There is a dangerous attitude prevalent in the world that suggests we are completely responsible for our own transformation. Whatever we become, whatever we achieve, it is because of our human efforts–exclusively. In a Christian context, we call this Pelagianism. Those who embrace this attitude might think that the primary difference between us and the Saints is that the Saints worked harder, studied harder, and made more intense sacrifices, for which God then blessed them.
The reality is, of course, the exact reverse. God blesses and gives his life and merciful love to us, and then we respond. This is holiness. Because of the prevalence of Pelagianism and the way it undermines the truth of grace and works, I am totally supportive of what Paul Fahey is getting at in his writings. Paul’s latest piece, entitled “Holiness isn’t about trying harder” is related to a topic that Paul and I have discussed at length–namely, what is our role in our own sanctification?
Both Paul and I agree that Pelagianism is a serious problem in contemporary Catholicism, and I have come to realize that I was guilty of it myself for some time. It is important to understand that, as Paul wrote, we are not the “primary” actor in our own sanctification; rather, it is the work of the Spirit, with whom we cooperate. According to the Catechism, “Merit is to be ascribed in the first place to the grace of God, and secondly to man’s collaboration.” (CCC 2025). Pope Francis put it this way: “Only on the basis of God’s gift, freely accepted and humbly received, can we cooperate by our own efforts in our progressive transformation.” (Gaudete et Exsultate 56)
We must understand that modern Pelagianism is a multi-faceted problem. Most Catholics aren’t educated on the careful nuances of a systematic theology of grace. Many of us, perhaps through no fault of our own, have misunderstandings or “blind-spots” when it comes to the role of grace in our lives.
I don’t think Pelagianism is common today because lots of people think that they can make good choices all the time if they just try hard enough. Rather, I think it’s common because we believe our choices are “good enough” for heaven, because we believe we are incapable of attaining the holiness to which we are all called. We might think, “My works will get me to heaven” — not because we believe all of our works are worthy of salvation, but as a way to comfort ourselves. (“It’s not like I killed anyone. I’m a pretty decent person.”) In a tragic irony, many of us find it too painful to allow ourselves to fully embrace the joy that comes from being totally loved and freely forgiven by God, because this also means that we must also feel the burning–one might say purgatorial–desire to be perfect before God. So often our fear and anxiety about the future cripples our hopeful joy!
Christians must learn to live a life of gratitude because we are taught to recognize that our faith and everything that flows from it, including our own holiness, is the free gift of God. And so, remembering what Paul said, one “solution” to Pelagianism is to develop “docility,” to be like sheep whose lives hinge on listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd. Our docility grows through prayer and discernment, which are gifts of God’s grace, through which we become open to God’s will for our lives.
Another solution to the problem of Pelagianism, worth discussing in greater detail, is to help others to reconnect with the kerygma of the faith. This is a major focus of Pope Francis’s papacy. A life of holiness flows from a conviction that we have been saved through our faith in Christ Jesus. We love because Christ first loved us (cf. 1 John 4:19). Pope Francis says, “In catechesis too, we have rediscovered the fundamental role of the first announcement or kerygma, which needs to be the centre of all evangelizing activity and all efforts at Church renewal.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 164). We need to reclaim this conviction for the faithful, for the kerygma is the beginning and the source of Christian holiness.
One more solution that is also vital for the Christian life is the development of personal virtue and excellence. One can argue that this emphasis on personal morality has been too strongly emphasized over the years, and has contributed in no small way to widespread Pelagian beliefs. However, teaching virtue while also working to instill the kerygma can be a key to the formation of holiness in others.
Without denying the importance of grace, the kerygma, or prayer and discernment, a major obstacle to holiness can be overcoming our own weaknesses, which can often seem insurmountable. Because of sin, our human wills are so weak and fragile and impure that we learn to believe that becoming a saint is beyond our capacity. Likewise, our culture bombards us with examples of broken people who have been unable to escape from the effects of sin. The stories of the Saints are almost indistinguishable from comic books about superheroes–they are great stories but impossible to emulate.
We often find ourselves stuck between the legitimate belief that we can go to heaven by the grace of God and the oppressive reality of our sinfulness. We might come to believe that if it’s true that sinful people can get to heaven, then perhaps a life that’s “good enough” is sufficient.
But God did not send his own Son to die on the cross so that we could be mediocre people living “lukewarm” lives. No, we believe that we can be fully and authentically human by the grace of God. The Scriptures and the Church make clear that Christ made it possible for all of us to be perfect and to live in the love of God. This is part of what makes Christ’s death and resurrection so powerful! We can be saints!
Let’s not forget, however that to be perfect even as Christ is perfect (cf. Matthew 5:48) is–for the vast majority of us–a lifelong struggle. Fortunately, we have the opportunity to be perfected by Christ in this life and in purgatory. Our souls need to be trained, even from childhood, to consistently and fully respond to the grace of God in all things. The soul, by the grace of God and with man’s cooperation, needs to “learn” to do what is good even if it doesn’t feel good, even when we continue to desire to do sinful things. The soul “learns” primarily through building up virtue. Over time, our virtue forms us and helps us to truly desire what is good. The perfection of man is the total alignment of his his whole self with the will of God. A truly virtuous person does not love because it is hard but because it is easy, because it comes “naturally.” As a parent who is striving to be more holy in my own life, my kids are a very real reminder of how important but difficult this is.
Imagine a young woman who has practiced self-denial, devotion, and creativity in the pursuit of a sports championship. She has been training her will. She has learned to fight through fleeting pain and irrational feelings of fear or despair, and has developed confidence and strength to do great things on the field. “She made it look easy” is a common thing one might say about excellence in sports. Compare this woman to someone who goes through life flippantly or basking in luxuries. When the time comes to follow God on the path of suffering and humiliation, who will be more prepared to respond to his grace?
While God often acts to console us and increase our devotion, we know from experience that these graces can also be withdrawn. God’s consolation can spur us to build up virtue, and yet, the Saints testify quite frequently to many moments when they no longer feel God’s presence as vividly as before. Will we love God even then? The extent to which we can love in difficult moments like these is a testament to God’s work in truly transforming us into images of his Son, who loved even to the point of giving his own life.
It is important to say that our virtue is the result of God’s grace working in our lives, but virtue can be cultivated through a variety of very human activities, such as taking part in sports, doing house chores, gardening, studying, work, or developing a skill. Activities that are communal in nature are especially beneficial because we need each other to help us, to help point out our mistakes and to give us advice and wisdom and encouragement. In community, we learn to humble ourselves to the judgments of others, which is conducive to humbling ourselves before the judgment of God. In Christus Vivit, Pope Francis writes, “The Church offers many different possibilities for living our faith in community, for everything is easier when we do it together.” In the economy of grace, it is impossible to lift yourself up by your own bootstraps.
In contrast to modern Pelagians who take confidence in the sufficiency of their own works, Christians know that the plan of God is ultimately our perfection. It is painful to be confronted with our own shortcomings and weaknesses, but there is peace in the love of God who works out everything for the good for those who love him (cf. Romans 8:28). In this confidence, Christians learn to trust God to lead them to heaven.
When we are talking about modern Pelagians, we shouldn’t think of learned theologians who have intellectual gripes about the Church’s official teaching. More often we are talking about people who have been ignorant, are malformed, or are otherwise incapable of appreciating God’s free gift of mercy right now. We must proclaim to them that, by Christ’s death and Resurrection, we can become holy, and that our holiness is our true happiness in Christ. (cf. Galatians 2:20).