When I first read the Holy Father’s 2018 exhortation on holiness, Gaudete et Exsultate, I was deeply struck by his criticism of contemporary Pelagianism, one of two “subtle enemies of holiness” that he addresses. Pope Francis’s teaching challenged so much of how I understood holiness and grace. His teaching brought me clarity and new freedom in my spiritual life.
The pope said that a marker of this new Pelagianism is the centering of the human will in our growth in holiness and the de-centering of grace. He says this heresy may say that grace is needed, but it’s seen as something simply added onto our efforts. As the Holy Father noted, this Pelagianism can be very subtle. It often disguises itself in sincere striving for holiness.
One place where I often find this enemy hiding is in Catholic discourse about virtue. An analogy I regularly hear is that growing in a virtue is like learning to play a musical instrument. In order to learn how to play the piano, I have to set my mind to the task and build good habits—such as practicing every day—and I will gradually improve. Likewise, the thinking goes, I will make myself more patient or more chaste if I set my mind to the task, discipline my behavior, and build new habits.
The virtuous life is sometimes presented as a kind of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Growing in virtue simply requires changing my thoughts, my behaviors, and my habits. Then voila! I’m virtuous. And at first glance it seems like the Catechism supports this self-help idea of growing in virtue when it says, “The moral virtues are acquired by human effort” (CCC 1804).
However, the Catechism also teaches that “The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God” (CCC 1803). Growing in virtue is becoming more like God. This challenges the “virtue is like learning an instrument” theories. When I step back for a second, I soon realize that I cannot pray often enough, take enough cold showers, or do anything at all to make one cell in my body more divine.
This is not to say that human effort is not required. St. Augustine said, “God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us.” Our cooperation—our daily acts of obedience and repentance—are necessary for us to be healed and transformed. But our efforts are our response to the work God is already doing in our hearts and lives. Christ first changes our desires so that we want to be virtuous, Christ gives us the strength to respond to those desires by choosing to do his will. Christ then builds up our virtue so that we become more free to respond in to him the future.
As the Church prays during the Easter Vigil, “only at the prompting of Your grace do the faithful progress in any kind of virtue.”
Growth in virtue and holiness always begins as God’s work. Our efforts are always and only a response to what God has already started and sustained. In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis taught that “nothing human can demand, merit or buy the gift of divine grace.” He also reminded us that all cooperation with grace “is a prior gift of that same grace” and “even the desire to be cleansed comes about in us through the outpouring and working of the Holy Spirit” (GE 53).
In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis teaches that God initiates, sustains, and makes fruitful all good works—and that anything other than that is Pelagianism.
This authentic, anti-Pelagian, understanding of holiness is one of the things that we will discuss as we study this marvelous document in the upcoming Gaudete et Exsultate Workshop!
This four-part live workshop will be held virtually on May 30, June 6, June 13, and June 20 at 7:30–9:00pm (EST).
Whether you are a catechist, teacher, priest, parent, or friend, this workshop will help you understand and participate in God’s incredible plan for you! Prayerfully reading and discussing what Pope Francis teaches will help you see the “subtle enemies of holiness” in your own spirituality and better discern how grace is working in your life. You will come to see that God’s desire, in the concreteness of your particular life and vocation, is to transform you into Christ.
In this workshop, you will have:
- the freedom to participate as you want
- the opportunity to learn and grow within a small group
- a non-judgemental space that proclaims and invites, never imposes
- the skills to read and understand papal documents
- the chance to ask and discuss any questions that you have
This workshop is open to everyone, but members of Father’s Heart Academy will receive a 50% discount!
Don’t miss this chance to experience a transformative journey with a positive and engaging group of people who share your faith. Join me here!
Image credit: Johannes Plenio on Unsplash
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Paul Fahey lives in Michigan with his wife and four kids. For the past eight years, he has worked as a professional catechist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology and is currently working toward a Masters Degree in Pastoral Counseling. He is a retreat leader, catechist formator, writer, and a co-founder of Where Peter Is. He is also the founder and co-host of the Pope Francis Generation podcast. His long-term goal is to provide pastoral counseling for Catholics who have been spiritually abused, counseling for Catholic ministers, and counseling education so that ministers are more equipped to help others in their ministry.