In the late 19th century, Pope Leo XIII saw in the American Church a tendency to value the active life over receptivity to the Holy Spirit. In his 1899 letter to the faithful in America, Testem benevolentiae, Leo identified this tendency as part of the heresy of Americanism. In more contemporary language, the Pope noticed Americanists value the work of one’s own will over receptivity to the Holy Spirit, an American manifestation of Pelagianism:

To practice virtue there is absolute need of the assistance of the Holy Spirit, yet we find those who are fond of novelty giving an unwarranted importance to the natural virtues, as though they better responded to the customs and necessities of the times and that having these as his outfit man becomes more ready to act and more strenuous in action.[1]

America is a nation comprised of those who traveled over oceans, pioneered into the wilderness, abandoned everything for a better life, and who fought for their civil rights. An undeniable drive bolsters the American People. This is a good thing, but add to that the Protestant work ethic, which informed America’s overall way of thinking and living, and the result is America’s esteem for activity.

It isn’t surprising, then, that Catholics who assimilated into this culture would embrace this American outlook and slowly abandon the ideals of leisure their Old-World ancestors understood and valued. Translated into the spiritual life, Americans generally place too much emphasis on the active life and too little on the contemplative, as if Martha, not Mary, had chosen the better part. Those who are dedicated to contemplation are seen as doing nothing, as though prayer did not lead us to the actions God wills. In the words of Pope Leo:

This over-esteem of natural virtue finds a method of expression in assuming to divide all virtues in active and passive, and it is alleged that whereas passive virtues found better place in past times, our age is to be characterized by the active.[2]

The Americanist understanding of activity may be one of the primary reasons Americans experimented with liturgy and parish life in often bizarre ways after Vatican II. To be clear, bizarre liturgical experimentation occurred throughout the world after Vatican II, but it manifested in different ways in different nations. In the U.S., it seems to have been deeply rooted in the Americanist understanding of activity, which left American Catholics especially ill-disposed to a proper understanding of “active participation.”

The reforms did give the laity a greater role in liturgy, but the active participation called for by the council has more to do with engagement than with doing something. Before the council, the laity were not necessarily aware of what was happening on the altar. While some may have been following along, others may have been occupied with private devotions. Personal and communal participation in the liturgy was disjointed.

After the council, the most obvious reform was the change in the language of the liturgy from Latin to the vernacular. This was decided to help the laity better understand and share in the celebration. It was for both the individual’s benefit and for the sake of ecclesial unity, so that the whole community might better worship together. Careful reading of Sacrosanctum concilium, the council’s constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, reveals a prescription of periods of silence, Gregorian chant, and a call for noble simplicity. It certainly was not written to promote the increase of activity in the Mass, but Americanism predisposed many American Catholics towards this problematic interpretation – whether they embraced it or not.

The New Pelagianism

Traditionalists in America and beyond speak a great deal about contemplative prayer and the writings of the mystics and the saints. In addition, they also tend to show real disdain for what they see as overemphasis on the active life. In apparent reaction against consecrated women who do not wear traditional habits and whose ministry is social work, even the term “social justice” — coined in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum novarum — is now taboo in some Traditionalist circles. In this light, Traditionalists appear to be very far removed from glorifying the active life.

Nevertheless, while the language of contemplation is present in Traditionalist discourse, practitioners subtly prioritize the active by emphasizing acts of the human will over grace, and exterior over interior things. Pope Francis has identified this tendency as a new form of Pelagianism, much like Pope Leo’s concerns regarding Americanism in 1899. In Pope Francis’s 2018 apostolic exhortation Gaudete et exsultate, he reminds the Church of the ancient heresy, which overemphasized the human will and ignored the absolute necessity of grace, and explains how it manifests anew in our times. The Holy Father states the New Pelagianism

finds expression in a variety of apparently unconnected ways of thinking and acting: an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige…[3]

As if this weren’t clear enough, Francis adds that, with the New Pelagianism,

the life of the Church can become a museum piece or the possession of a select few. This can occur when some groups of Christians give excessive importance to certain rules, customs or ways of acting. The Gospel then tends to be reduced and constricted, deprived of its simplicity, allure and savour. This may well be a subtle form of pelagianism, for it appears to subject the life of grace to certain human structures.[4]

Traditionalists recognized references to themselves in these passages and who can disagree? Though the New Pelagianism it is not exclusively Traditionalists, they do fit the mold.

“Doing it Right”

People often turn to Traditionalism because they are tired of wacky liturgy, disappointing homilies, bad catechesis, and sometimes outright irreverence. Traditionalists present themselves not only as an alternative, but also as the ones who are doing it right. With them, the liturgy will be beautiful, the adoration reverent, the preaching enriching, and the traditions upheld. As such, a Traditionalist parish can seem like an oasis to many distressed Catholics.

Despite its paradisiacal appearance, all is not well. The spirituality of American Traditionalism is characterized as a multiplication of means. So much attention is paid to “doing it right” that everything tends toward being about what is done. The Traditionalist approach to liturgy is marked by a concern for the visible and audible aspects of ritual and an increased number of rituals. The Mass with more is considered more reverent and, therefore, more pleasing to God and more powerful. Likewise, their approach to the domestic church is the retrieval of myriad customs. Their approach to private prayer tends toward a multiplicity of vocal prayers, while an increase to regime is treated as an increase in holiness. Traditionalist spiritual warfare, too, is sometimes nothing but a prescription of many lengthy vocal prayers against the devil, without as much emphasis on maintaining inner peace and discerning the movements of the Holy Spirit. The danger here can be difficult to discern. Everything is religious, so it is not always easy to realize this approach only touches the rind.

More doing is seen as better. It is likely that the influence of the consumerist culture, which tends to value quantity over quality and exterior over interior things, combined with the Americanist emphasis on activity, has predisposed many American Catholics, and not only Traditionalists, to embrace this approach to spirituality.

The focus on activities competes with a focus on heavenly persons. Those familiar with Traditionalist circles will understand what I mean in saying there is a great deal of talk about things, rules, customs, and morals, but not as much about divine and heavenly persons. As we may know from experience or from exposure to Traditionalist outlets and social media, Traditionalists speak at great length about the liturgy and the law, but they rarely talk about Jesus outside of the homily. In the same way, a great deal of talk goes into warnings from apparitions of the Blessed Mother, but rarely about Mary. One exception, however, is that there is a great deal of talk about the devil and targets of conspiracy theories. Nevertheless, the greatest issue at hand is what’s missing.

The Church does place great emphasis on valid matter and form, especially in the sacraments, but in applying almost equal attention to matters which are not necessary, and treating as law “the right way” to follow even the smallest (and sometimes optional) custom, that which is truly necessary gets lost. Vocal prayer is necessary, and is not incompatible with contemplation, but it can also become more of a burden than a help, especially if too much is imposed. Undue emphasis on activity leads us to rely upon ourselves and not Christ. Consequently, self-reliance leads us away from total abandonment to God and restlessness and scrupulosity may flourish. The fruit of Traditionalism is inevitably a lack of peace.

The New Pelagianism is certainly found outside the borders of the United States, but the Americanist value of the active predisposed American Traditionalists to embrace this New Pelagianism with religious zeal. In a tone of warning, Pope Francis wrote, “It can affect groups, movements and communities, and it explains why so often they begin with an intense life in the Spirit, only to end up fossilized… or corrupt.”[5] Moreover, Pope Leo, in his reflections on this Americanist tendency, noted, “It is not easy to understand how persons possessed of Christian wisdom can either prefer natural to supernatural virtues or attribute to them a greater efficacy and fruitfulness.”[6] We can learn a great deal from the story of Martha, who, distracted by her preparations, her activity, was reminded by Jesus of the one necessary thing. (Lk 10:38-42.)

Read the last in the series: Conclusions


[1] Pope Leo XIII, Letter Testem benevolentiae (January 22, 1899) At Holy See. https://www.papalencyclicals.net/leo13/l13teste.htm.

The original Latin can be found here: http://w2.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/la/letters/documents/hf_l-xiii_let_18990122_testem-benevolentiae.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et exsultate (March 19, 2018) at Holy See, §57.   http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20180319_gaudete-et-exsultate.html#CONTEMPORARY_PELAGIANISM

[4] Ibid, §58.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Pope Leo XIII, Testem benevolentiae.


By Grant Wood – http://most-famous-paintings.com/ADC/Art.nsf/O/8XY5WF, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76363616

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Patrick is a layman who lives in North Carolina with his wife and children. He holds a bachelor’s degree in theology from Belmont Abbey College and a master’s degree in theology and Christian ministry from Franciscan University of Steubenville.

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