I went to the weight room at the gym Tuesday night.
It was the first time I had been to the weight room in a L-O-N-G time. When you haven’t been to the weight room in a L-O-N-G time, it’s easy to get self-conscious. I saw other people who go to the weight room regularly lifting and started to think “Hey, I’m not that far behind. I’m not that weak. I can lift more.” I piled on the weights and tried to lift it.
By some miracle, I managed not to hurt myself. (My guardian angel must have been spotting me.) I then sheepishly removed some weight and tried again. I then sheepishly removed even more weight until I got to a weight where I could successfully complete all my sets. Despite feeling like I was hardly lifting anything, by the end of the workout, I was tired. I felt like I got a good workout. I didn’t feel too sore the next day.
Most importantly, I felt like I wanted to go back and do it again—to lift more and lift heavier weights. If I keep that up, eventually I will be lifting what I want to lift and have the strength I want to have. Had I overdone it, I would be sore, in pain, and probably not want to work out anytime soon. Doing too much too soon in the weight room would have been detrimental to my overall progress.
Law of Gradualness
There’s been a lot of talk at the Synod on the Family about the “Law of Gradualness”. Apologist Jimmy Akin defines the Law of Gradualism:
It is a principle used in Catholic moral and pastoral theology, according to which people should be encouraged to grow closer to God and his plan for our lives in a step-by-step manner rather than expecting to jump from an initial conversion to perfection in a single step.
St. John Paul II warns that the “law of gradualness” does not change the teachings of the Church or the commands of Christ.
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, 34]
Even with St. John Paul II’s warning, there is a concern among some that the Law of Gradualness can be misunderstood as a sort of “lowering of the bar”. They worry that if the Church doesn’t preach all of God’s commands in full, then people will assume that they don’t have to do any more than they want to. They worry that pastors will see it as permission not to preach on difficult and unpopular topics.
I understand the concern, but it’s misguided.
People are very bad at making big changes, but people are much better at making small changes and turning them into habits. Caroline L. Arnold, author of the book Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Yourself Permanently discusses why resolutions to make big changes often fail:
We blame personal weakness for these annual failures, yet research shows that willpower is not a function of character but a limited mental resource that is easily exhausted. Classic New Year’s resolutions—to be slim by summer, to be organized, to be on time—are closer to wishes than action plans, and so demanding that they rapidly deplete willpower stores and hasten failure.
Smaller changes, she argues, are more managable. People see themselves succeeding at a small goal, instead of failing at a larger one. Small successes boost peoples mental resources, while failing at a big task depletes it, even if the same progress is made toward the overall goal.
This is the psychology behind personal finance guru Dave Ramsey’s “Debt Snowball”, where people pay off their smallest debt first, while making the minimum payments on all other debt. Once that debt is paid, repeat with the next smallest, until all the debt is paid.
An accountant would say that is crazy: If you pay off your highest interest rate debt first, you will pay less over time. That’s basic math—but not so great psychology. The snowball works because the satisfaction of paying off that first debt and seeing one less bill inspires people to continue the plan. People using the snowball are more likely to complete the plan, even though they may pay more money.
Gradualism and Sexuality
When it comes to issues of sexuality, a gradualist approach often makes sense. Chastity is really really hard—and the Church recognizes this—and the best way to do really really hard things is one step at a time.
This could mean different things to different people depending on where they are in their lives. Leah Libresco writes about encouraging get her college friends, full-participants in the “hookup culture”, to start to think about their partners’ wants and needs and not just as a means to “get off”. If the partners did care about each other, then this prompting would get them to do the right thing, instead of simply using each other for sexual enjoyment.
For someone with a string of short-term, primarily physical relationships, gradualism could mean starting to look for a partner, not a fling. For a couple that is cohabitating, that could mean encouraging them to think about their future together. For a married couple using contraception, it could mean simply taking a class on fertility awareness/NFP to learn more.
Dangers of Going Too Fast
The other reason why gradualism is important is that in sexuality there is a very real risk that doing too much, too fast, before you are ready, can really hurt you or really hurt someone you are with. Sometimes well meaning people can end up doing a lot of harm.
I’m not a fan of breaking up cohabitating couples. Couples, married or not, gay or straight, rely on each other for companionship and affection, not just sex. Pushing them to separate out of a concern for sexual sin (or the appearance of sexual sin) can do more harm than good. If couples need to be broken up, it is best to lead them to figure it out on their own than to try to coerce them into doing so. Asking questions like “Where is this relationship going?” “What are your goals?” “What are your partner’s goals?” will bear far more fruit than discussions of “living in sin”*
I also have seen a lot of well meaning people cause a lot of harm in Catholic NFP culture. It’s really hard to learn about openness to life and responsibile parenthood and marital chastity and abstinence, all while trying to make sense of cervical mucus and understand fertility charts. Then you have a baby and the stakes get higher and the charting gets harder.
When we tried NFP earlier in our marriage, we tried to do everything right earlier in our marriage and we burned ourselves out doing it. We’re not the only ones who have burned out. The comboxes are full of couples who have had negative experiences and have burned out.** We had a much easier time later in our marriage taking things one step at a time. Gradualism in this area could be a post in itself. Or two. Or three.
What are your thoughts on gradualness? Has it worked for you? Not worked? Have you been hurt by trying to do too much to fast? Bored by low expectations and not being challenged?
I’d love to hear your story. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the combox. Anonymous comments are on.
*There has been some discussion about whether “living in sin” is an insensitive phrase, but I haven’t heard anyone born after 1970 use this phrase other than ironically.
**I also think that the “good couples” tend to have more problems than the “prodigals”—the “good couples” are more likely to have unrealistic expectations of themselves and the lifestyle and less likely to know that yes, things CAN be worse.