Can Sex Be Just a Little Bit Sinful?

At the Vatican's synod on the family this week, bishops have suggested that the theological idea of graduality can help the Church reframe its approach to sexuality. What does this mean?

Is the Catholic Church changing its teaching on sexual sin?

This is a major question raised by the news coming from this week’s Synod on the Family, a Vatican meeting where top church officials and lay leaders are examining the causes of the global "break-up and breakdown of families.”

“Church documents explaining family life and sexuality seem to many Catholics ‘to be from another planet,’” said one married lay couple, who were “hand-picked” to speak to the bishops gathered at the two-week-long meeting .

"Language such as 'living in sin,' 'intrinsically disordered' or 'contraceptive mentality' are not necessarily words that invite people to draw closer to Christ and the Church, one bishop reportedly argued before the synod. These terms are sometimes used to refer to cohabitation, homosexuality, and birth control.

Speaking about those who live together without being married, one bishop reportedly said, “There are absolutely valid and important elements even of sanctification and of true love that may be present even when one does not fully realize this ideal.”

Within the Church, this idea isn’t new, but some see it as radical: It’s theological concept known as graduality, or gradualism, which suggests that since most people develop in their moral behavior gradually over time, the church should engage individuals where they are, rather than reject them outright for not meeting an ideal.

Since Vatican II, many theologians—including Pope John Paul II—have talked about the “law of graduality,” particularly concerning birth control. The idea is to not always focus on the sinfulness of an action, instead encouraging internal reflection and conversion. But even John Paul II also worried that graduality was a too forgiving approach to sexual matters, especially because the Church’s teachings were clear, but not often followed.

Is graduality just moral relativism in disguise—or a more realistic approach to modern sex and spirituality?

“It’s trying to present a positive, welcoming, fully alive view of human sexuality,” explained William Mattison, an associate professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America.

“When we speak of gradualism, it’s not because we're lightening up the rules but it’s that we're all struggling to get there,” Mattison added. “The danger would always be that people perceive that you sacrifice the ideal, but that need not be the case.”

So take the example of an engaged couple who is living together before marriage, as 37 percent of Catholics have, or currently are. Are they “living in sin”? Or are they on their first step towards embracing the fullness of the Catholic vision for marriage? Will a priest welcome them to be honest about their situation and get married in his church, perhaps with some special classes or a request that they go to confession? Or will he turn them away for not being serious about what the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony entails?

What about Catholic women who, like 48 percent of all first-time mothers in America, become pregnant when they’re unmarried? Will they be welcome to baptize their children in a Catholic church anyway?

“Or say on homosexuality in which the church teaches that homosexuals should be abstinent,” said James F. Keenan, a Jesuit priest and professor at Boston College. “Would that law apply gradually to gay people?”

“Church documents explaining family life and sexuality seem to many Catholics ‘to be from another planet.’”

“While most Catholics do not turn to the Catholic Church for sexual guidance, this might change if the Church had more credibility by being less absolutist about difficult situations, and/or practices that are widely accepted by Catholics,” suggested Lisa Sowle Cahill, a professor of theology at Boston College, in an email.

“We need to address pervasive issues like rape, sexual abuse, overly casual sex (the hook-up culture), commercial sexualization of young girls, and trafficking. The Church has no voice on these issues because it expends its moral capital on divorce and contraception—and in the U.S. on campaigns against gay marriage and contraception,” she wrote. “If the Church's teaching voice were less strident on these issues by means of a ‘law of graduality,’ some of the larger, more important moral values and concerns might get a hearing.”

But graduality, argues Mattison, isn’t a license to do anything contrary to Church teaching, even if it could be interpreted that way. “I think it actually frees you to move out to people where they’re at but without sacrificing the ideal,” he said.

He knows what he’s talking about: Along with his wife, Mattison serves as a pre-marriage counselor to couples wanting to get married in the Catholic Church. Encouraging engaged couples to be honest about whether or not they’re living together helps the Church better respond to their unique situation, he said.

If a formal embrace of graduality emerges as one way out of the perplexing theological problems facing a Church that holds teachings so at odds with the modern world, it would be quite a theological and sociological feat. It would be a step-by-step approach to morality—a very big change for the Church, indeed.