“This Church who, ‘clasping sinners to her bosom, [is] at once holy and always in need of purification, [and] follows constantly the path of penance and renewal.’” Lumen Gentium 8§3.

This quote from the second Vatican council touches on a two-fold reality that anyone, journeying into the heart of God, will encounter. The first reality is the absolute and uncompromising stance of the call to purity of life. This permeates the whole teaching of the Church and in our present age is seen clearest in the rules of: obedience, celibacy, contraception, rights of the unborn child, observances of holy days of obligations, fasting, penance, preference for the poor, and the growing awareness of the call to the husbandry of creation.

It is only on reflection, that I have realised what a battle and struggle it was to maintain a stance for holiness in a church where its leaders taught such a wide, mixed economy of morality. Inevitably compromises were made, often unknown, in the barrage of issues confronting Christians today. This was made harder in a church that teaches contradictory things on a single subject. It was debilitating hearing the undermining message that “it doesn’t really matter; intelligent, rational people do not really believe that anymore.”

The Church’s mission must be to reflect, to the world, the reality of both God’s holiness and love made manifest in Christ Jesus. It is a holiness and love that never changes and should be a great consolation in this vale of tears. God’s promises are ever old and ever new and forever true. The Church thus has no right to compromise on either holiness or love.

The clarity of the teaching of Rome and its radical call to holiness has obviously been a big draw. Yet engaging with that teaching and its counter cultural way of living can also feel a bit over whelming. The heart can only plead in response, ‘Lord, have mercy!’

It is at this very point however that we encounter the second reality. The Church understands that God’s people are a pilgrim people. The reality is we haven’t arrived yet and each day we are called to journey on towards the heart of God and his holiness. This stance of compassion is summed up in the phrase ‘the law of gradualness’. It is what the catechism calls the second conversion. It was St. Ambrose who spoke of two conversions, the first is through the waters of baptism and the second through the tears of repentance.

The law of gradualness addresses the issue of “concupiscence” – our inclination to sin. It understands that this is the arena in which the struggle of our Christian life takes place – its proving ground. It is the battlefield in which we seek to sanctify and make sacred our physical being and actions and discover their true meaning.

It was in an answer to a very specific question that Pope Benedict touched on this law of gradualness. He was misunderstood, misquoted and credited with changing the Church’s teaching on contraception at a stroke. Of course, this was not what the Holy Father was doing. What Benedict was saying was that there maybe progressive situations and actions that indicate a growing awareness of moral responsibility. A movement and journey begun towards holiness, even if the acts themselves are not moral in the fullest sense.

There is a fine line and we must not make the mistake of identifying the law of gradualness with a gradualness of the Law. In the light of what seems unpalatable, it is obviously not acceptable to resort to making one’s own weakness the criteria of moral truth. If we do, we cut ourselves off from the possibility of the work of God’s grace and miss out on the full benefits of the sacrament of reconciliation. How then are we to hear the words of Jesus, “where are they? Has no-one condemned you?” “No sir” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” We need to abandon ourselves in repentance and depend upon God, so that the Lord Jesus can make peace by the blood of his Cross. In this way we are being re-rooted in Christ crucified and glorified.

Some of the great themes of Vatican II are Mission, the People of God and the New Evangelization. This task and vocation of all the baptised begins with the rediscovery of the faith, the treasure hidden in the field (the Church) and our own reconciliation and healing in Christ. For as St Peter declared, “to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy one of God” John 6:68-69.