As Pope Francis continues his foray into the history of philosophy and Theology in Chapter 2 of Gaudete et Exsultate, he notes that “Gnosticism gave way to another heresy, likewise present in our day. As time passed, many came to realize that it is not knowledge that betters us or makes us saints, but the kind of life we lead. But this subtly led back to the old error of the gnostics, which was simply transformed rather than eliminated.” The transformation came through the teachings of Pelagius, a fourth century monk who believed that with enough effort a person could bring about her or his own salvation.
Not only was Pelagianism popular enough in its own day to draw the attention and condemnation of St. Augustine, St. Jerome and bishops at the Council of Carthage in 418, but the self-help craze of the last 50 years gives witness to the fact that not only has this heretical teaching not gone away, but has produced a multi-billion dollar industry.
As the Holy Father points out, Pelagianism is simply an extension of gnosticism: if a person acquires enough knowledge then she or he can put that knowledge into practice and achieve the goal of personal salvation. The role of God and the importance of grace in the quest for holiness can easily fade into the background as the focus becomes the effort of the individual. Sanctity becomes not so much a matter of humble submission to the will of the Father in imitation of our Lord as it is a sign of the willingness of a person to “put in the work” as if the quest for holiness was just the spiritual equivalent of going to the gym.
The debate over the role that the individual person plays in her or his own salvation has been going on for millennia. The Pelagian view is the response to those who believe that every human being is so bad and so ruined by Original Sin that God’s grace is the only thing keeping the soul from its deserved eternal damnation, and there can be absolutely no argument in favor of the “good” works of that depraved individual.
In opposition to this Theological outlook – held most notably by Luther and Calvin – Pelagius offers the view that anyone willing to be a hard worker who follows the plan for success can take total control of her or his own destiny. This reliance on personal effort for personal salvation can be very appealing to anyone who believes, like Superman, in “truth, justice and the American way.”
But, like the “Superman” or Übermensch of the nihilist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the Pelagian does not, despite any outward appearance, have a Christian vision of reality. The plan of following one’s own will as a means of achieving personal fulfillment cannot ultimately be reconciled with either the teachings or the lived example of Jesus.
Francis shines an important light on this distinction between Pelagianism and Catholicism when he states that “some Christians insist on taking another path, that of justification by their own efforts, the worship of the human will and their own abilities. The result is a self-centered and elitist complacency, bereft of true love. This finds expression in a variety of apparently unconnected ways of thinking and acting” including “an excessive concern with programs of self-help and personal fulfilment.”
The pope warns his readers that to follow the Pelagian path is not the same as being led by the Holy Spirit, Whose way is that “of love, [of] being passionate about communicating the beauty and the joy of the Gospel and [of] seeking out the lost among the immense crowds that thirst for Christ.” The life of the Christian can never achieve its goal through a focus on self-help and personal fulfillment, but instead only through focusing on the two faces that Jesus presents to us: “that of the Father and that of our brother.”
Holiness can only be attained, as with all spiritual and heavenly goods, not by self-help but by self-denial. Holiness can only be attained when we gaze not upon our own faces, but on the faces of God and our sister or brother. And, as Pope Francis so eloquently states, when those faces become one, then “in every one of our brothers and sisters, especially the least, the most vulnerable, the defenseless and those in need, God’s very image is found.”