In the late fourth and early fifth centuries AD, a monk and theologian known to history as Pelagius advanced a novel understanding of the relationship between free will and grace. Pelagius, who hailed from somewhere in the British Isles and whose birth name may have been Morgan, denied the existence of original sin. Therefore, he proposed that the only divine grace needed for sanctification was the proclamation of the moral law. Although Pelagius held orthodox views on the Incarnation, his opponents accused him of seeing Jesus’ earthly ministry as little more than a reiteration of standards for moral behavior, rather than as a prelude to the paschal mystery. Once someone received this proclamation, they were then fully equipped to follow the moral law and merit salvation through cultivating personal virtue. This was a project that Pelagius, to his credit, by all accounts took very seriously in his own life; he was a noted ascetic and widely respected for his personal propriety.
Pelagius died in Alexandria around the year 420. While his teachings were declared unorthodox during his lifetime, he himself escaped being labeled a heretic until his posthumous denunciation at the Council of Ephesus in 431. He was then seen as a dyed-in-the-wool heresiarch for well over a thousand years. However, in the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, an effort to rehabilitate him has emerged on the basis of his strong defense of human free will and moral perfectibility. These emphases have an obvious appeal to the modern age with its high view of humanity and human capabilities. Today, both “liberal” theological dissenters on issues such as human sexuality and “conservative” dissenters on issues such as access to the sacraments often seem to veer close to Pelagius’s positions. In my opinion, what motivates both is an extremely high view of individual moral responsibility that, while admirable in moderate doses, becomes heterodox when allowed to obscure the need for God’s grace.
Certain figures within the mainline Protestant communities, such as Oxbridge historians Carol Harrison and Ali Bonner, have been openly sympathetic to Pelagius’s teachings since the mid-twentieth century. When I was studying for my master’s degree at a United Methodist school of theology with a primarily Wesleyan student body, I was in the minority in holding that Augustine’s view was orthodox and Pelagius’s was not. Georgia Harkness, one of America’s first significant female theologians and one who shares my alma mater, openly rejected the doctrine of original sin as an affront to “human sympathy.” Harkness was active in both the movement for women’s ordination in Protestantism and the ecumenical movement in the United States, meaning that she formed a sort of living bridge between Pelagianism and the concerns of modern Christian progressivism. French classicist Georges de Plinval published a sympathetic biography of Pelagius (probably the first sympathetic biography of Pelagius ever written) partway through Harkness’s writing period, and the progressive reappropriation of Pelagius and Pelagianism took off from there.
Pelagius’s British roots make it especially easy to connect him to a common tendency among progressive Christians to idealize “Celtic Christianity.” In this tendency, the form of Catholicism practiced in the British Isles in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages is viewed as more optimistic, tolerant, and open to divine immanence than Catholicism in Continental Europe. Oddities of medieval British and Irish religious practice—such as very lenient treatment of abortion and a unique style of religious art—are taken as evidence of theological differences. In turn, these alleged theological differences make Celtic Christianity a more promising starting point for efforts to build progressive Christian theologies today. A book I own called Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality, by Scottish theologian J. Philip Newell, adopts a Harknessian treatment of original sin that approvingly cites Pelagius as an ancient authority. “Pelagius’ practice, then,” says Newell, “rather than being seen as peculiar to him, can be regarded as reflecting the emerging attitudes of the Celtic Church.” (p. 13) His “conviction that every child is conceived and born in the image of God” stood “in stark contrast to Augustine’s thinking and the developing spirituality of the Church in the Roman world.” (pp. 13-14) I’m sure that not only Augustine but Pelagius himself, who asserted the compatibility of his views with Roman orthodoxy, would be surprised to hear that!
One doesn’t have to do much detective work to uncover the progressive tendency towards Pelagianism—it’s widely acknowledged and undisguised. What of the conservative tendency, what Pope Francis calls “neo-Pelagianism”? Francis describes a tendency often found among self-consciously orthodox people towards the same Pelagian ideas without recognizing or admitting their origin. It’s clear these are the people to whom Francis is primarily referring when he describes neo-Pelagianism; when describing dissent from the left he often instead invokes Gnosticism, the idea that one is saved neither through faith nor through works but through the intellect. (An argument can certainly be made that neo-Gnosticism and neo-Pelagianism are found on both the left and the right, in different forms and used for different purposes. There’s something shamelessly esoteric and thus in some sense Gnostic about overreliance on private revelation, obscure past theological authorities, an abstract and by implication static magisterium, etc.)
A common strategy among those who recognize that they’ve been accused of neo-Pelagianism is to simply mock the accusation. I remember this happening after Pope Francis referred in Evangelii Gaudium §94 to “the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of those who 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.” This attracted much opprobrium from people who felt that they were included in Francis’s use of the term and therefore objected to it. For example, a popular priest-blogger began selling coffee mugs on his website that read, “I am a Self-absorbed Promethean Neopelagian and proud of it.”
More recently, the radical traditionalist periodical The Remnant responded to Francis’s use of the term by accusing Francis himself of being a Pelagian. (I don’t want to give The Remnant traffic but it’s easily googled.) This rendered “Pelagian” a tu quoque stock accusation like “fascist” or even (forgive my language) “a*****e.”
Neither the mockery nor the turnabout proves, without additional context, that the people Francis is criticizing actually are Pelagians, “neo-” or otherwise. If I were cavalierly accused of a heresy that I didn’t think I was committing, I might mock it too. (On the other hand, if the person accusing me of it was the pope, or even my bishop, I would at least consider the possibility that he might be right and I might be wrong.) In other words, mockery of the concept isn’t really a smoking gun, although it can come across as thin-skinned. However, it’s perhaps instructive that surviving writings by Pelagius himself show somebody given to exactly this kind of defensiveness.
More damning is the language used in connection with the “masculine” Catholicism that’s en vogue in some circles. The book that inspired me to write this essay, Live Like a Desert Father, from an outfit called Exodus 90, comes from this environment. Advertising material for the book describes the Desert Fathers as “athletes of the spiritual life,” comparing them to sportsmen who “make huge sacrifices and submit their bodies to rigorous exercise programs just to outperform the competition by a small margin.” Who exactly were the Desert Fathers “competing” with? Bringing competition into it only makes any sense at all if the spiritual life is some sort of contest to see how close to God one can come by one’s own efforts. The fact that the Pauline Epistles often use sports metaphors works as a smokescreen to cover the painfully unorthodox way the metaphors are used here.
My colleague Dan Amiri has written more on the “Catholic masculinity” phenomenon here. I highly recommend his essay. I would add that I’ve seen very similar things said about pressure to conform to a vision of “femininity” to which Catholic women in the same circles are often subjected. Perform the right social role, break your back trying to conform to an external standard through your own efforts, and you’ll be the person God wants you to be. Of course, Church history is silent on whether (for example) Francis of Assisi worried if his tastes and behavior were masculine enough. Joan of Arc was martyred, in part, because her tastes and behavior were not feminine enough.
Political Catholicism also contains Pelagian traits. As with the Pelagianism of personal holiness, we can see this on both the right and the left. Allowing the focus of one’s faith to zero in on political activism can instill the belief that it’s within one’s own power to change the system. The classic maxim of Christian political activism is at heart Benedictine: “pray like it’s all up to God, work like it’s all up to you.” (Or, if you’re a Christian leftist, Mary Harris Jones’s “pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”) But with Benedictines prayer comes first; the work schedule in a monastery is at service to the liturgy of the hours. The work schedule is subject to change to accommodate the prayer schedule, not the other way around. Political activism must start from the realization that the credit for building a better world isn’t ours alone (nor are we solely to blame when we don’t).
Even atheist activists recognize that there are natural and sociological laws and elements of pure chance that influence public affairs. A Christianity that gives more political responsibility to humankind than comparable atheist philosophies is a Christianity that has succumbed to Pelagius’s valorization of human will. This is often present in religious-right visions of society where moral propriety is enforced by stringent legalities. At the same time, it also appears—and, again, many will openly admit it—when religious leftists act as if social and legal progress takes away the need for spiritual and moral reform. A Catholic ideologue on the right might think abortion will magically go away if we throw people in jail for it; the Catholic ideologue on the left may believe it will magically go away if we use taxes and welfare policy to pay people not to do it.
Excessive focus on external signs—of piety, of masculinity or femininity, of political success—shows an overexaggerated immanentism. There are other excessively immanentist heresies besides Pelagianism but the combination with the focus on effort in performing to certain standards is a distinctive one. Interestingly, Evangelli Gaudium’s attribution of an “anthropocentric immanentism” to neo-Pelagianism is another part of what left-leaning nature spirituality finds to admire in Pelagius. Whether with “nature spirituality” or “Catholic masculinity,” or with ideological Catholic politics of the left or right, the core impulse is the same. The desire is to obtain, or the belief is that one can obtain, spiritual justification or the external signs thereof through “doing things right” and somehow “earning” sanctity with minimal involvement from God. This desire or belief has been with us for thousands of years and shows no signs of going away. Pelagianism and the modern systems of thought that resemble it truly constitute a heresy for all seasons and remain an abiding problem in the Church today.
Image: An illustration of “Accurst Pelagius” from a seventeenth-century Calvinist text.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.