Last week I wrote an article about neo-Pelagianism that drew from the recent CDF document titled “On Certain Aspects of Christian Salvation.” I wanted to follow up that article first by drawing from Pope Francis’ brand new Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, regarding neo-Pelagianism and then compare what Saint John Paul II has taught on this issue with Pope Francis.

Pope Francis devotes an entire chapter of Gaudete et Exsultate to discussing two heresies that are present in the Church today, neo-Gnosticism and neo-Pelagianism, “two false forms of holiness that can lead us astray” (GE 35). Concerning the latter, he says:

“Those who yield to this pelagian or semi-pelagian mindset, even though they speak warmly of God’s grace, ‘ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style.’ When some of them tell the weak that all things can be accomplished with God’s grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added. They fail to realize that ‘not everyone can do everything…’”

The quote the pope cites here is from St. Bonaventure, and the footnote says, “The phrase is to be understood along the lines of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1735.” Catechism 1735 concerns freedom and culpability. It says, “Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors.” In other words, “not everyone can do everything” because we are limited by fear, habit, and other weaknesses. The pope continues with this pointed statement:

“…and that in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace” (49).

At the point the pope cites the Summa Theologiae (II-II, q. 109, a. 9, ad 1): “But here grace is to some extent imperfect, inasmuch as it does not completely heal man, as we have said.” In other words, this side of Heaven, grace is imperfect in some way because God does not completely heal us and allows us to remain wounded by sin.

This understanding of neo-Pelagianism can be summarized as the false idea that a person can make themselves holy. This heresy denies that grace is necessary for sanctification and basically asserts that we are endowed with the ability to live virtuous, sinless lives, and we aren’t really dependent on God to become holy. Because God’s grace is sufficient, the faithful are always able to follow the moral law at any time. There’s this underlying idea that if someone thinks they can’t follow the Commandments then they simply don’t want to badly enough. This belief easily leads to a Phariseeism that says, “I live a virtuous life and obey the law, so if you aren’t doing that, clearly you’re just lazier or more ignorant than I am.”

However, on its face, it appears that this understanding of neo-Pelagianism would include such people as Saint John Paul II who, in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, said:

“But temptations can be overcome, sins can be avoided, because together with the commandments the Lord gives us the possibility of keeping them: ‘His eyes are on those who fear him, and he knows every deed of man. He has not commanded any one to be ungodly, and he has not given any one permission to sin’ (Sir 15:19-20). Keeping God’s law in particular situations can be difficult, extremely difficult, but it is never impossible. This is the constant teaching of the Church’s tradition, and was expressed by the Council of Trent…” (VS 102).

How can it be that “not everyone can do everything” because “in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely…by grace” and yet “Keeping God’s law in particular situations…is never impossible”? I think that this teaching from John Paul II is easily misunderstood.

While at face value it appears that this teaching from Veritatis Splendor is saying that the faithful are always able to follow the moral law at any time, that’s not what Saint John Paul II is actually saying. First of all, if he were teaching that, he would be contradicting both the Catechism and common sense. For if John Paul II intended to say that all the faithful can always follow the moral law, there would be no such thing as reduced culpability. However, as we quoted above, the Catechism refers to “ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” all as things that limit man’s freedom. In other words, these things limit a person’s ability to follow the law.

Further, immediately after that passage from Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II quotes the Council of Trent where it says:

“But no one, however much justified, ought to consider himself exempt from the observance of the commandments, nor should he employ that rash statement, forbidden by the Fathers under anathema, that the commandments of God are impossible of observance by one who is justified. For God does not command the impossible, but in commanding he admonishes you to do what you can and to pray for what you cannot, and he gives his aid to enable you. His commandments are not burdensome (cf. 1 Jn 5:3); his yoke is easy and his burden light (cf. Mt 11:30)” [emphasis mine].

If the faithful are always able to follow God’s law at all times then how could there be Commandments that we cannot follow?

When Saint John Paul II says, “Keeping God’s law in particular situations can be difficult, extremely difficult, but it is never impossible,” he is speaking objectively about the sufficiency of God’s grace to overcome sin. That is, we are all given sufficient grace to follow the moral law and be perfect like our Heavenly Father is perfect. However, subjectively, because we are wounded by sin (our personal sins, original sin, and the sins of others), we are not always able to perfectly respond to God’s grace. God’s grace is always sufficient, but our capacity to receive it in this life is lacking.

Here’s another way of looking at. With God’s grace it is always possible to avoid mortal sin, yet because we, and the entire cosmos, are wounded by sin, it’s not always possible to avoid venial sin or grave matter. In 1958 Fathers John C. Ford and Gerald Kelly wrote a two-volume text titled “Contemporary Moral Theology.” In Volume One they wrote a section on culpability where they distinguish between material sin (acts of grave matter) and formal sin (culpable mortal sin). Here is part of their discussion on this topic:

“If it seems harsh to hold that there are so many sins, yet we must remember that they really are avoidable with the help of God’s grace, and that God never refuses this grace….However, we should not interpret the phrase ‘My grace is sufficient for thee’ to mean that God promises to preserve everyone even from material mortal sin. Suppose a case of a madman who goes berserk and murders his custodian. He commits a material mortal sin. Did this happen because he failed to cooperate with the grace of God? Was God’s grace sufficient to keep him from being tempted above his strength if only he had accepted it, then or earlier? No one believes any such thing, because such a person is simply incapable of any cooperation…

At all events the promise ‘My grace is sufficient for thee’ means sufficient grace to preserve from formal sin. It does not tell us that, no matter what the interior pressure, God’s help is always so abundant that there will be no material sin by one who cooperates with it. We are in a mysterious realm here in which often enough we simply do not know when human helps are in vain and only the divine help of grace can avail. But in doing battle against the mysterium iniquitatis, the tragedy that afflicts mankind, medicinal grace and mental hygiene do not exclude one another. The man of faith relies on all the help there is, both natural and supernatural.”

In other words, God’s grace is sufficient to prevent culpable mortal sin but that does not mean that everyone is always able to follow the moral law. Further, given what the Catechism says about freedom and culpability, we need to add “ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” to mental illness as things that can prevent us from following the moral law. This is what St. Thomas Aquinas is teaching us when he asserts that in this life grace is imperfect “inasmuch as it does not completely heal man.” In this life God at times allows us to be too weak and wounded to follow the moral law. As Pope Francis puts it:

“Grace, precisely because it builds on nature, does not make us superhuman all at once. That kind of thinking would show too much confidence in our own abilities. Underneath our orthodoxy, our attitudes might not correspond to our talk about the need for grace, and in specific situations we can end up putting little trust in it. Unless we can acknowledge our concrete and limited situation, we will not be able to see the real and possible steps that the Lord demands of us at every moment, once we are attracted and empowered by his gift. Grace acts in history; ordinarily it takes hold of us and transforms us progressively. If we reject this historical and progressive reality, we can actually refuse and block grace, even as we extol it by our words” (GE 50).

Truly God is remaking us into his image, healing our souls of sin, our bodies of illness, and allowing us to “share in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). But this rarely happens all at once. Holiness is a process, one that happens over the course of time and in a world that has been deeply wounded by sin. Saint John Paul II speaks of this process in Familiaris Consortio where he says:

“What is needed is a continuous, permanent conversion which, while requiring an interior detachment from every evil and an adherence to good in its fullness, is brought about concretely in steps which lead us ever forward. Thus a dynamic process develops, one which advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of His definitive and absolute love in the entire personal and social life of man” (FC 9).

And while we must persevere in doing our part of this process, we must never think that we are making ourselves holy. And if we get discouraged because we find ourselves unable to follow the moral law at certain times, we should take great comfort in knowing that it is not through our power that we will become perfect, but through the work of our Heavenly Father who gives “good things to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:11).

Finally, it is important to continue to trust in the Lord and not to be discouraged by our weaknesses and failures. As Pope Francis says, “When you feel the temptation to dwell on your own weakness, raise your eyes to Christ crucified and say: ‘Lord, I am a poor sinner, but you can work the miracle of making me a little bit better’” (GE 15).

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Paul Faheylives 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.

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