the bag, with an extraordinary push by the Pope himself, and if he doesn't wish to push at all, it can't be done by any lower-down efforts.

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