On Thursday 17 January 2019, after an inspiring and vivid hour of academic presentation and Q & A, Fr. Don Bosco Darsi was granted by the KU Leuven the Ph.D. in theology (a civil, academic degree) and the S.T.D. (Doctorate in Sacred Theology, a canonical degree).
The Archbishop Oscar Romero Hall of the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, in which Fr. Bosco’s doctoral defense took place, drew a diverse crowd composed of professors, students, and – not in the least – friends and parishioners of the faith community of Sint-Kwinten.
In defending his doctoral dissertation, “Epikeia and Gradualness: Effective Tools for Discernment and Mercy in a Contemporary Pastorally Oriented Ethics”, Fr. Bosco immediately turned to the challenge to which his dissertation responds: today, a growing number of Catholics do not fulfill the normative ideals proposed by the official teachings of the Church, especially in the area of intimate relationships. He referred particularly to non-married cohabitants and divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, who traditionally are labeled as living in “irregular unions”.
Fr. Bosco’s dissertation sketches a contemporary ethics for Catholic pastors to reach out to, accompany, and help couples who live in such unions. He made it clear that he wants to steer away from two extreme pastoral responses: the ‘rigorist’ approach of holding up universal rules for all couples without factoring in any real-life, concrete situations, and the ‘laxist’ approach of settling for couples’ situations without encouraging them to strive for (further) moral growth.
In his search for a more balanced foundation for a pastorally oriented ethics, Fr. Bosco proposed two building blocks: the virtue of epikeia, a form of discernment that applies the general norm to concrete situations, and St. John Paul II’s “law of graduality”.
Fr. Bosco underlined how invaluable the work of Leuven theologian Roger Burggraeve – a priest and Salesian of Don Bosco, who was present among the public – has been for him, in showing him how the “law of graduality” can be applied concretely to accompany couples living in “irregular unions.” Heavily inspired by the “law of graduality”, Prof. Burggraeve has developed an “ethics of growth” that offers assistance for those who do not always live up to the ideal. This growth model makes normative ethics attainable for people with imperfections and brokenness without compromising the normative ideal of Christian ethics.
In summarizing his take on a contemporary pastorally oriented ethics, Fr. Bosco quoted several times from Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, which, in his estimation, “offers reflections on how epikeia and gradualism should be considered as a better moral foundation for a pastorally oriented ethics” and “is an excellent response to the current challenges”.