In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis discusses how “spiritual worldliness” can creep into the Church. He writes:
This worldliness can be fuelled in two deeply interrelated ways. One is the attraction of gnosticism, a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings. The other is 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.
It might seem like this is aimed solely at Catholic conservatives, but the problem Pope Francis is discussing is not limited to any particular ideological group. A little further on in the encyclical, he writes:
This insidious worldliness is evident in a number of attitudes which appear opposed, yet all have the same pretence of “taking over the space of the Church”. In some people we see an ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige. . . . In others, this spiritual worldliness lurks behind a fascination with social and political gain, or pride in their ability to manage practical affairs, or an obsession with programmes of self-help and self-realization. It can also translate into a concern to be seen, into a social life full of appearances, meetings, dinners and receptions. It can also lead to a business mentality, caught up with management, statistics, plans and evaluations whose principal beneficiary is not God’s people but the Church as an institution.
Ancient Heresies with New Faces
Pelagianism is named for bishop Pelagius of Britain, whose teaching tended to downplay the human need for God’s mercy and grace. Gnostic sects were widespread in the first few centuries after Christ; they were characterized by a rejection of matter as evil and by a dependence on secret knowledge. Prometheanism isn’t a formal heresy, but rather an overemphasis on perfecting the world through our own efforts. Why is Pope Francis so concerned about these particular errors? The clue may lie in the connection he draws between these mental tendencies and the problem of self-absorption. The devout Christian is not immune to the danger of self-absorption. In my own experience, I’ve found that devout Christians can be particularly susceptible to forms of self-absorption which ape true piety.
For many years, my understanding of the Christian life was dominated by the struggle for personal perfection. I mistakenly imagined that my task was to perfect myself so that I’d be worthy of heaven. This “neopelagian” focus on my own efforts led to a fixation on rules and practices. I became extremely performance-oriented, feeling that I had to be perfect to deserve love.
This outlook of mine was fostered by a Gnostic over-intellectualism. I didn’t tend to think about God as a person. My interest was on “getting to heaven” (or rather, on “avoiding hell”). I’d certainly heard about the love of God and a personal relationship with Christ, but these positive aspects of Christian spirituality just hadn’t sunk in and taken root.
This Pelagian focus on self-improvement led to scrupulosity and discouragement as my spiritual life turned inward. I found the task of self-improvement impossible, and I became obsessed with concern over the state of my soul. I lived in fear of hell, and was angry with God and with myself. I felt that God had been unfair to give me such an impossible task and then threaten me with damnation for failing to fulfill it. I was disgusted with myself for being such a failure.
It can be hard to recognize such despairing attitudes as prideful. An obsessive focus on faults can be just as prideful as a focus on merits since the focus is still inward. Even though I was struggling with despair, I was still outwardly devout. I tended to look down on other Catholics whom I saw as “inferior.”
When a person falls into such a predicament, Promethean attitudes can easily creep in. I needed something to fill the void in my spiritual life, and so I set out to “save the world.” As Pope Francis says, Prometheanism can take many forms. In my case, I was interested in social renewal and a more integrated form of life. My projects weren’t bad in and of themselves, but they weren’t flowing from love of God and neighbor.
Consoling the Heart of Jesus
In his book Consoling the Heart of Jesus, Fr. Michael Gaitly presents the antidote to self-absorbed neopelagianism: an outward-looking spirituality of love and compassion. Drawing on the works of St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Faustina, and St. Ignatius Loyola, he describes a “little way” of sanctity. This “little way” is for “little souls”: those who see themselves as weak and imperfect. The foundation of this spirituality is a focus on consoling the Heart of Jesus through acts of love and trust.
Fr. Gaitley quotes these words Jesus spoke to St. Margaret Mary:
“This hurts me more than everything I suffered in my passion. Even a little love from them in return—and I should regard all that I have done for them as next to nothing, and look for a way of doing still more. But no; all my eager efforts for their welfare meet with nothing but coldness and dislike. Do me the kindness, then—you at least—of making up for all their ingratitude, as far as you can.”
Fr. Gaitley challenges his readers to offer a loving response to this request, a response that is very different from the neopelagian emphasis on oneself. Consoling the Heart of Jesus helped me to understand that Jesus ardently desires that we come to him, even with all our sins, imperfections, and attachments. Jesus wants us to trust him enough to keep coming back every time we fall. We don’t need to purify ourselves first; in fact, we’re incapable of doing this on our own. If we allow ourselves to remain in the Lord’s presence, however, our attachments will gradually weaken.
This spirituality of focusing on the Lord rather than on ourselves and our spiritual struggles doesn’t mean that we can stop striving for holiness. That would be to escape from neopelagianism only to fall into the opposite error of quietism. Rather, as Father Gaitley put it in one of his talks, “In the spiritual life, effort is both absolutely essential and absolutely useless.” In Consoling the Heart of Jesus, he describes the rough, steep “stairway of perfection” that the “little souls” seem unable to climb. Instead of giving up, such souls are called to remain right there at the foot of the stairs, trying to ascend, and humbly confident that their weakness and inability will be overcome by the love and mercy of Christ.
Saving the World
Just as a focus on Jesus overcomes the danger of self-absorbed Pelagianism, it also overcomes the tendency to Promethean thinking. We’re small and weak, and that’s OK. We can rest assured that we don’t need to save the world. Jesus has already saved it. Our focus must remain on being with the Lord rather than on “doing things” for him. In heaven, being with the Lord will be the only thing there is to “do”. Not that there isn’t much work to be done in the here and now. We are called to participate in Christ’s redemption of the world by showing his love and mercy to others. We won’t be able to do this, however, if we haven’t first experienced his mercy through an intimate relationship with him.
A Christ-centered spirituality is less focused on results, whether in the spiritual life or in evangelizing the world. Rather, it focuses on acting out of love and leaving the results up to God. Fr. Gaitley explains that God often hides the spiritual progress of little souls from them so they don’t become proud. Similarly, in our interactions with others, we’ll never know what the Holy Spirit accomplished through a simple gesture or word of mercy and compassion.
The Journey of Sanctity
As Pope Francis states in Evangelii Gaudium 222: “Time is greater than space . . . Giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces.” In the original context, he is speaking about ecclesiastical and socio-political reform, but the statement is just as applicable to the spiritual life. The pursuit of sanctity and the renewal of society are both processes or journeys, neither of which is ever fully achieved this side of eternity, and neither of which depends chiefly on our own efforts. We’re called to let go of regret for the past and worry about the future so that we can act with love and trust in the present moment.
Image: By Heinrich Füger – , Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=175869