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).

 

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  1. Avatar Ashpenaz says:

    As Pope Francis also points out, grace builds on nature. If there are mitigating factors, say, an irreversible homosexual orientation, then God’s grace takes that into account. The steps toward holiness for a gay person will look different than that for a straight person. I believe that a gradual step toward holiness for a gay person might be a lifelong, monogamous same-sex marriage which includes homosexual acts. In the same way that marriage functions to help us grow in love and intimacy for a straight couple, a same-sex marriage might be a necessary step in growth for a gay person.

    I think that God’s ideal is a heterosexual procreative marriage. I think we are called to come as close as we can to that ideal given our mitigating circumstances. Complementariness and procreativity will look different for a same-sex couple–adopting children the way infertile couples do, for instance. Even if the same-sex couple can’t achieve the ideal in this lifetime, I think God calls them gradually, step-by-step, as far as they can go toward that ideal. As long as they are following God’s call to holiness, I believe they should have access to the Eucharist, they way all the less-than-ideal-but-trying have.

    • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

      While not responding directly to what you said, one thing Francis likes to say is that the Saints are great examples, sure, but we are not called to be carbon copies of saints. Each of us has a unique calling, a unique path in life, that leads to our perfection in Christ. It is God who reveals this plan to us with the help of the Church’s Magisterium, the authentic interpreter of Scripture and Tradition. We can rely on the Church’s teachings as guideposts along the way that God himself leading us on. With the Church’s help, we know what the good life–at the very least–does NOT consist of, and we could never counsel someone differently. This is the point made by Francis when he distinguishes between the law of gradualism and the gradualism of the law. The law of gradualism is the principle by which the Church, with an eye to being a good pastor, can lead someone slowly out of the grips of sin, tolerating what is sinful now until a person is better able to deal with it. Gradualism of the law, however, would suggest a relativity about the law, that the law is applied differently to different people, to the extent that they are capable of living by it. I believe some of what you are saying slips into this mode of speaking.

      • Avatar Ashpenaz says:

        I can understand why it might look that way; however, the ideal always stays the same. We can only go as far as grace takes us. If there are mitigating factors which will prevent us from achieving the ideal in this life, then we can only do what grace enables us to do within those limits. As Pope Francis says, “[85.] Moreover, one cannot deny that in some circumstances “imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified” (CCC, 1735) due to several constraints. Accordingly, the judgment of an objective situation should not lead to a judgment on “subjective imputability” (Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Declaration of 24 June 2000, 2a). Under certain circumstances people find it very difficult to act differently. Therefore, while supporting a general rule, it is necessary to recognize that responsibility with respect to certain actions or decisions is not the same in all cases. Pastoral discernment, while taking into account a person’s properly formed conscience, must take responsibility for these situations. Even the consequences of actions taken are not necessarily the same in all cases.”

        And in paragraph 303, he says, “(Conscience) can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal. ”

        I believe that there are those with irreversible homosexual orientations who are led by God’s grace to same-sex marriages as the most generous response they can currently give to God.

      • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

        Grace will always take us to our holiness; it never stops short of that. I agree, of course, that circumstances in life might make it very difficult to live out one’s holiness. We all must be instruments of God’s charity and do what we can to help each other on the path, to remove any obstacles that might be in the way, through education or a job or what have you.

        The goal of the law of gradualism is to lead someone from sin to a holy life. It could never propose or accept a decision to engage in more serious sins, or indeed the habit of sins, that are counterproductive to the development of virtue. All are called to a life of love, even if that love looks different for different people. “Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Mt 18:17).”

      • Avatar Ashpenaz says:

        Good point. Is a homosexual act a sin regardless of context? Catholic theology says that an act has 3 parts: the physical act, the intention, and the circumstances. The theologians I read, such as Fuchs, Haring, and Salzman, say that if the intention is to foster intimacy, and the circumstances are a lifelong, monogamous marriage–and the additional mitigating circumstances include an irreversible homosexual orientation: if all these are present, the the homosexual act can help that person toward holiness, the same way heterosexual acts are meant to lead us closer to God. The lessons learned from building intimacy and raising an adopted family can aid a person’s spiritual growth, even if, in this life, the person will not be able to achieve the ideal of sexuality.

        It’s like being deaf. Hands were not designed to speak–but we understand that deaf people need to use their hands in an unnatural way in order to come as close as they can to the ideal of speaking and hearing. And anyone who has seen a Mass for the Deaf knows how powerful and how holy this unnatural way of speaking can be.

      • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

        “Is a homosexual act a sin regardless of context?” This is precisely what “intrinsically disordered” means. The Church teaches, “Under no circumstances can they be approved.”

        I believe you know this, however, and as Salzman has done, you are calling into question the very teaching itself. I don’t mean to rehash the back and forth, over the years, between these theologians and the Church, as I don’t think I could say anything that would add to that conversation.

        On a personal note, I would say that I trust the Church when it teaches what actions are to my benefit and which are not. This is the very trust that has led me here to this site, believing that the Spirit is working within the Church and the successors of the apostles, including the Pope, to lead the Church into greater holiness. (I explain this more fully in another article: https://wherepeteris.com/how-to-choose-a-church/) It will be hard for me then to engage with anyone who would seek to undermine that trust. Do you think your position is compatible with the Church’s teachings? With all respect, how do you reconcile a trust in the Church with the beliefs that you hold? I’m genuinely interested in your response.

      • Avatar Marthe Lépine says:

        I don’t know if my interpretation would seem correct… but partly based on my own experience in another area, one cannot just settle into a situation and decide it is the best one can do. There has to be a consistent desire to reach the ideal. In the case of couples in irregular situations, whether hetero- or homosexual, where actual separation seems impractical for the time being (such as the presence of children), the couple has to at least want to try, and actually try, to remain celibate, or live as brother and sister, or brother and brother. Supported by grace, and a constant desire to do better, each fall along the way may not in itself be subjectively serious sin, but it does not mean that one should be satisfied with “not quite making it”, but should be trying to do better in the face of the next temptation. This could of course happen again and again, but it does not mean that the couple can just say that they have gone as far as was humanly possible and stop there. Rather, they must maintain their desire to do better the next time and pray for the grace needed to support their efforts. It seems to me that it is in such cases that, as guided by a good spiritual director, people can have access to the Eucharist in order to grow in their strength. Is that making sense?

      • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

        Personally, I think that’s pretty close to the mark. I do agree that we should never stop striving to live the best we can. I would suggest that, however, that without real people and real circumstances, it is impossible to say in the abstract what “trying” looks like. While some might be ready and able, by the grace of God, to live out the ideal in their circumstances–that is, whatever is objectively speaking best in their circumstances–others might need to take other interim steps first to get there and, in reality, may never get there in this life. But I do agree that the whole point is that people, all of us, are taking the steps we need to take to grow in holiness, even if for some that happens more slowly or with more difficulty.

      • Avatar Marthe Lépine says:

        Daniel, I fully agree that we cannot, in the abstract, define what “trying” means. This is to be left to a person’s conscience, and in some cases whoever is the spiritual director of a person, or other counselor, and as far as we are concerned, it means that we cannot judge a person just on what we know of their life or personal behaviour, or, in other terms, look around at Communion time and pass judgements on whether one person or the other is allowed to partake.

      • Avatar Ashpenaz says:

        As Pope Francis showed with the death penalty, the Catechism has not reached its final form yet! 🙂 I pray, as do many others, for a better wording than “intrinsically disordered”–Fr. Martin has suggested “differently ordered.” While “under no circumstances are they to be approved” is harsh, it doesn’t say they are never to be done. Again, I think in the future we will see this section replaced with a softer wording, truer to the Gospel.

        What I believe, and what keeps me connected to the Church, is this paragraph from Christus Vivit:

        41. Although many young people are happy to see a Church that is humble yet confident in her gifts and capable of offering fair and fraternal criticism, others want a Church that listens more, that does more than simply condemn the world. They do not want to see a Church that is silent and afraid to speak, but neither one that is always battling obsessively over two or three issues. To be credible to young people, there are times when she needs to regain her humility and simply listen, recognizing that what others have to say can provide some light to help her better understand the Gospel. A Church always on the defensive, which loses her humility and stops listening to others, which leaves no room for questions, loses her youth and turns into a museum. How, then, will she be able to respond to the dreams of young people? Even if she possesses the truth of the Gospel, this does not mean that she has completely understood it; rather, she is called to keep growing in her grasp of that inexhaustible treasure.

  2. Avatar carn says:

    “Pelagianism is a serious problem in contemporary Catholicism”

    “the careful nuances of a systematic theology of grace”

    If falling into Pelagianism depends on nuances, how can you know that Pelagianism is a serious problem or in other words that many Christians have fallen into that trap?

    Cause after all to determine whether someone is proposing/following idea A or idea B with A and B being different in nuances, one has to make certain that one correctly identifies whether the person is holding A or B; for that one would have to closely study what the person says/does AND who the person means the words; otherwise, one might just think due to an interpretation error that the person is holding A, although in truth person is holding B.

    The more complicated the distinction between A and B is, the more likely one is an error whether someone else is holding A or B.

    Especially, there might be people who actually hold to A, but due to lack of knowledge/care say things that sound like B.

    Personally, i think i fail to fully understand, what the modern day Pelagians exactly do and say wrong based on your description of them; it seems that do the right thing, but the error is just in their thinking, that this doing will save them.

    But if that is the case, i would seldom dare to call anyone a Pelagian, cause i can mostly observe only what they do and say and not what they think, which i can usually only guess.

    • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

      My point in the part you quote was simply to say that people do not fall into this heresy knowingly. Rather, anytime someone thinks “what I’m doing is good enough,” they have lapsed into a form of Pelagianism that is harmful to the faith. One reason they might think “what I’m doing is good enough” is because they don’t know that it is possible to be holy, or even just holier. This was my own experience that I was fortunate enough to be corrected out of and, in my own observations, it seems to be fairly common. I don’t know what everyone does, but at least for me, my Pelagianism manifested itself as a resistance to prayer, a reliance on my own efforts to break out of habits of sin, etc. I have to think that many Christians are/were in the same boat.

      • Avatar M. says:

        Daniel thank you for article. I think it is interesting twist the idea that Pelagianism can be “this is good enough.” I am trying to understand it, as I thought of Pelagian, as kind of actually being super good in an amazing way, but for the wrong reasons- maybe something like scruples might lead person to being. Turns my idea on its head to think about that your way. Maybe the solution to the problem, but I need to understand it more. If time, can you give me some examples, what this would look like in real life? PS- sorry if I am not replying in the right spots, there is something awkward about com box replying)

      • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

        M.,

        It all comes down to the attitude that “What I’m doing is good enough for heaven.” At a high-level, any attitude along these lines is a derivation of Pelagianism. In short, it diminishes the power of the cross.

        Now, you can think about that statement in a few different ways. The first and perhaps most common is to think that “Yeah, my actions are really awesome. I’m a good person so of course God will take me up to heaven. What I’m doing is good enough for heaven.”

        Another way, which is what I was trying to illustrate better, is simply when we become dejected by the possibility of becoming a saint. It might be “too hard.” We think, “Well, I know I’m not going to be a saint so I’ll just try not do anything really bad. What I’m doing is good enough for heaven.” But this too is a form of Pelagianism insofar as it puts the focus on me, and my efforts, and what I’m doing, rather than the awesome gift of God on the cross.

        After some meditation about what Christ did on the cross (provided someone understands the cross correctly), our response is one of joy, gratitude, humility, etc. We know that we could never deserve what Christ did for us, and yet, he did it anyway. The Church and Scriptures testify to the fact that the superabundance of grace and mercy won by the crucified Christ makes it possible for us to be saints. We work for perfection, not because we take pride in our own efforts, but because we know that Christ made it possible for us. To avoid this awesome gift, to avoid the work of our total sanctification in Christ Jesus, cripples faith.

  3. Avatar Peter Aiello says:

    God calls and elects us, but we need to draw close to God before He will draw close to us and give us grace (James 4:6, 8). This requires humility toward God (James 4:10). Peter elaborates on this when he says to “be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time, Casting all of your care upon him; for he careth for you” (1Peter 5:5-7). We want to make our election sure (2Peter 1:10).

    • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

      I’m curious about your interpretation of James 4 there. Certainly, we cannot draw close to God unless God first gives us the grace to do so. Right?

      • Avatar Peter Aiello says:

        I think that the drawing of God which brings us to the place of humbling ourselves towards Him can be called grace.
        Jesus says in John 12:32: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” It sounds like all humans are subject to this grace. In James 4:6, James says that God gives more or greater grace when we humble ourselves towards Him. I believe that this includes Divine peace and strength.
        When James tells us to let our laughter be turned into mourning and our joy into heaviness, he is telling us that we need to put aside our own ways of lifting ourselves, and submit ourselves to God’s lifting, by humbling ourselves (James 4:8-10). Peter also speaks of God lifting us when we humble ourselves, in almost the same wording as James (1Peter 5:6-7). Peter adds the casting of all of our cares on God, which attracted me to the concept of humility towards God.

      • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

        Yeah, I wasn’t sure where you were heading before. It’s important to state that even the desire to pray is by grace, that even the desire to be humble is by grace. Everything good that we do is by the grace of God, and for this we can give eternal thanks! Certainly, when we are humble, it is easier for God’s will to be manifested in our life and so it makes sense to talk about “receiving more grace.”

        It’s easy to lapse into colloquial ways of speaking, such as “humble yourself to receive grace.” But it can be confusing if it’s not made clear that such an action requires first the movement of God. Forgive me but I don’t know you and your views well enough to be clear on what you were saying originally. Best.

      • Avatar Peter Aiello says:

        A person who is drawn of God may also reject the drawing of God. James says that God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. When we draw near to God, he will draw near to us. We have an important place in the process of receiving more grace (James 4:6-8).