Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Spiritual Pelagianism

"There is nothing new under the sun", Ecclesiastes 1:9 tells us, and indeed the heresy of Pelagianism has not only recurred in various forms throughout Christian history, but can be a chronic problem in one's spiritual life as well.

An insightful priest gently recently reminded me of this during Confession: "You must remember", he said, "we can only love God, others, and even ourselves, because God has first loved us." And as he spoke, I had an abrupt realization: I had fallen into the Pelagian trap once again!

To explain what I mean by this reference, a brief excursus may be helpful:

Pelagius was a 5th century monk whose writings denied the doctrine of original sin, and instead spoke of Adam's sin as a "bad example". For Pelagius, Christ's work, his teaching and model of the moral life, countered Adam's bad example. He argued that man, through the exercise of his will and sheer human effort, could be completely virtuous. The missing and absolutely essential element here is grace: Pelagius argued that it was not necessary for the individual to attain eternal life. The Council of Carthage, held in 418, therefore declared Pelagianism to be a heresy, and affirmed the absolute necessity of grace for the salvation of man: without the grace of Christ, man cannot perform the good works He commands.

(Incidentally, it is primarily due to his writings against Pelagius and Pelagianism that St. Augustine is known as the "Doctor of Grace". Paragraph 406 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church contains a mention of Pelagianism, and for more information on this subject, see the article "Pelagius and Pelagianism" in the Catholic Encyclopedia.)

Father's insight caused me to pause and reflect upon my attitudes and actions. Though I am convinced of the priority of grace, the Catholic doctrine that it is only through the Redemption that man may merit a share in the eternal glory of the Trinity, I find it only too easy to slip into a daily default attitude that focuses more on "me". Perhaps it is part of human nature, this independent and assertive tendency exhibited from childhood: "I want to do it myself!". Perhaps it is ingrained in the American psyche, this "pull yourself up by the bootstraps mentality", which affirms that if one just has enough desire and works hard, man can achieve anything. Perhaps it is a symptom of any one of a number of invasive post-Enlightenment philosophies, such as secular humanism, with its pontification that a universally just morality may be gained through reason alone.

Whatever the cultural, historical, philosophical or psychological source, I frequently, and most often unconsciously, concentrate on "what I do" to work towards salvation. The danger in this attitude, if untempered, for me has a two-fold manifestation. If I feel I am doing well in my spiritual life, accomplishing many good works, I can develop a pride that forgets "I do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13). On the other hand, my recognition of my many failures can be accompanied by a sense of despondency, which is forgetful of hope in Christ. Either attitude can extend to broader activities as well: in catechesis or evangelization, I sometimes forget, that though I may contribute, moments of conversion, healing or inspiration are ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit, and not my own.

The counter, or antidote, to this "tendency to spiritual Pelagianism", as I see it, is multi-faceted.

The Catholic faith is, as one of my professors once explained, "both/and", never "either/or". Thus, the Church teaches the necessity of both grace and works, the value of both fasting and feasting, the need for both faith and reason…one could go on and on.

Avoiding "spiritual Pelagianism", it would seem, therefore requires an active recognition of the dynamic relationship between the action of God and the cooperation of man in individual sanctification. God's grace is always prior, but through Christ's Redemption and the grace given through the supernatural virtues of faith, hope and charity, man is given the ability to love as God loves (St. Thomas provides an excellent explanation of this relationship in the Secunda Secundae, Question 23, Article 2 "Whether charity is something created in the soul?" of the Summa).

It is not always easy to translate this principle into daily life: living the virtue of charity while simultaneously acknowledging that one's acts of charity are not one's own, but ultimately from God. It requires a constant balance; over-emphasis upon God's action in the spiritual life would make man a mere "puppet" of the Holy Spirit, and would reject or ignore the great dignity God has given man in the gift of human free will. Over-emphasis upon human action, however, can lead to this "spiritual Pelagianism", a neglect of God's essential role in sanctification.

In my experience, this is the beauty of the Catholic faith: it has already provided, or (at the least) points to, three aids to the practice of this "constant balance". First, the sacrament of Confession, a good examination of conscience beforehand, have a way of bringing to light and correcting my over-reliance upon my human abilities, reminding me of my need for God's grace and providing that gratuitous gift. Second, I find that a tendency to "spiritual Pelagianism" most often occurs when I neglect my daily prayer. The silence of prayer, especially the meditation that "is a way of making contact with the heart of God in our mind", as Pope Benedict XVI has observed in his recent catechetical series on prayer, has a way of attuning our hearts and spirits to the priority of God's love, reminding us that "we love him because he first loved us". (1 John 4:19) Finally, the cultivation of that wonderful (if sometimes challenging) virtue of humility, whether it be sought actively through prayer or the result of suffering, enables one to recognize the truth of man's ultimate dependence upon the love and mercy of God.

Father's gentle diagnosis of what I would term "spiritual Pelagianism", was not, I realized, cause for despair. Rather, his correction was an occasion for gratitude, for me to joyfully remember the ineffable love of God, His desire for each individual soul to spend eternity in His glorious presence, and the great magnanimity He shows in enabling each human being to attain this Beatific Vision.

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