Francis, Benedict, and Pelagius

Yesterday’s tempest in a Z-cup focused on Pope Francis’s curious phrase “self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism,” used to describe certain factions within Catholic traditionalism.

I remain puzzled that Francis has, on multiple occasions, felt the need to single out traditionalists for criticism, given the nature of evil at large in world. Most traditionalists are good and holy people, and I am sympathetic to their goals, which are the goals of Benedict. The hard core fringe of trad nuttery–Novus Ordo Watch, Rorate Caeli, SSPX, and the like–are a twitching, irrelevant mass of hatreds and hangups. They’re easily ignored, which is why I don’t understand why Francis feels compelled to single them out for criticism. Attacking a minor subset of a fringe hardly suits the dignity of a pope.

But what of the criticism itself? The self-absorbed and promethean parts I understand and don’t dispute, if we’re talking about a certain kind of fringe radical traditionalist. (The kind that’s just a nudge away from an SSPX chapel.) Pelagianism, however, is a heresy, and it’s not a word a pope should toss around lightly.

It turns out that Cardinal Ratzinger had first drawn the Pelagians into the discussion back in 1986. Andrea Tornielli found the relevant quote, which I’d never before seen despite long study of Ratzinger/Benedict. It comes from the Spiritual Exercises of 1986, and is found in the book “Guardare Cristo: esempi di fede, speranza e carità” [Looking at Christ: Examples of faith, hope and charity]; published by Jaka Books.

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…

I don’t see this kind of Pelagianism as a unique property of traditionalism, and in fact the same can be said of those who consider themselves “progressive” “social justice” Catholics, who believe their attitude towards, and work on behalf of, the poor are justification enough. They, too, lack “humility.”

But Ratzinger was focused on the “pious,” which does not necessarily mean the traditionalist. It could just as well be the surface piety of the regular Novus Ordo church-goer who believes correct participation in all the required aspects of the faith are sufficient for salvation, without going deeper into a conversion of the heart.

Ratzinger was driven by the desire to draw people closer to Jesus, to have them search for “His face” and be converted by His radiant love. Empty pieties would be an obstacle to that, because the Catholic would feel as though he or she had already done everything necessary.

I have trouble with this observation, because I know many good people who practice their faith with devotion and care, yet probably never dug deeper into the metaphysical, mystical underpinnings that come naturally to others. I think of the people of my parents’ generation who lived lives of good faith, albeit a largely unexamined faith. For some, piety is all they can muster. They sense the mystery, but lack the capacity to be drawn into its depths. Are we to say they are not justified?

Forms are important. They should not be the end but the beginning of a deep faith. But if they are the end for someone, and if they are practiced in good will and charity with an open heart, who are we say that the person practicing them does not know the action of grace? After all, would they be prompted to pray their rosary and attend mass without prevenient grace? If their emotional or intellectual or dispositional capacity is limited, perhaps pietism is the best manifestation of their relationship with Christ. Not all hearts are turned in the same way.

Pope Threatens to Punch Aide
Grace West Meets Pope Francis, And Has a Curious Encounter at the Tomb of Padre Pio
Pope Benedict, Creation, and Biblical Criticism
Embracing Mystery
About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.


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