instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, June 15, 2013

What counts as Pelagian?

If asked, I would say that Pelagianism is a heresy that holds we are capable of saving ourselves without God's grace or Christ's atonement.

That answer might be enough to get a multiple choice question right on a test, but it doesn't really get at what Pelagianism looks like when it's not writing theological treatises against Augustinian theories of grace. So I was brought up short when I ran into the phrase "Pelagianism of the pious," first in the report of Pope Francis's meeting with South American and Caribbean religious conference leaders, and then in a commentary on this report, which traces the phrase to Cardinal Ratzinger's 1986 spiritual exercises, in which he said:
...the other face of the same vice is the Pelagianism of the pious. They do not want forgiveness and in general they do not want any real gift from God either. They just want to be in order. They don’t want hope they just want security. Their aim is to gain the right to salvation through a strict practice of religious exercises, through prayers and action. What they lack is humility which is essential in order to love; the humility to receive gifts not just because we deserve it or because of how we act....
In my simple-minded literalism, I would not have identified an aim to gain the right to salvation through a strict practice of religious exercises as Pelagianism, since that aim doesn't per se deny the necessity of God's grace or of Christ's atonement.

On reflection, I think I get the Cardinal's point. A person may well hold, as a matter of abstract doctrine, that Jesus' death was necessary for salvation, and even that God's grace is necessary for us to choose the good and avoid evil, while living as though they weren't true.

I say a person "may well" do this. I could also say I personally do this on a daily basis, checking in with God in the morning, then going off into the world under my own power until I recollect how that usually turns out and cry out to God once more.

That's spiritual immaturity and lack of integrity. But if a person never asks God for His help or mercy -- or maybe that should be, never asks God for His help or mercy, but rather expects it in exchange for his strict practice of religious exercises; if his faith isn't personal so much as institutional (the way a person has faith in his bank); if he doesn't hope in God so much as accept Him as a law of nature; if he doesn't love God so much as love that God has set up this exchange program... then yes, I can see how you could say such a person functions in his day-to-day life as though he were a Pelagian.

You might even wonder whether there's any practical difference (academic and canonical differences not counting here as practical) between "he functions in his day-to-day life as though he were a Pelagian" and "he is a Pelagian." The doctrines of the necessity of Jesus' sacrifice and God's grace can be expressed in abstract terms, but can they in any meaningful way be believed abstractly? The devils believe, and tremble. In what sense can something be a "belief" if it has less of an effect on a human than on a devil?

In Ratzinger's Faith, Tracey Rowland writes that Cardinal Ratzinger
speaks of the twin pathologies of bourgeois Pelagianism and the Pelagianism of the pious. He describes the mentality of the Bourgeois Pelagian as follows: 'If God really does exist and if He does in fact bother about people He cannot be so fearfully demanding as He is described by the faith of the Church. Moreover, I am no worse than others: I do my duty, and the minor human weaknesses cannot really be as dangerous as all that.'
That, I'd bet, is by far the more common form of Pelagianism these days, but it seems to differ more in degree than in kind from the Pelagianism of the pious. The self-justification of the one group is done relative to the average behavior of those around them; the self-justification of the other group is done relative to some standard of prayers and action. The more a bourgeois hand out with the pious, the more pious will be his measure of "no worse than others."

Maybe the key point of Pelagianism, in all the ways it survives in the Church, is this (to quote the Cardinal once more):
They do not want forgiveness....
The desire for forgiveness will kill Pelagianism in the soul, and the lack of the desire will nourish it. A Pelagian can want salvation, but he can't know that he needs to be saved.