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.

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.

  • Kelly Reineke

    I think traditional minded Catholics, with their zeal for the Catholic Project, have a tremendous potential for evangelization. But we’re so busy congratulating ourselves for not being cafeteria Catholics that we are leaving that potential untapped.

    I suppose with all the problems in first century Israel that it seemed odd to target the Pharisees, who never lacked zeal for the Jewish Project.

  • trespinos

    Thank you for this, Mr. McDonald. Would that the Holy Father could reflect on your remarks and see the wisdom of not brushing the traditionally minded faithful with the same brush as he can justifiably use on the rad-trad SSPX sorts that must have alienated him so thoroughly where he came from.

  • vox borealis

    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?

    Thank you for this. I have an ongoing discussion/debate (gentle and friendly) with some good friends involved with Communion and Liberation. This is a sticking point between us: they see “forms” and “pietyism” and think of them as ideological, largely devoid of Christ. I see it quite the opposite, but have never been able to articulate why. But you’ve said it better than i ever could.

  • Deacon Sean Smith

    “Not all hearts are turned in the same way.” Based on my reading of comments in the blogosphere, many, maybe most especially those of a traditional bent, would probably not grant your argument. It does not appear that they believe they are doing the best they can and are in any way lacking, but that they have the fullness and everyone else is simply wrong. Would that all “sides”, as if there being sides is the way things are supposed to be, would grant you your argument.

  • FW Ken

    People forget that when the Extraordinary Form was the Ordinary Form, parishes were just as full of unfriendly, casual, cafeteria sorts as NO parishes are today. Traditionalist parishes and Masses today draw a certain type of person with a certain type of spirituality, so it’s easy to confuse cause and effect.

  • ganganelli

    I believe the good sister in the wonderful film “The Song of Bernadette” is exactly who the Pope has in mind. Watch from 57:37 to 1:03:42.

  • Julian Barkin

    Long, but since you commented on this issue, it is for you and any other readers who stroll by. My feelings on the whole thing. Just read please.

    Julian Barkin, Servimus Unum Deum.