Varieties of Neopelagianism

Of all of Joseph Ratzinger/ Pope Benedict XVI’s books the one that I have read most often is a little volume of spiritual exercises on the theological virtues (variously titled Auf Christus schauenThe Yes of Jesus Christ, and To Look on Christ)I have an audiobook of it that I often listen to in the car. The exercises are based on a close reading of Josef Pieper’s little books on faith, hope, and love, adapted for the purposes of a retreat. I have just been reading Pieper on hope, and it is interesting to see how Ratzinger modifies some of Pieper’s thoughts. A striking example is Ratzinger’s discussion of two forms of “Pelagianism.” This is perhaps the most famous passage in the whole book, since, according to Andrea Tornielli, the second of the two forms is the source of Pope Francis’s repeated (and somewhat puzzling) use of the term to describe traditionalists. I was struck by the fact that although Pieper discusses both of the phenomena that Ratzinger calls “Pelagian,” he only uses the term Pelagian for the first form— it is Ratzinger’s idea to call the second form by the same name. The context of both discussions is the analysis of presumption as a vice opposed to hope. Pieper discusses two basic forms of presumption, with a another form between them:

Presumption reveals itself in two basic forms that correspond to the mutually opposed pretexts on which it bases its inordinate satisfaction.
Theology calls the first kind of presumption “Pelagian”. It is characterized by the more or less explicit thesis that man is able by his own human nature to win eternal life and the forgiveness of sins. Associated with it is the typically liberal, bourgeois moralism that, for no apparent reason, is antagonistic not only to dogma per se but also to the sacramental reality of the Church: solely on the basis of his own moral “performance”, an “upright” and “decent” individual who “does his duty” will be able to “stand the test before God” as well.
Between this first basic kind of presumption and the second lies that pseudoreligious activism that believes it can construct, out of a thousand “exercises”, a claim to the kingdom of heaven that is rightful and absolutely valid and able, as it were, to pit itself against God.
The second form of presumption, in which, admittedly, its basic character as a kind of premature certainty is obscured, has its roots in the heresy propagated by the Reformation: the sole efficacy of God’s redemptive and engracing action. By teaching the absolute certainty of salvation solely by virtue of the merits of Christ, this heresy destroys the true pilgrim character of Christian existence by making as certain for the individual Christian as the revealed fact of redemption the belief that he had already “actually” achieved the goal of salvation. (IV)

Note that Pieper only calls the first form Pelagian, the second basic form form is in a sense the opposite of Pelagianism— one might call it Jansenist or Calvinist. But what about the form “between” the Pelagian and the Calvinist? It is this “between” to which Ratzinger extends the term Pelagian, and he makes of it the second basic form, omitting any mention of the form that Pieper associates with the Reformation. I quote Ratzinger at length: Ratzinger extends the term “Pelagian” to the middle form

[The foundation] lies in the error of thinking in the error of thinking that one does not need God for the realization and fulfillment of one’s own being. Following Josef Pieper closely, I would like merely to try to offer a few comments on two widespread forms in which [presumption] finds expression and which from a purely superficial point of view can appear harmless.
The first variation of presumption that we need to talk about is the bourgeois liberal Pelagianism that rests on considerations such as these: “If God really does exist and if he does in fact bother about people he cannot be so fearfully demanding as is described by the faith of the Church. Moreover I’m no worse than the others: I do my duty, and the minor human weaknesses cannot really be as dangerous as all that,’ In this widespread attitude to life we find the human self-belittlement that we have already described in the case of accidie and the self-sufficiency with regard to infinite love that people think they do not need in their bourgeois self-satisfaction. Perhaps in times of peace one can live for quite a long time in this frame of mind. But at the moment of crisis people will either be converted from it or fall victim to despair.
The other face of this same vice is the Pelagianism of the pious. They do not want any forgiveness from God, nor indeed any gift at all from him, They want to be okay thernselves, wanting not forgiveness but their just reward. They want security, not hope. By means of a tough and rigorous system of religious practices, by means of prayers and actions, they want to create for themselves a right to blessedness. What they lack is the humility essential to any love— the humility to be able to receive what we are given over and above what we have deserved and achieved. The denial of hope in favor of security that we are faced with here rests on the inability to bear the tension of waiting for what is to come and to abandon oneself to God’s goodness. This kind of Pelagianism is thus an apostasy from love and from hope but also at the profoundest level from faith too. Man hardens his heart against himself, against others and ultimately against God: man needs God’s divinity but no longer his love. He puts himself in the right, and a God that does not co-operate becomes his enemy. The Pharisees of the New Testament are an eternally valid representation of this deformation of religion. The core of this Pelagianism is a religion without love that in this way degenerates into a sad and miserable caricature of religion. (pp. 81-82)

It seems that the reason why Ratzinger extends the “Pelagian” to Pieper’s “between” form of presumption is that it too makes salvation a something that one can achieve oneself. In a foreword to a book by Charles De Koninck, Cardinal Villeneuve called Pelagianism a “many-headed monster,” like Lernaean Hydra it grows two heads for every one that is struck off. If “bourgeois liberal Pelagianism” is the mark of our time, then it makes sense that it engenders other forms which might be outwardly in opposition to it, but share it’s internal logic. De Koninck himself writes, in a footnote, “It has become most urgent to spread the writings of St. Augustine against the Pelagian exaltation of man and of liberty.” Perhaps this is the reason why Ratzinger does not mention Pieper’s “second form of presumption”— the pressing danger facing us to today is not a distorted Augustinianism, but rather a complete rejection of the true Augustinian doctrine of the primacy of grace.


Europe as the Synthesis of Platonism and Aristotelianism

One of the most celebrated frescoes of Raphael is found in the Vatican and depicts the so-called “School of Athens”. Plato and Aristotle are in the centre. Plato’s finger is pointed upward, to the world of ideas, to the sky, to heaven as we might say. Aristotle holds his hand out before him, towards the viewer, towards the world, concrete reality. This strikes me as a very apt image of Europe and her history, made up of the constant interplay between heaven and earth, where the sky suggests that openness to the transcendent – to God – which has always distinguished the peoples of Europe, while the earth represents Europe’s practical and concrete ability to confront situations and problems. The future of Europe depends on the recovery of the vital connection between these two elements. (Pope Francis, Address to the European Parliament)

Cardinal Burke’s Visit

On Tuesday in Vienna Cardinal Burke presented the German Translation of a book on the family to which he had contributed. I moderated a panel discussion with him video and audio of which is now online.

As planned, before the discussion I gave an introductory talk in which I talked about Mozart and Richard Strauss. And Prof. Stark had given a brilliant lecture on the philosophical presuppositions of Cardinal Kasper’s theology, analyzing Kasper’s book An Introduction to Christian Faith, and showing how its historicist teachings undermine the dogmatic claims it is supposed to support. Stark ended on an ironic note with the following quote from Kasper: Continue reading

The Synod on the Family and the Opera

Cardinal Burke is coming to Vienna this week at the invitation of Una Voce Austria. On account of the recent Synod on the family they have organized a presentation of a volume on the family to which Cardinal Burke contributed, the highpoint of which will be a panel discussion with the Cardinal Burke. Before that Prof. Thomas Stark is going to give an extended critique of Cardinal Kasper’s theology. I am to give a brief introduction explaining the context. I should probably make some sort of reference to the genius loci of Vienna, and so I have been thinking that I might mention the opera. Continue reading

Golo Mann


It being a hundred years since 1914 I recently listened to an audio book of the World War I section of Golo Mann’s Deutsche Geschichte des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts. I was so enchanted by it that I quickly acquired and listened to the audiobooks of the rest of his history of modern Germany. Mann has a wonderful sense of the ironies and inconsistencies of human history. Although he himself has somewhat liberal tendencies he has great ability to sympathize with those with whom he disagrees. Witness his account of the Zentrumspartei that I have just posted to The Josias. Unlike most liberals he obviously studied Marx closely and learned much from him, but he does not reduce everything to economics, he takes religion, philosophy, music, and literature seriously, and argues that they are not mere ideological superstructure but have an actual effect on history.


The Serpent Was the Most Hegelian of Beasts

Besides this one, there are indeed many other beautiful and noteworthy narratives in the Bible which would be worthy their attention, as, for example, just at the beginning, there is the story of the forbidden tree in Paradise and of the serpent, that little adjunct professor who lectured on Hegelian philosophy six thousand years before Hegel’s birth. This blue-stocking without feet demonstrated very ingeniously how the absolute consists in the identity of being and knowing, how man becomes God through cognition, or, what is the same thing, how the God in man thereby attains self- consciousness. This formula is not so clear as the original words: When ye eat of the tree of knowledge ye shall be as God! Mother Eve understood only one thing in the whole demonstration, that the fruit was forbidden, and because it was forbidden, the good woman ate of it. But she had scarcely eaten the enticing apple when she lost her innocence, her naive ingenuousness, and discovered that she was much too naked for a person of her position, the ancestress of so many future emperors and kings, and she desired a dress. (Heinrich Heine)

Garrigou-Lagrange on Kingship

Andrew Strain has posted his translation of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s preface to St Thomas’s On Kingship. I first heard about Garrigou’s piece from Alan Fimister’s brilliant study of Catholic Social Teaching and European unification. Fimister is a republican, but a republican of a very unusual kind; an Hillaire Belloc style republican. He would be willing to defend both the Spanish Inquisition and the French Revolution. At any rate, Fimister objects to Garrigou-Lagrange’s royalism, and disagrees with his reading of On Kingship. Fimister seems to have three main objections to Garrigou’s piece:

  1. that Garrigou does not distinguish enough between the principles that he takes from St. Thomas, and his own conclusions that he draws from those principles, but which Fimister thinks St Thomas himself would not draw.
  2. that Garrigou exploits a terminological confusion between ancient and modern senses of ‘democracy’: «Garrigou uses the various criticisms Thomas makes of Democracy (the corrupt form of rule by the many) and of rule by the many as such as if they were criticisms of a mixed polity founded on universal franchise, which is what most moderns (but not Thomas) mean by Democracy and the system which Thomas proposes as the best. »
  3. that Garrigou reads Summa Theologica IaIIæ, 105,1 as calling for the aristocratic element to be elected by and from the people, but not as saying that the monarch should be so elected. Fimister thinks that this is the plain meaning of the text: «Garrigou omits to mention […] that Thomas also said that the monarch should be elected from the whole people by the whole people. This of course does not fit with the Royalism the twentieth-century Dominican seeks to foist upon his thirteenth-century confrere.»

Having read Garrigou’s text I would reply as follows to Fimister’s objections:

  • ad 1. this is quite true.
  • ad 2. this I don’t see. Garrigou uses St Thomas’s general arguments against polyarchy, and these seem to me to apply to mixed constitutions in which the polyarchical element is dominant (such as the Third French Republic) as well as to democracies in the ancient sense; it does not however apply to a mixed constitution in which the monarchical element is dominant, which St Thomas thinks is the ideal, and which Fimister falsely claims is the same system as modern ‘democracies’ such as the Third Republic.
  • ad 3. this turns on the interpretation of IaIIæ, 105,1, which is by no means as simple as Fimister would have us think. St Thomas says there that “the rulers” plural (principes) are chosen by and from the people. Garrigou interprets this to mean that the aristocratic element is chosen by the people, Fimister that both the aristocratic and the monarchical elements are. Both interpretations are possible. Garrigou’s is however more plausible in context, since St Thomas is arguing that the government of Israel during the exodus was fitting, and when he applies his model it is the aristocratic element that he sees as being chosen from the people (citing Deuteronomy 1:13). He sees the monarchical element as being realized in Moses, who was of course not chosen by the people.

Roger Scruton

A while ago I posted a response to an First Things essay by Roger Scruton on the good of government. I later sent an abridgment of my post to First Things as a letter to the editor. It appeared in the October issue, with the following reply by Scruton:

As for Fr. Waldstein’s theological vision of the good of government, I can only respond as Burke responded to the Reason advocated by the French Revolutionaries. He wrote: “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.”
Advocates of natural law in the Catholic tradition have often told us that the good is discoverable to reason, and that we have only to consult it. But they tend to be as reluctant as Waldstein to define who is doing the consulting, and how. Burke’s view, that there is a kind of reason that emerges through civil association, and which is both conserved in our traditions and irretrievably dispersed by the attempt to make it explicit, offers, to my mind, a better model of the place of reason in government. On Burke’s view, rational solutions emerge from below, by an invisible hand, and are not imposed from above by those who claim to have privileged knowledge of the natural law. (The same point is made in other terms by Hayek, in his defense of the common law.) One can agree with Kant’s warning against paternal government without thinking that “any submission to an authority other than the self is tyrannical.” As I understand it, the art of living in ­society is precisely the art of submitting to authority—but doing so willingly, and in the little platoons that we ourselves create.

I have the greatest respect for Scruton, and certainly his position is not as bad Kant’s, but I’m still not convinced. He returns my Kant comparison with interest by comparing me to the Jacobins. But I was a little surprised by his saying that am “reluctant” to define who is to determine what the natural law is. True, I gave no account of that in my letter, but in the past I do not think I have been notably reluctant. By coincidence the most recent issue of The European Conservative features an excerpt from one of Scruton’s books and a notably unhesitant essay by me right next to each other in the Table of Contents:

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On seeing this Coëmgenus noted the juxtaposition of Scruton’s title “What is Right” and my subtitle “what is best”—an illustration of two different approaches.