On Gradualism, Evangelization, and the Stages of Change

I am so excited to hear what the news of what is coming out of the synod. The news is joyful and ripe for controversy because in this American society, we are not so good at listening. The concept is called “gradualism.” The idea is that I cannot leave sin cold-turkey. There is typically a gradual move towards a holier life.


This is consistent with the Transtheoretical Model (TTM) of the Stages of Change. Precontemplation is the first stage. While others may point out my problem, I do not see it as a problem and do not think of it. Once I realize the behavior or habit is a problem, I enter the Contemplation stage. Next comes the Preparation stage. I make plans to change. After this stage, I enter the Action stage. I now take concrete steps towards the change I would like to make. Once those steps are in place, the changes require maintenance. At this point in the stages, it is typical that after some success in maintaining the change, I falter and I fall back into my old habit. In fact this can happen at any point in the process. Whether I am aware of my failure or not, I will have to begin the stages again. However, I am stronger and each time I go through I am stronger. I am not the same sinner I was at the beginning. Once I am strong enough, I will stay in the Maintenance stage and am able to avoid the bad habit or action for the rest of my life.

All this takes time. We can consider the emphasis on graduality of returning to the moral life in terms of the TTM stages of change. Gradualism means we reach out to those in the various stages of change, not just the action and maintenance stage. It means we are merciful, understanding and sympathetic when one returns to an earlier stage, even pre-contemplation when they may justify their actions and not see their sins as a problem. We are reminded of our moral duty to care for those who may be in the Contemplation or Preparation stage. At anyone of these earlier stages, we may speak the Truth, the Law, and the individual may not be ready to act on it.

Therefore, we must take care how we are to speak. Pope Francis has pointed out the uselessness of proselytizing. It does not help to speak at people. Each stage represents a different type of soil. We may speak. The seed falls on ground and is eaten up (pre-contemplation). It falls on rocky soil (contemplation, preparation but does not move to action). It falls on thorns (action and maintenance, but falls back to the beginning). Good soil (action and maintenance, with continued maintenance.

It does happen at times that we speak the Truth and the person changes their life. We feel strengthened and desire to speak the Truth more. What we don’t see is that our action was merely one part of the whole: steps, stages, actions providentially orchestrated by the Holy Spirit to bring this soul to conversion.

I have fallen into this error. We have the duty to evangelize. But it must be evangelization of the whole person. We need to do it with a little sense.

There are four levels of communication. In the first level, the “superficial” level (basic greetings) no information is exchange. In the second level, “people, places, things.” information is exchanged but nothing personal. In the third level, I speak about “what I value.” Now I give part of myself. You can see what I am passionate about by the subject and intensity of my conversation. Lastly, in the fourth level I share “how things affect me.” Here I give you my reactions, my feelings.

If I approach a person without regard for their whole person, I may speak flippantly merely of the Law (Level 2) without mind to how the dissonance between Church teaching and the person’s lifestyle/moral decisions affect him or her (Level 4). I have sinned in disregarding his or her personhood. Proselytizing speaks about law to people. In it I do not come down from the soapbox to see whom I am speaking to.

The next issue is those medium of communication we use. My mistake was to use email. My first goal was to determine the stage of change the person was in, hoping I could help prevent her from taking the step she was preparing to take. How stupid I was. You cannot get a sense of the whole person via email. I saw she was committed to her decision. Accepting this I discerned what our friendship could look like now. The damage was done. I wrote, still over email, very matter-of-factly (Level 2) my vision of what our relationship could be. I could not convey the sensitivity I felt over email. And so I did greater injury.

Thanks be to God we reconciled, realizing how far off track our communication was because of the medium. The conversation became severely distorted because we chose to use an electronic form of communication, rather than a personal.

Something is lost in digital communication. If we had been in person, I would not have said the things I wrote. Perhaps she might have felt loved, reached out to and supported, whatever her decision. That’s certainly how I felt, but not what I communicated. What I communicated alienated her and hurt her. I might have driven her away further because of my error.

Evangelization is not a series of pressing buttons and converting people. God alone changes hearts. If we are obedient to his call and docile to his guidance, we can be part of someone’s journey. Understanding the graduality of conversion can help us to be a little more docile in His Hands and hopefully more useful to His Purpose.

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