There are, in every parish, those who can be relied upon to be always late for Mass. They are sometimes referred to as the “Gloria crowd.” My deacon in one parish was a retired military man, whose adulation for the clock was absolute. A certain family in that parish, a family of Gloria arrivers, was his Sunday nemesis. He shuffled uncomfortably as Mom arranged her six little ducklings in a row, gave them all a missalette and then went up to join the choir as the Collect was read. Deacon could not accept the mother’s imperfection. She lacked the virtue of promptness. It offended his Anglo-Saxon cultural expectation that people will always be on-time.
We live in an America that worships success. Michael J. Sandel critiqued this cultural phenomenon in his 2020 book The Tyranny of Merit, in which he attempts to understand the rise of Neo-fascism, Antisemitism and political extremism. He writes that America has invented a new criterion by which to regulate who is successful and who is not. He argues that the new aristocracy of America has made entry into their ranks dependent on success, to be measured at entry level by the possession of a college degree. “To the liberal class, every big economic problem is really an education problem, a failure by the losers to learn the right skills and to get the credentials everybody knows you’ll need in a society of the future” (p. 88). His conclusion, (in brief and with all apologies for this caricature of his great work) is that the four-year degree is the new Jim Crow.
Success is the national Gospel – not only in the world of employment, education, and entertainment, but in the practice of religion. The cult of success thrives in ‘prosperity theology’ communities and, increasingly, in the Catholic Church. Whether in the workplace or in the sacristy, perfection is the goal, because success is now the norm by which to assess human worth. In some parishes, candidates for RCIA are expected to answer quizzes on scripture, dogma, and liturgy. The losers must wait until Pentecost, I suppose. It is my contention that the Catholic Church in the United States is heavily infected by the heretical belief that success is to be admired more than effort and struggle. The goal, salvation, is achieved by one’s own efforts, while God looks on, smiling.
In March 2018, Pope Francis issued his Apostolic Exhortation on the call to holiness in today’s world, Gaudete et Exultate. In this letter to the people of God, Pope Francis speculates on the attack on Christianity by the revival of two ancient heresies: Pelagianism and Gnosticism. In a Pelagian worldview, success is measured by the accumulation of wealth and power, just as salvation is achieved by the accumulation of pious deeds and prayers. The human person is unshackled from the responsibilities of family or community. One can hear Sartre — ‘Hell is other people’ — as the heresy spreads. Freed from any stain of Original Sin, freed from the consequences of any person’s actions, the true Pelagian values personal autonomy more than anything else.
The consequences of rampant Neo-Pelagianism in the United States are, according to US Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO), that American society is broken and splintered, that family unity has been damaged and that the rich elites control the nation. In a 2019 article in Christianity Today, Hawley wrote, “The Pelagian view says the individual is most free when he is most alone, able to choose his own way without interference. Family and tradition, neighborhood and church — these things get in the way of uninhibited free choice. … [I]f freedom means choice among options, then the people with the most choices are the most free.” Since rich people have more choices at their disposal, that means they have more freedom. Hence, according to Hawley, “Pelagian philosophy has made American society more hierarchical, and it has made it more elitist.” Whatever your views of Sen. Hawley’s political positions and his motivations for writing that article, this “Hawlian” philosophy of free will and the common good amount to a stinging rebuke to the dominant theology of prosperity and consumerism of most Americans.
Pelagianism takes its name from a British monk called Pelagius (c. 354–c. 418). Any fair consideration of the doctrine of Pelagianism must begin with the caveat that Pelagius himself may not have propounded everything that we now ascribe to his name. Some commentators say that Augustine, his chief detractor, was ill-informed about Pelagius and was depending too much on the writings of Julian of Eclanum. But whatever injustice he suffered at the sharp tip of St. Augustine’s quill can never compare to his denigration by the sharp edge of St. Jerome’s tongue, who described Pelagius as “that fathead, bloated up with Scottish porridge.”
A priest colleague recently told me that he believes Neo-Pelagianism affects the reception of the Sacrament of Penance. He suggested that much of the shame felt by people in the Millennial generation is due to their sense of disappointment at having failed to live up to their own exaggerated expectation of themselves. Therefore, their contrition is, at best, imperfect. My friend said, “They feel as if they should never have sinned, as if they could have avoided sin just be being who they are. They have no sympathy with failure in others and, as a consequence, they are angry with themselves when they commit sin. They don’t understand that the human drama does not end until the final curtain comes down.” That attitude reveals a cultural Pelagianism. For who wants their god to be less than perfect? Who wants their god to be a sinner?
These comments are reminiscent of the words of the future Pope Benedict XVI, who said in a series of Spiritual Exercises in 1986 (published in English in the volume The Yes of Jesus Christ) that the growing Pelagian trend is a “vice,” and that those who accept Pelagianism “do not want any forgiveness from God, nor indeed any gift at all from him. They want to be okay themselves, wanting not forgiveness but their just reward. They want security, not hope” (p. 82). Pope Francis commented in Evangelii Gaudium that those who are infected with neo-Pelagianism “ultimately only trust 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).
Most of us priests have experienced a penitent who is not really penitent. Some honest, god-fearing people believe that they are pleasing to God just as they are. For some, sin was a regrettable aberration from their usual virtuous self, while for others, sinful actions were absorbed and absolved by their overall goodness. “I’m not a bad person, Father, and I don’t know what came over me.” Among some, I have discovered an arrogant belief in their piety and good practices, as if they believe that their sins exist in a different category from other, less devout, Catholics. They confess a sin and then add immediately, “But I am doing much better now.” Their scrupulosity sometimes seemed based on the need for them to retain their hard-won perfection.
I first suspected the reappearance of Neo-Pelagianism a decade ago, when my diocesan chancery began to insist on greater efficiency and accountability in parishes. Then, at about the same time, Catholic authors such as Tom Corcoran and Fr. Michael White proposed that priests and lay ministers should learn “best practices” to improve the “Sunday experience.” What can I do to make the Sunday experience more attractive to visitors? I can see the advantages of placing greater emphasis on accountability and efficiency. But the shift in stress to these secular values brought with it a shift in theology. We were told by the proponents of this new Pelagianism that the Church had to be “deconstructed” and “reconstructed” if we were to cross the Jordan into a land where milk and honey could be bought with hard work and probity. The drive for perfection continued apace. Spreadsheets became the Roman Missal of the cultic worship of human effort. Finally, after much distress and harm, someone read the memo from the Holy Spirit.
In the view of Pope Francis, Neo-Pelagianism distorts the human self-image to the point where the human thinks of himself as capable of living a moral, virtuous life in full conformity with Scripture without the aid of divine grace. Autonomy replaces dependence in many hearts today to the point where many people, as the pope puts it, worship the human will and their own abilities. I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’s comment in Funeral of the Great Myth, “Man has ascended his throne. Man has become God. All is a blaze of glory.” Many in our Catholic Church have replaced self-transcendence with self-sufficiency as the goal of human life.
The cult of self-reliance and personal autonomy was never more ironically expressed than in the movement against Covid-19 vaccines. How ironic that one group of anti-vaxxers, good people imbued with modernism, wore t-shirts with the words, “My body – my choice.” Where did they get such t-shirts? A cynic might remark that they borrowed them from Planned Parenthood, but I would not be so crass. Oscar Wilde once remarked that irony is wasted on stupid people.
In the divine-human drama the central theme is grace. Grace is a freely given gift from God to humanity. Sins are forgiven by grace; the sick are cured by grace; men and women walk free from shame by grace. Grace allows us to become virtuous. The great heresy is that virtue is first acquired by successful spiritual activity, self-control, prayer, and piety. But virtue is the daughter of grace, not its mother. People do not acquire grace through virtue or success. Virtue is the fruit of God’s grace.
Lest I appear to assert that Neo-Pelagianism poisons only the American Church, I quote Michael Axworthy who wrote in the New Statesman in December 2018, that those living in the “liberal, humanist culture of western Europe today … believe in free will, in the perfectibility of mankind, in the ability of people to make the right choices, do good, and to make things better. We are, in a word, Pelagians.”
I finish where I began, at the altar where the imperfect latecomers had come to worship. “Glory to God in the Highest and salvation to people who are successful.” One October, when the clocks go back, the tardy family forgot the time-change and so arrived for Mass 45 minutes early. As the deacon and I kissed the altar, we noticed that the Gloria family was sitting in the first pew. The deacon whispered, “Father, there is a God.” Amen to that!
Image: Adobe Stock. By ALEXEY.
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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.