Sounds very holy and edifying, right? So what’s wrong with this, many might ask? Well, the Church answered, “Everything,” and condemned Pelagianism as a first-class heresy.
What’s shocking is that most Catholics, most good, practicing Catholics (along with most people on the planet) would define Christianity exactly how Pelagius does. I can’t tell you how many well-intentioned Bible studies, retreats, and homilies I’ve heard centered solely around themes of “the things you need to do to be a better Catholic.” And I can’t tell you how many times during my two years of high school teaching did students, after 12 years of Catholic school education, answer my question of “What is Christianity?” with “Well, you have to be good ... and not sin ... so you can go to heaven.” We, like Pelagius, love reducing everything to steps, formulae, and equations. Why? Because it puts us in control. We “know” what Christianity is that way. But Christianity is not us in control. If anything, it’s the opposite.
“Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former.” (ix)
Lord forgive us. Though we may even sprinkle Christ on it a bit, we are closer to the Pharisee in our understanding of Christianity, which in the end is not Christianity but a religion of high idyllic moral attainment. As Christ says, this cannot redeem us. Pelagianism and all understandings like it are simply Moral-ianity, not Christ-ianity. In the end you don’t really need Christ (which is why it was a heresy), you just really have to follow the commandments and practice virtue. In the end Christ is simply something sprinkled on top of a beautiful structure of ethics. But Aristotle gave us that 350 years before Christ. Time and again during his pontificate Pope Benedict has surprisingly and refreshingly questioned this widely accepted syllogism that proclaims, “If you want to be a good Catholic, then you must do all of these things.” One of the most famous and repeated phrases of the Holy Father came from his first encyclical, in the very first paragraph: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” (x) With this powerful phrase, the Holy Father is precisely asserting the opposite of what we believe to be Christian: an ethical choice and a lofty idea. Instead, he claims that being Christian is encountering an event, or more precisely, a person, who changes life completely, even to the point of making it new.
In his first book as pope, “Jesus of Nazareth,” he asks the provocative question of whether Christ’s new commandment to “love one another as I have loved you” makes Christianity a religion of the highest moral attainment?: “No, the newness of the new commandment cannot consist in the highest moral attainment ... (T)he essential point is not the call to supreme achievement, but the new foundation of being that is given to us. The newness can come only from the gift of being-with and being-in Christ ... Thomas Aquinas observed, ‘The new law is the grace of the Holy Spirit.’ To be a Christian is primarily a gift.” (xi) There is “something that comes before.” What the Holy Father is teaching us is that Christianity is far less about what we do, and much, much more about Who we encounter, and what we are given in this encounter.
(Read part two of this article entitled, “A Question for Catholics: Has faith become obsolete?”).
(i) Pope Benedict XVI Apostolic Letter “Motu Proprio Data” Porta Fidei, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011, Paragraph 2.
(iii) Ibid., Paragraph 6.
(iv) Ibid., Paragraph 14.
(v) Fr. Julian Carron, “What is man that You should care for him, mortal man that You keep him in mind?”: There is no greater adventure than the discovery of one’s own humanity, Communion and Liberation live assembly, Colorado.
(vi) Antonio Socci, “Yesterday’s Heretic, Today’s Pastor”, 30 Days, February 1991; p. 40.
(vii) Cf. Pohle, Joseph. “Pelagius and Pelagianism.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 6 Oct. 2012 http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11604a.htm.
(viii) Socci, “Yesterday’s Heretic, Today’s Pastor”, 30 Days; p. 42.
(ix) Luke 18: 10-14.
(x) Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2006, Paragraph 1.
(xi) Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, Doubleday, Random House Inc., New York, 2007, pp. 63-65.
Copyright Jonathan Ghaly, All Rights Reserved.