Pope Francis has warned of the resurgence of a Pelagian mentality ever since his election. But the new spirit of Pelagianism so decried by Pope Francis is not a formal Pelagianism. It doesn’t show itself in the denial of defined dogmas, or the rejection of councils and canons. It reveals itself, unintentionally, by its assumptions and practice, it’s a practical Pelagianism. The “New Pelagians” will not argue with Augustine on the necessity and priority of grace. They will simply act like there is no need to depend on anything but the human will. They will nod with the Church in condemning Pelagius but join the crowd in condemning the weak. They will quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church about man’s dependency for all things on God and then go about building the tower of Babel with their own hands.
What then are the signs of this practical Pelagianism?
1. Knowledge is virtue
One sign of practical pelagianism is the tendency to reduce the cause of failure in moral action to ignorance alone. Failure, not in the sense of not choosing the good, but the failure to be a fully free and responsible human action. Although the Church and the saints identify two causes of failure in the moral realm, ignorance and weakness, this tendency ignores weakness or reduces it to ignorance. Where two causes exist, only one is acknowledged. But weakness is not the same thing as ignorance.
Knowing the good doesn’t necessarily mean being able to do the good. It is entirely possible to know what the correct thing to do is and yet still be powerless to do it. Weakness is not a knowledge problem. Nor is it a repentance problem. The person who is weak may know the law, agree with the law, love the law, and yet still have great trouble obeying it. That’s what weakness means. Many objections to Pope Francis’ apostolic letter, Amoris Laetitia, amount to assuming that weakness is actually itself a knowledge problem – one that is easily solved by informing the sinner of the relevant facts. Once informed, the sinner now has sufficient knowledge to be fully culpable before the law. But this is false, weakness is its own cause of failure and knowledge is not power in this case.
2. The practical denial of gradualness
The dynamic of admitting in theory what is denied in practiced is present here too. The law of gradualism cannot be denied in the magisterium of the Church, but does anything in real life correspond to it? E. Christian Brugger has lamented that the Church’s doctrine on mitigating factors in moral action amounts to having sins without sinners. Well, in this case we have a path without pilgrims. For example Jimmy Akin, in an article on the law of gradualism written in 2014, wrote that the law of gradualism when applied to couples using contraception (or those who are divorced and remarried) and wanting to receive communion was an abuse. In response to the question “has the idea of the law of gradalness been abused?” he wrote:
Yes. At the Synod of Bishops on the Family in 1980, some called for an application of the law of gradualness that would allow married couples which were contracepting to receive absolution and holy Communion on the condition that they have an intent to gradually stop using contraception.
His authority for that conclusion?
St. John Paul II rejected it in the his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, saying:
[Married people] cannot however look on the law as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future: they must consider it as a command of Christ the Lord to overcome difficulties with constancy.
And so what is known as ‘the law of gradualness’ or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with ‘gradualness of the law,’ as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations.
The pastoral “law of gradualness”, not to be confused with the “gradualness of the law” which would tend to diminish the demands it places on us, consists of requiring a decisive break with sin together with a progressive path towards total union with the will of God and with his loving demands [Vademecum for Confessors 3:9].
It’s a good rule of thumb when interpretating a document that if your interpretation negates the very reality that is being asserted or interpreted in the document, you’re interpreting it wrong. If the law of gradualness is in fact a “step by step” advance then that logically entails that the “total union with the will of God and his loving demands” is necessarily “an ideal to be achieved in the future.” Otherwise, the law wouldn’t be gradual, it would be the law of immediatness, which the church doesn’t teach, as will be seen. Likewise, if the ‘decisive break with sin’ required is so decisive that a person can simply stop sining at the drop of a hat, then in what sense does this coexist together with a progressive path towards union with God’s will? What use is there of a law of gradualness if it’s so easy to stop sinning? Obviously, these interpretations are false. This is proven by the fact that a document called “The moral norm of Humanae Vitae and pastoral duty” that was published during Pope John Paul II’s papacy and is still present on the Vatican website says:
when it is a matter of judging subjective moral behaviour without ever setting aside the norm which prohibits the intrinsic disorder of contraception, it is entirely licit to take into due consideration the various factors and aspects of the person’s concrete action, not only the person’s intentions and motivations, but also the diverse circumstances of life, in the first place all those causes which may affect the person’s knowledge and free will[see #1]. This subjective situation, while it can never change into something ordered that which is intrinsically disordered, may to a greater or lesser extent modify the responsibility of the person who is acting. As is well known, this is a general principle, applicable to every moral disorder, even if intrinsic, it is accordingly applicable also to contraception. [emphasis added]
And then it connect this directly with the law of gradualness, saying…
In this line, the concept of the “law of gradualness” has been rightly developed, not only in moral and pastoral theology, but also on the level of pronouncements of the Magisterium itself.
So it was apparently well known back in the late eighties that the law of gradualiness is indeed applicable to contraception, and ineed “every moral disorder, even if intrinsic.”
3. All things are possible NOW: The fallacy of immediatism
“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” (Gaudete et Exsultate 49). The law of gradualism is a process of change over time. The fallacy of immediatism says that at any given point in time any person could in principle immediately do whatever the law requires (the moral law or the law of God). This is the denial of the law of gradualism with its ‘step by step’ progression. Many times this fallacy is implied but on a few occasions it can be found baldly and explicitely stated outright. For example in an article criticizing Cardina Cupich, Carl Olsen takes St. Paul’s words that “I can do all things in him who strengthens me”, to mean:
Not some things, or a few things now and more later, but all things.
For Olsen, we can apparently do all things right now. Gradualness? We don’t need no stinkin’ gradualness! In another place, Olsen mockingly dismisses the idea of gradualness, saying:
as if there really are some situations in which one may have to sin in order to grow in grace and truth, as we simply cannot attain “the ideal”.
If by “sin” is meant mortal sin done with full responsibility then yes of course, the idea is absurd. However if “sin” means grave matter, as it does in chapter eight of Amoris Laetitia, then that is exactly what the law of gradualism implies. To do something step by step often means that one can’t get to step three without first doing step two. Saying that it’s not possible to get to step three without doing step two is not saying that it’s impossible to get to step three – only that getting there has certain conditions that must be fulfilled first. It’s possible for the mustard tree to host the birds of the air in its branches, but not before many long years of it growing from a tiny seed. It is, practically speaking, impossible for a good portion of those years until the sapling grows into a mature tree. But Olsen thinks this is a faulty view of grace, and like immediatists everywhere appeals to the authority of the Council of Trent as proof.
Theologically though, it’s Olsen and the other immediatists that have the mistaken view of grace. Pope Francis has explicitely condemned this idea in Gaudete et Exsultate.
They fail to realize that “not everyone can do everything”, and that in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace. In every case, as Saint Augustine taught, God commands you to do what you can and to ask for what you cannot, and indeed to pray to him humbly: “Grant what you command, and command what you will”.
Aquinas says “But here grace is to some extent imperfect, inasmuch as it does not completely heal man, as we have said”. And lest anyone think that Pope Francis can be dismissed here on the basis of not leaning enough on Veritatis Splendor or Tradition, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical quotes Augustine in a similar vein:
Saint Augustine, after speaking of the observance of the commandments as being a kind of incipient, imperfect freedom, goes on to say: “Why, someone will ask, is it not yet perfect? Because ‘I see in my members another law at war with the law of my reason’… In part freedom, in part slavery: not yet complete freedom, not yet pure, not yet whole, because we are not yet in eternity. In part we retain our weakness and in part we have attained freedom. All our sins were destroyed in Baptism, but does it follow that no weakness remained after iniquity was destroyed? Had none remained, we would live without sin in this life. But who would dare to say this except someone who is proud, someone unworthy of the mercy of our deliverer?… Therefore, since some weakness has remained in us, I dare to say that to the extent to which we serve God we are free, while to the extent that we follow the law of sin, we are still slaves”.
By the way, when Pope Francis says that “God commands you to do what you can and to ask for what you cannot” he is, unlike the immediatists, correctly paraphrasing Trent’s view of justification, almost word for word: “For God commands not impossibilities, but, by commanding, both admonishes thee to do what thou are able, and to pray for what thou art not able (to do)”. Trent’s view of justification is gradualist through and through.
4. Category error: conflating weakness and freedom
A sure sign of practical pelagianism is the propensity to turn every instance of objective evil done in weakness or from external pressure, into a fully deliberate and free choice. In understanding chapter eight of Amoris Laetitia it is crucial to remember that the subject of that chapter is weakness. In addition to weakness it also talks about other forms of pressures that minimize personal responsibility for an action: external pressures, coercion, material cooperation, and any other kinds of circumstances where someone might do something voluntarily that is considered grave matter but where the evil done is not the moral object of the will.
There are countless examples of this mischaracterization and misunderstanding in the literature about Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia online. The following examples are all taken from critical articles against Amoris Laetitia in Crisis, First Things, Catholic World Report, and That Catholic Thing (emphasis added by me to illustrate the categorical confusion between weakness and freedom).
The “new paradigm”…allow priests and bishops…to liberate “individual consciences” that are not living by that teaching to continue not living by it, while approaching the Table of the Lord.
If they decide for themselves that the objective moral norms don’t apply to them, they are free not to follow them and remain Catholics in good standing.”
When it is a matter of the moral norms prohibiting intrinsic evil, there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone.
From the maxim, it follows that although there is indeed an objective moral law…that law represents the idea, whereas the reality is the subjective process of people making up their own minds about whether to follow the precepts of the law.
And why would a priest advise someone that he may continue to commit the sin of adultery?
Looking for excuses to keep sinning is not the way to fulfill God’s will in one’s life.
To declare that the deliberate, free and habitual practice of sexual acts in an invalid marital union…
Admitting couples living in “irregular unions” to Holy Communion and allowing them to practice acts that are reserved for spouses in a valid marriage would be…
A “permission slip” to keep committing adultery is a serious failure of pastoral charity by the priest advising someone who is living in sin.
The sinner needs to be reminded of his condition, not falsely reassured that he can claim an exemption from the prohibition of Holy Communion by pointing to mitigating factors that allegedly do awy with his personal responsibility for committing what is always an objectively mortal sin.
as moral theologian Germain Grisez points out, when people say that living a Christian life is “impossible’ they usually mean that the norm in question is incompatible with a way of life they prefer not to relinquish.
this is the category of individuals [consciences with diminished responsibility] that apparently are inculpably free to violate the Sixth precept of the Decalogue”
Today we deduce that our all-mercififul God darkens the the sinner’s intellect so that mortal sins become little “venial sins” that hardly hinder Eucharistic union. [mockery of Aquinas and magisterium’s veiw that mortal sin can become venial]
It should go without saying but must be repeated over and over again that the people who are being addressed in Amoris Laetitia are not those who deliberately, intentionally do what is evil or objectively wrong in the eyes of the Church. No one is giving them permission slips to sin, they are not granted exceptions to the law. Those all belong to the categories of freedom, they don’t make sense for someone who’s hands are tied. It’s not that people are free to violate the decalogue, but that people violate the decalogue because they are not free. People aren’t making up their own minds about following the precepts of the law, rather they aren’t following the precepts of the law because they are not of their own minds. For those who truly are free to ignore the law, the pope is not speaking to them, the Church already condemns them.
5. Heroic Strength as the norm
Another sign of practical pelagianism is the temptation to make the heroic the norm. Again, from the above literature…
Isn’t martyrdom rather than the silghtest sin required of us all, not as an abstract norm, but as a matter of love? That’s the path Jesus chose. How realistic, then, are the revisionists’ alternatives?
Pretty damn unrealistice I’d say given that, by definition, acts of heroism like martyrdom are not required of all of us.
heroism is for the average Christian
reject your advocacy of a Church that believes that heroism is not for the average Christian
Sure, we should all strive to be heroic, and we have no business denying the possibility of heroism to any Christian. But heroism is not the norm and it is not the standard with which to judge everyone’s efforts. The desire to judge people for failure to attain the heroic levels of virtue is not the same thing as inviting everyone to be heroes.
Aquinas recognized different levels of virtue, consistent with the progressive nature of man’s spiritual path, not simply the ‘perfect’ by which everyone must be judged:
It is, therefore, necessary to posit certain virtues midway between the social virtues, which are human, and the exemplary virtues, which are Divine. These intermediate virtues are of two degrees of perfection: the lesser in the soul still struggling upwards from a life of sin to a likeness with God — these are called purifying virtues [virtutes purgatoriae]; the greater in the souls which have already attained to the Divine likeness — these are called virtues of the purified soul.
Recommending or mandating the heroic for those who are still “struggling upwards from a life of sin” is totally inappropriate and a sure sign of practical Pelagianism.
Conclusion: cult of strength
What does all of the above have in common? What they all have in common is weakness. The ignoring of weakness, the despising of weakness, the inability to perceive it, or to believe it exists. Pelagianism is a cult of strength and self-dependency and though using the language of grace, it assumes the self-reliancy of the human will and the self sufficiency of human effort. And naturally, if all things are possible to man’s will, then the weak have no one to blame but themselves for their rejection from the clique of the (illusionary) perfect. The implications of this attitude was rejected by the Council of Carthage’s seventh canon which affirmed:
The saints refer the petition of the Our Father, “Forgive us our trespasses”, not only to others, but also to themselves.
The proof that these ideas and assumptions amount to Pelagianism in practice is this. If it’s possible to observe God’s commandments, but at the same time there is no necessity for change and transformation, then that possibility is in fact an innate natural power of man’s will to observe the commandments, which is exactly what Pelagianism affirms. May we learn to practice instead the true marks of orthodoxy: humility, patience, and tolerance.
Husband and father of six, idea-tinkerer, failed graduate student, amateur pianist. Used to live amongst the Christmas trees, now lives surrounded by cacti and coyotes. Brian is a co-conspirator of Where Peter Is.