Our Holy Father Francis has written two exhortations, Evangelii Gaudium (2013) and Gaudete et Exultate (2018), that warn against two of the most pervasive and corrosive heresies in the 2,000 years of the Church: Neo-Pelagianism and Gnosticism. The pope, sensing the signs of the times (particularly relevant here in America), offers a pertinent reminder that we must resist the temptation to tolerate and participate in these heresies.
Pelagianism, in its fullest manifestation, sees grace as available to assist us humans in our efforts to live lives of virtue and holiness. The Church, in opposition to that heresy, teaches that Grace is absolutely necessary for humans to live good lives, to share in the holiness of Christ and to achieve salvation. The great tragedy is that Roman Catholicism is periodically overpowered by the Pelagian desire to draw forth from our own noble hearts the grace we need to be saved. The success of our secular society in becoming rich, sophisticated, technologically unparalleled, and “successful,” is the seedbed for Pelagianistic self-congratulations, in opposition to the martyrdom and triumph over suffering that is the seed of true Christianity. “Plures efficimur quoties metimur a vobis, semen est sanguis Christianorum.”
Scholars may argue the merits and demerits of the debate between Augustine and Pelagius, but what is undeniable is that the ghost of Pelagius haunts the Catholic Church today in America. Some of this is generational, some of it has been imported to our pews from other places and cultures. Our sense of the mighty deeds of a loving and merciful God is fast taking a back seat to a Pelagian emphasis on moral teaching, pious practices, and compliance with those rules which can save you. At its core, the new American version of Neo-Pelagianism is, “If you pray enough, you will open the gate of heaven.” Catholicism, however, starts from God’s grace, getting it right. Pelagianism, getting it wrong, starts with human effort.
The sad truth is that we are fast becoming a Church that trusts more in our own efforts than in the grace of God. That is all the more true in the liturgy wars, where perfectionism and attention to detail sometimes becomes more important than the spiritual effect of sacramental celebrations on the human senses. Sacraments are sensory, outward signs that communicate grace. They are intended to stimulate and sanctify the human senses of touch, hearing, seeing, breathing, and tasting. Paradoxically, sacraments are physical, earthy things. Sacraments are not the glory. They are realities imbued with the mystery of God and his Church. In these mysteries, the baptized may, as it were, peep over the walls of heaven and glimpse the glory. Ah! But what about the grace — the grace of the sacraments, and the grace by the sacraments? What about the opening of the heavens while the lips of the Creator kiss the earth for those few short moments?
The desire for success in business or in politics necessarily drives us to work hard. We set goals and we work to achieve them. The boardroom and the workshop are battlefields where people pit their skills and their ideas against others, hoping for recognition and wealth. Even so, I have personally attended board meetings of large commercial companies where members are first told to give God the glory for success. I have personally witnessed that when commercial success and success in the political realm are prayerfully accepted as gifts of the Lord, effort does not turn to strife, failure does not turn to despair, and the acquisition of great wealth does not destroy the beauty of the humble soul. Rejecting the temptation to total self-absorption makes for gracious leaders and generous benefactors. Grace fills the gracious.
The cult of achievement and success has, inevitably, slid between the sheets and perverted the marriage bed of Christ. The Church’s very heart, the breaking of the Bread, is now subjected to the yardstick of success. How best can we do it? How many times must I tell the acolyte to hold his little hands in a certain way? What can I do to make the Sunday experience more attractive to visitors? The temptation to Neo-Pelagianism is most subtle in the sacristy. In the atmosphere of reverence which should rightly exist in a sacristy, there is sometimes a temptation to exhibit one’s virtue in the rigorous precision of the liturgical rubrics. All of us came out of seminary full of Greek and Gregorian, Latin and lace. This sometimes led us to having a judgmental, fault-finding, or condescending attitude toward those who collaborate with us in the sacristy.
To be like the Lamb of God whom I claim to worship, my sacristy must be a sanctuary of simplicity. Alexander Schmemann, in his book For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, wrote that “the basic definition of man is that he is the priest.” According to Schmemann, humans are priestly worshipers, and that before anything else, the human is “homo adorans” – on his knees in front of the Lamb. To worship in integrity, a human must be humble, without ostentation, desire for precision or concern for success.
Pope Francis, in a section of Evangelii Gaudium dealing with temptations facing pastoral workers, begins with the assertion of the prevalence of the heresy of Pelagianism within the Church, saying that it is a “spiritual worldliness, which hides behind the appearance of piety and even love for the Church, consists in seeking not the Lord’s glory but human glory and personal well-being” (EG 93). This search for personal aggrandizement will manifest itself in seeking to look pious and efficient in front of others, what the pope characterizes in the same paragraph as “carefully cultivated appearances,” and as the “false forms of holiness” he attacks in Gaudete et Exultate 35. Pope Benedict XVI said that this form of Pelagianism “is a religion without love” and “degenerates into a sad and miserable caricature of religion.”
In the 5th century and later, Pelagius and his followers were accused of elevating personal moral virtue as the means for achieving salvation. Therefore, the more pious and exact the celebration of public worship appears, the more these acts of worship are effective. Pope Francis identifies that tendency among Catholics who see themselves armed against evil by their piety, saying that they “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 from the past” (EG 94).
How sad it is that Neo-Pelagianism has crawled up the steps into the sanctuary, litmus-testing God’s reactions to our various expressions of love and worship? The secular has invaded the sacred, and stolen her identity. American Catholics have been conned into believing that success and prosperity are Christian values. Virtue is a gift from God by grace, and we Catholics thank him for his undying love for us.
Efficiency and exactitude are now liturgical virtues achieved through the strict application of whatever rubrics we choose to prioritize. But God does not want earnest hard-working American Catholics building a tower in his sanctuary, from which they can evaluate his perfection. God can make the dead bones rise up and proclaim Him. From “best practices” to “efficient management of ecclesial resources,” to obsessively literal readings of liturgical instructions, to scrupulous anxiety about minutiae, reliance on divine grace is under constant attack by success-fascinated Catholics.
A few years ago, a priest colleague, sitting beside me at the celebration of Mass in a seminary chapel, whispered to me, “Look at the attention on their faces. It’s like liturgical pornography.” At lunch, I asked him what he meant. He pointed out to me that the faces of many of the Seminarians were focused so intently on the actions of the priest that all else seemed irrelevant. These young men’s eyes are glued to the altar, scrutinizing the celebrant’s hand movements, his body language and the accuracy of his words. Liturgical pornography is no less pernicious and addictive than its carnal step-sister. Human action becomes an end to itself. Mystery fades. Grace has no chair at that banquet.
I am convinced that, without even realizing it, the American Catholic Church has placed achievement of success on at least an equal footing with her veneration of God. The church is becoming infected with a secular belief that perfection is achievable through human effort. Reliance on the grace of God, the acceptance of human imperfection, the agreement to accept in love and patience that which is less than perfect behavior, sinners striving to come out of the shadows into the light, all of that is now overshadowed by the zealous pursuance of unreachable human perfection.
We ministers of the Church are tempted every moment we open the scroll of that Sunday Mass, or lift that chalice. We are praised by well-meaning congregants. We are told we are holy. We are praised for the externals and we can easily forget that we are unworthy servants. The passion for spiritual success often begins in the sacristy when we are acolytes and lectors, seminarians and deacons. It is essential to guard ourselves against the anxiety to perform well, and remember that the most appropriate position for the human is homo adorans, on his or her knees in front of God. We cannot save ourselves by polishing the thurible or chastening the acolyte. There is no grace to be earned in perfectly folded corporals. No salvation in starch and scowls, no love in Latin and lace, no saving grace in heavenward miters. We have all lost our spiritual virginity. We have no innocence of our own. Only the Lamb is sine macula aut ruga.
A week ago, I had dinner with a few priests. One of them, a fine, enthusiastic fellow, is scheduled to exit his first parish in a few months. The question is innocently posed, “John, what will be your legacy at St. Stanislas?” Came the reply, as if from the mouth of Pelagius himself, “I hope my legacy will be that no bad decisions were made at St. Stan’s while I was pastor.”
I sat there amused more than shocked, and, in my imagination, Hark! a voice like thunder spoke all the way from Hippo, “Heresy, mother of all heresies!!!!”
My young brother knows that because he has made good decisions in his pastoral and private life, he is a success in the eyes of God. His virtue has attracted the grace of God. Long may he continue to be a virtuous priest. And, when the wind changes, and the world turns against him, as it surely will, may he know that grace is still being poured upon him in his sickness or disgrace or sadness. Even in adversity, success is assured when the broken heart is open to God’s grace. When St. Therese of Liseaux was told she was to ill to receive Holy Communion, she reputedly replied, “No doubt, it is a great grace to receive the sacraments. When God does not permit it, it is good too! Everything is grace!”
 “We multiply whenever we are cut down by you; the blood of Christians is seed.” Often quoted as “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” (Tertullian, from Apology Against the Pagans, 50, 13).
 Aleksandr Shmeman, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004), 15.
 Pope Benedict XVI, The Yes of Jesus Christ (Crossroad Publishing, 2005), 82.
Image: Saint Joseph Sacristy – pre-Christmas. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). https://flic.kr/p/b7TdHP
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Father Tim Kelly is a priest of the Diocese of Tyler in Texas. Ordained in 1999, he has spent most of his ministry in parishes in "Deep East Texas." He spent three years studying Patristics in Rome and two years teaching at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston. Fr. Kelly’s interest is in the history of theology -- the forces which shape how the Catholic Church expresses herself in any particular moment of history.