The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recently released a document “On Certain Aspects of Christian Salvation.” This document is concerned with what it calls neo-Pelagianism and neo-Gnosticism. Concerning the former it says:
“A new form of Pelagianism is spreading in our days, one in which the individual, understood to be radically autonomous, presumes to save oneself, without recognizing that, at the deepest level of being, he or she derives from God and from others. According to this way of thinking, salvation depends on the strength of the individual or on purely human structures, which are incapable of welcoming the newness of the Spirit of God.”
In other words, this neo-Pelagianism concerns the false idea that a person can earn their own salvation, metaphorically pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. This heresy denies that grace is necessary for sanctification it basically asserts that people are endowed with the ability to live a virtuous, sinless life, and they aren’t dependent upon God to live a life of holiness or to be saved. This also easily leads to a Phariseeism that says, “I live a virtuous life and obey the law, so if you aren’t doing that clearly you’re just more lazy or ignorant than I am.” However, like the Pelagianism of old, neo-Pelagianism is a heresy.
Before we look at what the Church actually teaches on this matter, it’s helpful to have a simple definition of “grace.” Too often we see grace as a thing, something that we get like a candy bar from a vending machine by doing good works or receiving the Sacraments. But grace is simply God’s life within us. Grace is about having a relationship with God. This means that the Sacraments are the vehicles or paths that Christ established for us to encounter him and be transformed by him into his image. That is what sanctification is, God remaking us into his image. This becomes clear when we look at the Eucharist. Christ is literally coming into us and we become what we consume.
As the Church prays, so she believes. During the Easter Vigil this year, one prayer (the prayer after the 5th Old Testament reading) caught my attention. Here’s the line that stood out:
For only at the prompting of Your grace
do the faithful progress in any kind of virtue.
We cannot grow in virtue ourselves. The Catechism says that the theological virtues “are infused by God into the souls of the faithful to make them capable of acting as his children…” (CCC 1813). We do not earn these virtues; rather, they are a gift. It’s on God to transform our minds and will, we simply cooperate with God it’s not all on us.
Further, if we look at what the Catechism says about the “New Law” or “The Law of the Gospel,” we will notice that it’s not about us fulfilling the law but rather God giving us himself and transforming us:
“The New Law is the grace of the Holy Spirit given to the faithful through faith in Christ. It works through charity; it uses the Sermon on the Mount to teach us what must be done and makes use of the sacraments to give us the grace to do it… The New Law is called a law of love because it makes us act out of the love infused by the Holy Spirit, rather than from fear; a law of grace, because it confers the strength of grace to act, by means of faith and the sacraments; a law of freedom, because it sets us free from the ritual and juridical observances of the Old Law, inclines us to act spontaneously by the prompting of charity and, finally, lets us pass from the condition of a servant who “does not know what his master is doing” to that of a friend of Christ…” (CCC 1966, 1972).
Notice the language. It’s the law that makes us holy. We don’t make ourselves holy. Sanctification is a process, the process of God transforming us into the image of Christ. We must cooperate with that process, but it is ultimately God who makes us holy.
Now there are some neo-Pelagians who don’t buy this and say that God’s grace is sufficient and that the faithful are always able to follow the moral law at any time. There’s this underlying idea that if someone thinks they can’t follow the Commandments then they simply don’t want to bad enough. Usually they appeal to the Council of Trent which says:
“If any one saith, that the commandments of God are, even for one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to keep; let him be anathema.”
Yet they ignore the rest of that paragraph which says:
“For God commands not impossibilities, but, by commanding, both admonishes thee to do what thou are able, and to pray for what thou art not able (to do), and aids thee that thou mayest be able; whose commandments are not heavy; whose yoke is sweet and whose burthen light.”
If the faithful are always able to follow God’s law at all times then how could there be Commandments that “thou are not able to do”?
Pope Saint John Paul II acknowledges that sanctification is a process as well. In Familiaris Consortio he talks about the “law of gradualness”:
“And so what is known as ‘the law of gradualness’ or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with ‘gradualness of the law,’ as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations. In God’s plan, all husbands and wives are called in marriage to holiness, and this lofty vocation is fulfilled to the extent that the human person is able to respond to God’s command with serene confidence in God’s grace and in his or her own will” (FC 34).
Again, notice the line “to the extent that the human person is able to respond to God’s command…” This obviously indicates that human being are weak and limited and are only able to follow God’s law to the extent we are able. Pope Francis reiterates this in Amoris Laetita where he says:
“Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It 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” (AL 303).
In other words, God always provides grace to follow the moral law, but not always all at once. In another article on this topic, Brian Killian summarizes the teaching this way:
“Grace has its own timetable. There exists certain intervals between vice and virtue, between weakness and strength that must be respected. Patience and tolerance are called for—as with the wheat and the weeds—it is not for us to question the prerogative of grace….Weakness or vulnerability is natural at the beginning stages of transformation. This is the case with most things, why do we expect it to be different in the order of grace/nature? …. [Thus] it follows that there is no contradiction between the absolute possibility of observing God’s law and the relative impossibility of observing it at a certain moment or stage of development. The difference between “for now” and “not yet” is time.”
My whole point here is to say don’t become discouraged if you find yourself unable to follow the moral law at this time. Keep receiving the Sacraments, keep asking for God to make you holy, and, like the people of Israel, keep perpetual memorials of God’s saving work in your life. It’s God who changes us, we simply cooperate with him. Far from heresy, this is something we all need to be constantly reminded of, for we have lived too long in a religious and civic culture dominated by neo-Pelagianism.
Paul Fahey lives in Michigan with his wife and four kids. For the past eight years, he has worked as a professional catechist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology and is currently working toward a Masters Degree in Pastoral Counseling. He is a retreat leader, catechist formator, writer, and a co-founder of Where Peter Is. He is also the founder and co-host of the Pope Francis Generation podcast. His long-term goal is to provide pastoral counseling for Catholics who have been spiritually abused, counseling for Catholic ministers, and counseling education so that ministers are more equipped to help others in their ministry.