Rorate Caeli

Guest Op-Ed - Moral Catechesis and the Divine Pedagogy: Avoiding Gradualness of the Law

By Veronica A. Arntz


When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14, RSV), everything in the world changed and took on a new meaning. Our Lord, the God of Israel, took on human flesh and became one of us. Our God loved us so much that He did not disdain the repulsiveness of human nature, and even more, He willingly suffered the most gruesome punishment of crucifixion for our sake. In a way, we can say that God condescended to our level when He took on flesh. As St. Paul aptly summarizes in the letter to the Hebrews, “But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). Although He is now crowned in glory in Heaven, Christ condescended to our level in order to bring us salvation. 

This divine condescension has many implications, including what some have called “divine pedagogy.” God’s condescension, even prior to the Incarnation, reveals to us something of the nature of God and of how He desires us to learn about Him. It also reveals something about how we are to pass on the Faith to others. Yet there are two ways of interpreting God’s condescension. While God condescended to our level throughout all of salvation history, we cannot spiritually condescend in the same way for others. While we must imitate the divine pedagogy when passing on the Faith, we cannot condescend to the point of falsely simplifying the Faith or falsely applying the law of gradualism, as defined by John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio. As a brief outline for this article, we will look at some examples of divine condescension in contrast with the theory of divine pedagogy for transmitting the faith.

The story of Israel in the Old Testament is a continual story of divine condescension, starting with the fall of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve were given the Garden of Eden to till and keep, the command to be fruitful and multiply, and they had an intimate relationship with each other and God (Genesis 1:28). But through the temptations of the devil, they turned away from God, disobeying His command not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:6-7). They trusted in themselves and not God’s command. Thus, sin and death entered the world: They would have to work to bring forth the fruit of the earth, Eve would suffer childbirth pangs, and they would return to the dust of the earth one day (Genesis 3:16-19). In such a way, God “condescended” to their level: Now that the created order had been disrupted, God gave Adam and Eve the means to continue to seek Him and to be saved in a fallen world. The same is true for the Levitical law, which would come much later: When the Israelites turned away from God to pagan worship in the incident with the golden calf, God needed to give them a law that would set them apart from the other nations and ensure that they would serve Him alone (Leviticus 18:1-5).

In Ezekiel 20, we are given a glimpse into God’s condescension to the Israelite people. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God reminds the Israelites of their history, including how He sought to bring His sinful bride back to Himself, even though Israel would continually turn away. For example, the Lord says, “Then I thought I would pour out my wrath upon them and spend my anger against them in the midst of the land of Egypt” (Ezekiel 20:8), after He had attempted to make Himself known in the land of Egypt (Ezekiel 20:5). God led the people out of Egypt into the wilderness, that they might worship Him there away from the pagan influences of the Egyptians (Ezekiel 20:10). Even though God led them out of their slavery in the land of Egypt, we read, “But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness; they did not walk in my statutes but rejected my ordinances, by whose observance man shall live; and my Sabbaths they greatly profaned” (Ezekiel 20:13). And the process repeats again: God does something new in order to bring the people of Israel to Himself, but they reject Him for foreign gods. He even establishes the Deuterocanonical law, which included laws that were “not good” (Ezekiel 20:25), but the people of Israel still did not return to Him—this perpetual denial of God would eventually lead to the punishment of exile.

Even in Ezekiel 20, however, God promises that this exile will not last forever: “As I live, says the Lord God, surely with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with wrath poured out, I will be king over you” (Ezekiel 20:33). For as many times as God promises destruction to the Israelites for their disobedience, He also promises restoration. Thus, when the fullness of time had come, God made the ultimate act of condescension when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

God himself became man, making Himself for a while a little lower than the angels (Hebrews 2:7). Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, walked this earth with man and became a servant, even to the point of suffering death on the cross (Philippians 2:7-8). Christ became one of us that we might learn what we are meant to be, for we are made in the image and likeness of God. He taught us the Gospel through parables, bringing us deeper into the mysteries of God. He left us His very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity as a sacrament that we would be able to partake in even after His Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension: At every single Mass, our Lord descends under the forms of bread and wine that we might receive Him into our souls. Finally, after His Ascension into Heaven, He sent us the Holy Spirit as “another Counselor” (John 14:16), who would be with the apostles as they preached the Gospel; the Holy Spirit would inspire them with the words that they needed.

The pattern of divine condescension is such that God recognizes the weakness of man and “lowers” Himself in such a way that man can come to see him as God. As the Second Vatican Council Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, explains:

In Sacred Scripture, therefore, while the truth and holiness of God always remains intact, the marvelous ‘condescension’ of eternal wisdom is clearly shown, ‘that we may learn the gentle kindness of God, which words cannot express, and how far he has gone in adapting his language with thoughtful consideration for our weak human nature (art. 13).

It is thus that the old law before the time of Christ was a “pedagogue” (Galatians 3:23-24), for it was not complete until the coming of Christ. Due to our weakened intellects and wills, God used the material reality so that we might come to know Him—something that He still does through the sacraments, which are intimately linked with material reality. Through the sacraments established by Christ, we still encounter God by material reality: In a way, we still need a “pedagogue” in order to be in a relationship with God.

The next question is: Can we apply this same theory of divine pedagogy to our own evangelization and passing on of the faith? In the introduction to the book The Pedagogy of God: Its Centrality in Catechesis and Catechist Formation, Msgr. Paul Watson writes,

The pedagogy of God is both the source and the model for what is known as the pedagogy of the Faith. In other words, it is from God Himself that the Church has learned how to communicate and teach in such a way that an individual not only gains wisdom and knowledge of the Faith, but also is personally liberated and transformed by this knowledge, entering into a personal relationship with God Himself—a dialogue in which the person allows him or herself to be guided by God” (p. 1).

Nevertheless, it seems that we cannot apply the same pedagogical method of God to our own evangelization. While Christ did not ask the Church to preach the Gospel in a “pure” way, separated from material reality or teaching methods, it also seems that we cannot apply the same pedagogical method of God to our own catechizing. Indeed, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8). If we attempt to “descend” to the level of others when preaching the Gospel, we run the grave risk of watering down the Gospel and not presenting the fullness of the Truth. While we must carefully present the Gospel in a way that others can understand, we cannot make laws that are “not good” (Ezekiel 20:25); we cannot change the Church’s teachings in a way that would contradict Christ’s message, simply because the faithful cannot “handle” the fullness of the truth.

In Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II describes the law of gradualness in the context of married life; this is particularly applicable today, as we see many individuals seeking to soften the Church’s teachings on morality and marriage, even from members of the Church’s hierarchy. As John Paul II explains, “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 laws for different individuals and situations” (FC, art. 34). For us, it is easy to confuse the “law of gradualness” and “gradualness of the law.”

While there is an appropriate systematic advance in the spiritual life (one does not merely dive into profound contemplation when learning how to pray, for example), there is not likewise “gradualness of the law,” in which some parts of the law apply differently for different people, depending on their particular situations. This distinction by John Paul II is extremely relevant for our own time: Many are tempted to say that the law of indissolubility applies for some couples, but others it does not, meaning to say that some who have disregarded the law of indissolubility in their marriage should be able to receive Communion.

This, however, would be an inappropriate application of the divine pedagogy that we have already described. While God can condescend to our sinful level, we cannot condescend in the same way in our passing on the Gospel. Because we are not God and do not see the whole of created reality in the same way, it is far too tempting for us to relativize the laws of God, depending on the situations of people. Rather than taking the moral law as a whole and applicable to all individuals, we are far more likely to relativize certain laws for certain individuals, as is all too obvious in the current debate over the divorced and “remarried” being able to receive Holy Communion.

While we are called to lead people into the Truth, we cannot lead them in such a way that some difficult laws are not applicable or attainable. We must always uphold the higher standard; we cannot lower the standard depending on our culture or individual situations.

Therefore, while God’s pedagogy certainly works for us in bringing us closer to Him, since He is the Master of His plan for creation, we must be careful in applying similar techniques, lest we apply fall into the “gradualness of the law.” Therefore, our intention in evangelization should be to present the whole of Christ’s truth, avoiding a tendency to leave out certain parts of moral teaching that can be difficult to accept. In such a way, we will reveal that the moral teaching is applicable to man and not harmful to him or his freedom (FC, art. 34)—rather, it is the very means by which we can enter into deeper relationship with God.

Only if we present the fullness of moral truth will we be able to evangelize according to Christ’s own command.

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