Heavenly Judge

Good Shepherd_

that the cause of our downfall might become the means of our salvation ... Rom.Mis., Pref. III, Sun Ord. Time


THERE is an intimate relationship between moral theology and pastoral theology.  The earliest moral canons were intended to aid bishops in determining the appropriate medicinal penalties for specific offenses.  St. Basil the Great (ca 330-379) , the author of these canons, was concerned to articulate both the developing moral legislation of the recently officially-recognized Christian religion, and to aid bishops in their pastoral task as “physicians of souls”.  Centuries later the greatest of all Catholic moral theologians, St. Alphonsus Ligouri (1697 -1787), wrote his magisterial Theologia Moralis as an aid to confessors to provide them with helpful advice for their penitents.
     Today the significance of this interrelationship can be understood in light of the urgency of the “New Evangelization”.  It is not enough to know what the Church teaches: we must learn to express this teaching in ways that can be understood and implemented by Christians today.  It is a sad fact that many of the baptized have never properly heard the Gospel or understood the Church’s moral teachings.  The “New Evangelization” is particularly directed to them.  And in order to reach them we must develop great flexibility in the use of language, illustrative models, and various media of communication.  And above all we must practice patience, and learn how to persevere in unceasing dialogue with a resistant and increasingly-hostile modern world.
   An important pastoral and moral principle highlighted by Pope John Paul II is both helpful in this ongoing dialogue with the world, and illustrative of the interrelationship between moral and pastoral theology.  It is the so-called “principle of gradualness”, particularly emphasized in magisterial documents concerned with sexual morality.


principle of gradualness






1.a.  Familiaris Consortio: Apost.Exh. of John Paul II (1981)

34.[1.] It is always very important to have a right notion of the moral order, its values and its norms; and the importance is all the greater when the difficulties in the way of respecting them become more numerous and serious.

34. Magni semper interest rectam habere notion em ordinis moralis, eius bonorum atque normarum: vel pluris hoc interest quo plures gravioresque fiunt difficultates ea observandi.

Since the moral order reveals and sets forth the plan of God the Creator, for this very reason it cannot be something that harms man, something impersonal. On the contrary, by responding to the deepest demands of the human being created by God, it places itself at the service of that person’s full humanity with the delicate and binding love whereby God Himself inspires, sustains and guides every creature towards its happiness.

Quandoquidem Dei Creatoris propositum recludit et exponit, idcirco potissimum ordo moralis non potest homini esse aliquid, quod eum offendat eiusque abiciat personam; ex contrario, cum or do moralis respondet postulatis intimis hominis a Deo creati, tum plenae humanitati illius inservit suavi et vinciente amore, quo ipse Deus movet, sustinet, ducit ad felicitatem eius omnem creaturam.

(34.)[2.] 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.

Homo tamen, qui vocatur ut e sapienti amanteque Dei consilio more conscio vivat, est animans historicus, qui de die in diem quasi exstruitur pluribus cum suis optionibus: ergo cognoscit, diligit, perficit morale bonum secundum incrementi eius gradus.

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.

Coniuges quoque intra moralem suam vitam destinantur ad iter perpetuum, suffulti sincera actuosaque voluntate melius usque cognoscendi bona, quae custodit lex divina ac promovet, necnon voluntate recta ac magnanima quasi concorporandi illa bona concretis in suis optionibus.

(34.)[3.] 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.

Nihilominus legem respicere illos non licet tantummodo ut meram quandam optimae formae effigiem consequendam futuro aliquo tempore, sed eam considerent oportet ut Christi Domini praeceptum, facientes ut studiose difficultates supervadant.

(34.)[4.] “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. « Etenim sic dicta “ex gradualitatis” seu gradualis profectus idem esse non potest ac “gradualitas legis”, quasi varii sint gradus seu praecepti formae pro variis hominibus et condicionibus in lege divina.

(34.)[5.] 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 John Paul II, Homily at the close of the Sixth Synod of Bishops (25 October 1980), 8: AAS 72 (1980), 1083.)

Omnes coniuges in matrimonio ad sanctitatem secundum Dei cons ilium vocantur; atque huius vocationis praestantia ad effectum deducitur, quatenus persona human a praecepto Dei valet respondere, sereno animo gratiae divinae ac propriae voluntati confisa » (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.

Eodem pacto interest Ecclesiae paedagogiae ut coniuges imprimis clare agnoscant doctrinam Litterarum Humanae vitae inscriptarum, perinde ac regulam sua sexualitate utendi utque ex animo studeant condiciones necessarias comparare ad eandem hanc norm am servandam.

(34.)[6.] As the Synod noted, this pedagogy embraces the whole of married life. Accordingly, the function of transmitting life must be integrated into the overall mission of Christian life as a whole, which without the Cross cannot reach the Resurrection. In such a context it is understandable that sacrifice cannot be removed from family life, but must in fact be wholeheartedly accepted if the love between husband and wife is to be deepened and become a source of intimate joy.

Omnem coniugalem vitam haec amplectitur paedagogia, ut Synodus animadvertit. Quapropter vitae tradendae munus ingredi debet universale munus omnis vitae christianae, quae sine cruce nequit ad resurrectionem pervenire. Aequabiliter intellegitur auferri a vita familiari se abnegandi devovendique studium non posse, quin immo complectendum illud ex animo esse ut coniugalis amor altius inhaerescat intimaeque fiat fans laetitiae.

(34.)[7.] This shared progress demands reflection, instruction and suitable education on the part of the priests, religious and lay people engaged in family pastoral work: they will all be able to assist married people in their human and spiritual progress, a progress that demands[:]

Commune hoc iter effiagitat ponderationem, nuntiorum communicationem, educationem aptam sacerdotum et religiosorum et laicorum in pastorali opera pro familia versantium: ii omnes auxilio esse poterunt. coniugibus in itinere eorum humane et spiritali, quod prae se fert

[1] awareness of sin,

conscientiam peccati

[2] a sincere commitment to observe the moral law, and 

ac sincerum officium servandi legem moralem

[3] the ministry of reconciliation.

necnon reconciliationis ministerium.

(34.)[6.] It must also be kept in mind that conjugal intimacy involves the wills of two persons, who are however called to harmonize their mentality and behavior: this requires much patience, understanding and time. Uniquely important in this field is unity of moral and pastoral judgment by priests, a unity that must be carefully sought and ensured, in order that the faithful may not have to suffer anxiety of conscience.(96)

Agnosci etiam debet in intima coniugum necessitudine voluntates duorum hominum implicari, vocatorum tamen ad mentium morumque convenientiam: poscere vero id permultum patientiae, lenitudinis ac temporis. Peculiaris omnino ponderis hac in re est unanimis iudiciorum moralium et pastoralium consensus in sacerdotibus: haec congruentia accurate conquiratur et custodiatur necesse est ne fideles pati cogantur conscientiae angores (96).

It will be easier for married people to make progress if, with

respect for the Church’s teaching and with

trust in the grace of Christ, and with

the help and support of the pastors of souls and the entire ecclesial community,

they are able to discover and experience the liberating and inspiring value of the authentic love that is offered by the Gospel and set before us by the Lord’s commandment.

Coniugum ergo iter expedietur, si,

doctrinam Ecclesiae magni existimantes

magnopereque Christi gratiae fidentes tum etiam

adiuvantibus eos et comitantibus animarum pastoribus cunctaque ecclesiali communitate,

detexerint illi et experti fuerint vim liberantem et promoventem veri amoris, quem Evangelium praebet ac Domini proponit mandatum.




1.b.  VADEMECUM for CONFESSORS Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life. Pontif. Council for the Family, (1997)

[3.]1. In dealing with penitents on the matter of responsible procreation, the confessor should keep four aspects in mind: a) the example of the Lord who “is capable of reaching down to every prodigal son, to every human misery, and above all to every form of moral misery, to sin”; b) a prudent reserve in inquiring into these sins; c) help and encouragement to the penitents so that they may be able to reach sufficient repentance and accuse themselves fully of grave sins; d) advice which inspire all, in a gradual way, to embrace the path of holiness.




1.c. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2003)

2342. Self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life (Cf. Titus 2:1-6). The effort required can be more intense in certain periods, such as when the personality is being formed during childhood and adolescence. 2342 Dominium sui est longae constantiae opus. Numquam considerandum est tamquam in perpetuum iam adquisitum. Nisum implicat in omnibus vitae aetatibus iterum atque iterum suscipiendum. 227 Requisitus nisus quibusdam temporibus potest esse intensior, ut cum personalitas formatur, in pueritia et adulescentia.

2343. Chastity has laws of growth which progress through stages marked by imperfection and too often by sin. “Man . . . day by day builds himself up through his many free decisions; and so he knows, loves, and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth (FC 34).

2343 Castitas cognoscit incrementi leges, quae per gradus procedunt imperfectione signatos et nimis frequenter peccato. Homo castus et virtutis studiosus « de die in diem quasi exstruitur pluribus cum suis optionibus: ergo cognoscit, diligit, perficit morale bonum secundum incrementi eius gradus ». 228


2359. Homosexual persons are called to chastity. 2359 Personae homosexuales ad castitatem vocantur.

[1] By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom,

[2] at times by the support of disinterested friendship,

[3] by prayer

[4] and sacramental grace,

Ipsae, dominii virtutibus quae libertatem educant interiorem,

quandoque amicitiae gratuitae auxilio,


et gratia sacramentali,

they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection. possunt et debent ad perfectionem christianam gradatim et obfirmate appropinquare.






GUIDED by our recognition of the relationship between moral and pastoral theology, the “principle of gradualness” can help us learn how moral failings can become opportunities for spiritual progress.  This should never entail ignoring or minimizing the seriousness or the consequences of sin.  Moral theology helps us to see clearly which actions and intentions lead towards God, and which separate us from Him.  Pastoral theology requires us to ask how our failings can be transformed by God’s grace into the spiritual growth that flows from repentance.  The model for such transformation is brilliantly illuminated by the new translation of the Third Preface for Sundays in Ordinary Time:

[...] you came to the aid of mortal beings with your divinity

and even fashioned for us a remedy out of mortality itself,

that the cause of our downfall

might become the means of our salvation,

through Christ our Lord.

Here, expressed in poetic and mystical verse, is the theological insight that God has the power to transform everything that is broken and lost, even sin, “the cause of our downfall,” into “the means of our salvation”.  This is most vividly experienced in the confessional, where acknowledgement of sin leads to forgiveness, renewed hope, and joy. In moral theology we study both what we were meant to be and how we have fallen,  Through pastoral sensitivity and compassion we discover how to communicate to an alienated world the steps that can be undertaken to appropriate and apply God’s transforming grace.

    Thus, in conclusion, it is insufficient to simply proclaim to our culture the very real (if unpopular and inconvenient) truths that abortion, euthanasia, and the creation of human embryos for research are intrinsically evil acts and grave sins. We must also undertake the more difficult project of communicating to the world a vision of what it might be like to practice the compassion these sins contradict.  We must find ways of communicating to our culture that in acknowledging the dignity and incalculable worth of every unborn and disabled human being, we are ourselves ennobled and rendered more truly human.

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