“Gradualism” in Benedict’s Theology.

Amidst a flood of commentary on Benedict’s observations on condoms, one of the pieces that I have found most useful is by my friend Martin Pendergast, writing at the Guardian. Martin reflects on the broader character and style of Pope Benedict, and says that he is not surprised by the shift in emphasis now apparent. Although one would never think it from public Vatican statements, which are usually well-padded with references to the Church’s “constant and unchanging tradition”, in fact the Church’s teaching is constantly changing. This is a process theologians describe as “development”:

Why am I not surprised that Benedict XVI has edged away from the Vatican’s previous opposition to the use of condoms in HIV prevention? The answer might be that this pope is, above all else, a theologian.

While his grassroots pastoral experience is as limited as his academic record is huge, he is strongly aware of the centrality of “development” as a key principle of all Catholic teaching. This enables the Catholic hierarchy to forbid something one day and make it compulsory weeks later; for a pope to assert in doctrinal statements, “as my venerable predecessors have always taught”, when patently they have not.

Pendergast notes that the Pope already has a track record of modifying the hard-line sexual teaching of his predecessor, as in the example of a 2oo5 address to conference on family, in which

he delicately overturned John Paul II’s “theology of the body”, indicating principles of “humanisation” rather than “idealisation” in the realm of sexuality.

He also emphasises an aspect of Benedict’s personality that I have frequently come across elsewhere – that for those who have dealt with him personally, he shows readiness to listen and engage in argument. Pendergast also refers to the evidence I have reported on before, that in same-sex relationships, he has been a moderating influence, possibly toning down the language of the CDF Pastoral Letter he was compelled to sign; affirming to Sr Jeannine Gramick during an in-flight conversation that her conscientious dissent was not an excommunicable offence; and the Vatican support under his watch for our London pastoral ministry to LGBT Catholics.

This article agrees with my view that this latest development is not a “radical change” in Catholic teaching, but he has useful comments on the implications for Catholic practice on the ground. There will also be, he says, unforeseen implications:

What is not in doubt in any of these comments, including those on the need to ponder sexual ethics issues more deeply, is that the pope seems to be endorsing the principle of Catholic moral theology known as “gradualism”.

Heavily criticised by John Paul II (in his 1993 encyclical letter, Veritatis Splendor) this approach recognises that moral decision making is a step-by-step process. Progressive Catholic theologians, including bishops and cardinals, have applied this principle to a range of sexual ethics questions, including HIV issues, civil law and abortion, and sexual orientation law reform. Who knows, perhaps this might open the door even to a direct papal dialogue with the victims of abuse, people living with HIV, and God’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered daughters and sons?

Other commentators have also noted that this approach has been applied for years by many theologians and the more progressive bishops. What is new, perhaps, is that this gradualist approach is now reaching the public domain, as having the approval of the Pontiff – rather than condemnation, as with John Paul II.

As always with Benedict, it is dangerous to reach conclusions based only on the simplistic summaries of journalists (or bloggers, myself definitely included). Read the book. Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and The Signs Of The Times has now been published, and should be available from today.