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.


10 thoughts on “Varieties of Neopelagianism

  1. Fabulous! Palagianism is a danger for us all in one form or another. I have been meditating on “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest…” Our burdens are impossible if we count on ourselves to get everything done. We have to continually hand our burdens over to Christ. If our project is following him then we aren’t crushed by our constant inability to complete all the jobs we think we need to get done.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “God ordained human nature to attain the end of eternal life, not by its own strength, but by the help of grace; and in this way its act can be meritorious of eternal life.” Ia IIae, q 114, a 2, ad 1


  2. How is Bergoglio’s use of the term puzzling after Ratzinger’s expanded definition of a “second form” of Pelagianism? I would think he means that Catholics attracted to traditional forms no longer in widespread use – forms that are not, in themselves, theologically Pelagian – risk turning them into a “tough and rigorous system of religious practices” precisely because they are personally chosen.


    • I suspect that is what is the target of Bergoglio’s use of the term. The fact that we Traditonalists and friends of Tradition often take it to mean a condemnation of us in toto seems to be more due to the fact that we recognize some among us who have that particular temptation.

      At the same time, it’s by no means an exclusively traditionalist disease – it is just as rife among the Modernist or the Weigelista. I would hazard that in many cases it is a particularly American temptation, spread throughout the world because of the hegemonic role of American culture.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Varieties of Neopelagianism | Philosophy of Nature

  4. Pingback: A Retraction | Sancrucensis

  5. “Pelagian” as used by both Ratzinger and Francis is an abuse of language, and must be clearly condemned. It is, strictly speaking, impossible for man not to desire his own good. (These men have adopted Kantian ethics and made a false theology out of it.) Presumption does not consist in working for a reward, as many traditionalists indeed do, but in believing that one can merit a reward without God’s grace. I have never met a traditionalist who would maintain such a thing–though I have heard many non-traditionalists say this and much more. Remember, Pelagianism is a HERESY, not an inclination. We all have an inclination to pride, to which we often succumb, and this includes traditionalists, of course. Heresy, however, is properly speaking a sin against FAITH, not humility. This error is paralleled by the wholly subversive use of “apostasy” to mean a falling away from love rather than a falling away from the Faith. (Note that the former can be a matter of degree, whereas the latter is an either/or proposition. Hence the novel and truly laughable notion of “imperfect communion”.) Sadly, Cardinal Ratzinger (I can call him this again, for he is nothing more) has a weak grasp of traditional theology, and contributes to the relativism he supposedly abhors by undermining the accepted meanings of theological terms, even those used in divine Revelation.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.