A Retraction

The polycephalous monster of Pelagianism is so difficult to avoid. I am grateful to my friend Samantha Cohoe for showing me that I fell prey to one of its coils in my last post. With her permission I reproduce part of our discussion of the matter on Facebook:

Samantha Cohoe: Pater Edmund– in your piece you get say something very wrong about St. Paul that is instructive of the way you are very wrong about this whole subject. Contra your rhetorical question, St. Paul holding the cloaks of the murderers of St. Stephen was not any closer to God than tolerant Gamaliel. To make such a claim, you must assume that St. Paul’s extremism in his mistaken beliefs in some way earned him God’s favor. The opposite is true– St. Paul calls himself the worst of sinners for that very act. When Jesus appeared to him and knocked him off his donkey, he radically altered Paul’s whole course in life. You aren’t reading Paul very well if you attribute his salvation to anything but God’s unmerited favor.

Joel HF: ^Was about to post the same thing.

Samantha Cohoe: Similarly, Pater Edmund is acting as though “religion” is some natural virtue than can be exercised meritoriously. This is completely false, of course, since man’s attempts to reach God through “religion” are entirely fruitless.

Joel HF: And a fervent Jew living at the time of Christ is situated rather differently than anyone today. Of course the sincere and righteous Jew of that time is better positioned than the luke-warm one! For the Christian, that’s practically the whole point of judaism.

Samantha Cohoe: Exercise of a false religion is, at best, an aid to human virtues, and at worst, in the case of Charlie Hebdo, a drive to horrible vice.

Pater Edmund: Of course Paul’s conversion is all grace. I don’t think I was assuming that his zeal earned him any favors. I do think that it helped make him a better Christian though. But you are right that St Paul’s case doesn’t really fit the account that Newman gives, since there is nothing gradual about Paul’s conversion.

Joel HF: #gradualism

Samantha Cohoe: #gradualismisBSgnosis

Samantha Cohoe: If you don’t assume that Paul’s zeal earned him any favors, than what is the basis of your assertion that he is in better standing before his conversion than Gamaliel?

Samantha Cohoe: or “closer to the Kingdom?”

Pater Edmund: (Tries to think of a way of saying this that is not semi-Pelagian, fails) Yeah, I was wrong.

[Triumphant gloating on Samantha’s part— omitted at her request… Also omitted: tangential comment on a movie]

Pater Edmund: There still seems to be something true about Newman’s quote though, even though it doesn’t apply to St Paul:

«For is it not one’s duty, instead of beginning with criticism, to throw oneself generously into that form of religion which is providentially put before one? Is it right, or is it wrong, to begin with private judgment? May we not, on the other hand, look for a blessing through obedience even to an erroneous system, and a guidance even by means of it out of it? Were those who were strict and conscientious in their Judaism, or those who were lukewarm and sceptical, more likely to be led into Christianity, when Christ came? […] Certainly, I have always contended that obedience even to an erring conscience was the way to gain light, and that it mattered not where a man began, so that he began on what came to hand, and in faith; and that anything might become a divine method of Truth; that to the pure all things are pure, and have a self-correcting virtue and a power of germinating.»

Joel HF: Yes, but acting as if continuing in one’s childhood religion stubbornly is a virtue ignores Vatican I.

Samantha Cohoe: That’s just the same BS point with fancy words. What is this “blessing” that is supposed to come from following a false religion?

Pater Edmund: The idea is that if one tries to serve God, and do what you think is His will, He will lead you, and show you more clearly what His will is.

Pater Edmund: This was Newman’s own experience.

Samantha Cohoe: total semi-Pelagianism

Pater Edmund: The case of Newman is different from St Paul though, since he was baptized from the first. That is, is whole path pre-supposed grace. It wasn’t about earning grace through natural virtue, it was about meriting more grace on account of previous grace. So, his example of the Jews was wrong, but his point is right as a point about the Christian life.

Samantha Cohoe: Yeah, ok, in the Christian life. But to apply it more broadly is Pelagian.

Pater Edmund: True.

Pater Edmund: I retract.

[Samantha Cohoe says something kind— omitted to balance out having omitted her previous gloating].

People complain about Facebook being a waste of time: a dreary series of cat videos, complaints about the weather, faux-outrage at current events, ignorant and self-assured opinions about politics, misrepresentative self-portraits, complaints about being tired, complaints about not really having enough time to post on facebook, flattery, rudeness, and so on. But facebook can also be a means for logocentric dialogue, learning, thought. And also for conversation of the sort described in Put Out More Flags:

the whole intricate art of it — the timing and striking the proper juxtaposition of narrative and comment, the bursts of spontaneous parody, the allusion one would recognize and one would not, the changes of alliance, the betrayals, the diplomatic revolutions, the waxing and waning of dictatorships that could happen in an hour’s session…

My exchange with Samantha occurred on a long thread on the ‘wall’ of someone whom I consider to be a true master of the Facebook medium: Matthew Peterson of the Charles De Koninck Project. Peterson’s long thread (over 50,000 comments) has its own fan-page, its secondary literature, so to speak. It is called “The Neverending Thread,” or (by those who don’t understand that the definite article ought never to be included in an acronym) “TNET.” It is a thing of wonder.

Update: Fanaticism vs. Devotion


17 thoughts on “A Retraction

  1. Pingback: Charlie Hebdo and the Secularist Long Game | Sancrucensis

  2. Wow. This is surely the first time in the history of blogs that anyone has posted such a gracious retraction, especially with such an obnoxious interlocutor. Cheers, friend.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The issue is, if Newman’s advice to those who are outside the true Church is invalid, what advice is valid? Can you insist that a person do violence against their conscience to join Catholicism? I can similarly do violence against my conscience to join Islam, whose demands are even more strident and whose existence and claims I am already acquainted with; the reason I do not do the latter is that joining Islam is inconvenient and the claims (as well as the fruits) of the religion itself offend my sensibility — but neither of those things are in themselves proof that something is a false religion, because it is plausible that following God is inconvenient, while my sensibility can itself be distorted.

    Equating Newman’s position with #gradualism is highly fallacious. He claims God will not abandon those who follow what they know as they know best — he says nothing about whether God will see fit to bestow the Truth on such people ‘gradually’ or through a crisis of faith in which they will repudiate what they followed before. In the event that the person was earlier following a path opposed to the Truth, it is hard to see how Newman’s logic could be made to imply gradualism.

    Whereas absent Newman’s advice, I have to conclude on the non-Pelagian logic that, by the fact of not presently being in any Church, I must assume I am reprobate, since to expect otherwise is to presume on God’s grace, and to expect that altering my conduct in any way will make God more or less likely to lead me towards a state of grace is also to presume on God’s grace (indeed, it is apparently semi-Pelagian!). To a reprobate person, of course, good and evil are ultimately indifferent; since I cannot do anything to make God’s grace more likely to descend on me, I may as well kick back in the meantime and not make any effort until God sees fit to send a religious crisis — by reaching this conclusion I know that somewhere in the preceding reasoning is a monstrous sophism.

    Likewise the debates about whether Paul was ‘close’ or ‘far’ from the Kingdom when he persecuted Christ are irrelevant to the question of what someone should actually do. I am concerned what actions on my part will lead to the Kingdom of Heaven as a final and permanent destination. My standing at the current moment is not really relevant to this; if I am close to the Kingdom on some point, then that is not a point I have to concern myself about, rather needing to understand on what points I am far from the Kingdom.


    • Arakawa, I think Newman’s advice is sound in your case. Have you read the Apologia pro Vita Sua? It’s a really good book. One ought to first read Ian Ker’s biography though so that one can understand the references better.


  4. Could Cardinal Newman perhaps be thinking of Cornelius and that wonderful account in Acts where we
    read, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God…” And we know what happens
    after that.


  5. From Populorum Progressio:

    15. In God’s plan, every man is born to seek self-fulfillment, for every human life is called to some task by God. At birth a human being possesses certain aptitudes and abilities in germinal form, and these qualities are to be cultivated so that they may bear fruit. By developing these traits through formal education of personal effort, the individual works his way toward the goal set for him by the Creator.

    Endowed with intellect and free will, each man is responsible for his self-fulfillment even as he is for his salvation. He is helped, and sometimes hindered, by his teachers and those around him; yet whatever be the outside influences exerted on him, he is the chief architect of his own success or failure. Utilizing only his talent and willpower, each man can grow in humanity, enhance his personal worth, and perfect himself.

    Man’s Supernatural Destiny

    16. Self-development, however, is not left up to man’s option. Just as the whole of creation is ordered toward its Creator, so too the rational creature should of his own accord direct his life to God, the first truth and the highest good. Thus human self-fulfillment may be said to sum up our obligations.

    Moreover, this harmonious integration of our human nature, carried through by personal effort and responsible activity, is destined for a higher state of perfection. United with the life-giving Christ, man’s life is newly enhanced; it acquires a transcendent humanism which surpasses its nature and bestows new fullness of life. This is the highest goal of human self-fulfillment.


    Liked by 1 person

  6. I ought to have made a further distinction after pointing out the stupidity of the the idea of “moderate religion.” After one has dismissed the moderate/extreme distinction one still needs to be able to distinguish between the false zeal of the pharisee and the true zeal of the saint. Another Facebook friend makes the following distinction:

    «It seems to me that fanaticism (or “extremism” or “fundamentalism” or whatever other unsatisfying word you put on it) always involves a fear of the ambiguity that comes from real engagement with questions and with people. It is a need for black and white and a fear of gray. It puts on a mask of violence and physical fearlessness to hide its great fear in the face of spiritual questions. Because secularism promotes questioning all religious tenets, it seems to be the opposite of fanaticism. But the true mean is not fanaticism (which can’t ask the question) or secularism (which only questions to destroy) but something else for which I don’t have a name–some kind of fearless religion (which boldly asks questions to find the truth). Ratzinger’s writings have always seemed to me to embody this last virtue.»

    Maybe fear is only part of the root (of “fanaticism”) though. I think that pride is also in there somewhere— instead of docile to reality they pridefully identify their own proper conceptions with reality. “Fundamentalism” is a bad term for this though because one can meet the phenomenon just as much in subtle and sophisticated systems of thought as in crude simplistic ones. There is something analogous in natural reasoning: what De Koninck calls “system building,” in his brilliant lecture “Three Sources of Philosophy.”

    It seems to me this shows how Paul before his conversion isn’t really doing what Newman suggests at all.


  7. Arakawa hits the nail on the head here. I did not read the exchange on Facebook, but regardless of whether St. Paul’s experience was an example of what Newman was speaking about, Newman’s general point is perfectly sound, and to call it semi-Pelagianism is quite misguided. The main point, as I read it, is simply that God rewards those who seek him even if they do not have the fullness of truth, which is both the scriptural and the magisterial teaching (there may be incidental questions here about the interpretation of conscience about which more would have to be said, but they are not the main point).

    The distinctive character of Pelagianism in all its forms is the assertion that one can have something good of oneself that is not from God, which is false, whether it be specific good acts, the initial act of faith, or anything else. But Newman does not claim this in the passage cited (nor does he claim that it is a virtue to continue in one’s childhood religion “stubbornly,” which implies doing so with a bad will or otherwise out of a lack of zeal for the truth). When he says that we may “look for a blessing through obedience even to an erroneous system,” he does not mean that we may look for it insofar as the system is erroneous, but insofar as even an erroneous system has aspects of truth, or insofar as, given the evidence available to a specific person, reason commands that he act in a certain way, which is imperfect because the available evidence is imperfect.

    Likewise, your statement, “The idea is that if one tries to serve God, and do what you think is His will, He will lead you, and show you more clearly what His will is,” is not remotely semi-Pelagian, but indeed implied by Scripture when it says that “whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6), and also by Lumen Gentium:

    Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Saviour wills that all men be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life. (16)

    Note that LG explicitly asserts that acts such as seeking God, striving to do his will, and living a good life even among non-believers are performed by God’s grace, so that the view is not Pelagian even when applied to non-Christians.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It is NOT true that Paul’s anti-church zeal made him more ripe for conversion, except as a dramatic demonstration the power of Grace. But on a less personal to St. Paul level – the idea that people who really believe something, really feel something in their guts, etc. are any closer to the kingdom is completely bogus – semi-pelagian if you will. It is also utterly bourgeois… this realness of conviction of, say, immoderate muslims, christians, whatever. The pentacostal is no more entitled to grace than the Eurocrat. For one thing, the modernist also has a conviction – a universal one at that, where as the bourgeois is happy denying all universals if only some people can live a comfortable life, practice religion unmolested by the state, etc. THis is a hugely important point right now: your intensity, your extracurricular investigations, your stance vis a vis the center… count for nothing. Nothing. All is grace and grace is not particularly anti-modern. Nothing. Your stance counts for nothing. THis is spirituality 101. We are all here, we are all splattered by modernity. Whatever… it’s a minor affliction. Temporary. An allergen. It’s not shellfish that will kill you, but your allergic reaction. What do WE care?


  9. Pingback: Fanaticism vs. Devotion | Sancrucensis

  10. Do you see St. Thomas Aquinas as holding semi-pelagianism (at least for most of his life), manifested in the principle he accepted “if a man does what is in his power, (quod in se ist), God gives him grace”, (In II Sent. D. 5, q. 2, a. 1; cf; In II Sent. Dist 28, Art 3 Ad 5 and Art 4; In II Sent. Dist 39, Art 2, Ad 4; In IV Sent. Dist 20, Quaest 1, Art 1A; De Veritate 24:1 ad 2; De Veritate 25:15), and perhaps most starkly in passages such as de Veritate q. 14, a. 11:
    “Nothing problematic follows from the position that someone is bound to believe something explicitly even if he is brought up in the forest or among brute animals, since it belongs to divine providence to provide for each one those things necessary for his salvation, so long as he for his part does not hinder it. For if a person brought up in such circumstances follows natural reason in seeking good and avoiding evil, we may be utterly certain (certissime est tenendum) that God would either reveal to him by an internal inspiration the things necessary to believe, or would direct a preacher of the faith to him, as he sent Peter to Cornelius (Acts 10).

    I maintain that this position does not fall into semi-pelagianism, because, since God is the cause of everything that is, the very following of natural reason itself is from God, not as a generic cause, but as the cause of all existence and actuality.

    To recognize that God acts in an orderly and most generous fashion, giving grace to those who seek him and are open to him, and extending his forgiveness to those whose do wrong out of ignorance (regarding this point, St. Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:13, “”I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief”), does not in any way diminish the gratuity of the gift, since he himself brings about those conditions in which he gives the gift. That “following of natural reason” is itself his gift.

    Liked by 3 people

    • From what I understand, the refuters of Pelagianism are refuting a very ugly picture where God is something like a machine that gives blessings in response to good behaviour. However, the trick is to refute this picture without denying the truth that God is a person, with a known and definite character, whose behaviour can therefore be relied upon (but not presumed upon*). Thus as a person, God can and will take into account the particular circumstances of each human being, but not in a way that could be accused of betraying his promises as proclaimed to humanity in general.

      (* The difference is that a machine can be tricked or cheated, with sufficient knowledge of its workings, but you cannot trick or cheat the Creator, no matter how thoroughly you lawyer your way around theology. To presume on God, and not rely on Him, is precisely the attitude of someone who wants to cheat a machine.)

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I’m not sure, I feel like you were on to something. My first thought is that it might be related to “I would thou wert cold or hot”, the idea being that natural zeal might be helpful or a good virtue to cultivate, even before conversion, but I’m not sure how to explicate further on it at the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Coming late to the show, I feel as if much of this territory has already been covered by previous posters. That said, I would still like to throw out some thoughts, because I am on record publicly as enjoying the original post. (I “liked” it.) And I am no Pelagian, Semi or otherwise; nor do I think your original post was, Pater.

    1. Zeal itself is, of course, no guarantee of “closeness” to the Kingdom, because there is (as you point out, Pater) a difference between the false zeal of the Pharisee and the true zeal of the saint. So Ms. Cohoe’s point about St. Paul does seem rather on target. Nevertheless, taken in the sense that zeal, as such, is preferable to lukewarmness (friarj’s point above), there is something to it. I think it would be hard to deny that St. Paul’s zeal was put to good use after his conversion.

    2. That being said, it is problematic to suggest that he was closer to the Kingdom when he was approving of the murder of St. Stephen and persecuting the saints of that Kingdom: “They will put you out of the synagogues: yea, the hour cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doth a service to God. And these things will they do to you; because they have not known the Father nor me” (Jn. 16: 2&3). But this is not an error related to Semipelagianism, because it was never claimed that Paul’s zeal merited God’s grace.

    3. I don’t think the original post was truly Semipelagian, since there was nothing in it about conversion preceding first from an act of the unaided human will, and then being met by God’s grace to confirm and strengthen it. Nor was there anything in it about natural virtue meriting God’s grace. Further, there was a lot of talk about grace in the retraction above, but no distinguishing of the kinds of grace, since grace is said in many ways. As Garrigou-Lagrange notes:

    “Fallen man, without the grace of faith, can perform natural acts that are morally good, honor his parents, for example, pay his debts, and so on. The acts of infidels are not all sins. They retain, however enfeebled, the natural inclination to moral good. The natural concurrence of God in these acts, ethically good, is gratuitous only in this sense that it is given in varying degree.” (Reality, 250)

    Yes, but it is, in a sense, gratuitous. Nor can man do anything that is good without the help of God’s grace:

    “To sin is nothing else than to fail in the good which belongs to any being according to its nature. Now as every created thing has its being from another, and, considered in itself, is nothing, so does it need to be preserved by another in the good which pertains to its nature. For it can of itself fail in good, even as of itself it can fall into non-existence, unless it is upheld by God.” (Ia IIae q. 109, a. 2, ad 2)

    But since the acts of infidels are not all sins, and every human act is either good or bad, virtuous or vicious, there is no human act an infidel could perform that would be morally neutral–i.e., not a sin, but also not a virtuous act. (This does not mean, of course, that the act is meritorious in the supernatural order.) So, even apart from baptized Christians who are not within the Catholic Church, grace is in a sense operative within the unbaptized at least insofar as they do anything that is good. It is not sanctifying grace, to be sure, but it is something given by God, and in that sense is it “grace.”

    And it is this sense that we may speak of varying degrees of goodness given by nonbaptized persons to God, inclined to the moral good, which may be preparing them to receive the gift of sanctifying grace. This passage is even more enlightening on the question:

    “I answer that, As stated above (Question 111, Article 2), grace is taken in two ways: first, as a habitual gift of God. Secondly, as a help from God, Who moves the soul to good. Now taking grace in the first sense, a certain preparation of grace is required for it, since a form can only be in disposed matter. But if we speak of grace as it signifies a help from God to move us to good, no preparation is required on man’s part, that, as it were, anticipates the Divine help, but rather, every preparation in man must be by the help of God moving the soul to good. And thus even the good movement of the free-will, whereby anyone is prepared for receiving the gift of grace is an act of the free-will moved by God. And thus man is said to prepare himself, according to Proverbs 16:1: ‘It is the part of man to prepare the soul’; yet it is principally from God, Who moves the free-will. Hence it is said that man’s will is prepared by God, and that man’s steps are guided by God.” (Ia IIae q. 112, a. 2)

    God moves the free will to do any good, and any preparation for grace, even in the unbeliever who will not, then, immediately receive it, is from God:

    “Reply to Objection 1. A certain preparation of man for grace is simultaneous with the infusion of grace; and this operation is meritorious, not indeed of grace, which is already possessed–but of glory which is not yet possessed. But there is another imperfect preparation, which sometimes precedes the gift of sanctifying grace, and yet it is from God’s motion. But it does not suffice for merit, since man is not yet justified by grace, and merit can only arise from grace, as will be seen further on (114, 2).” (Ibid.)

    And further:

    “Reply to Objection 2. Since a man cannot prepare himself for grace unless God prevent and move him to good, it is of no account whether anyone arrive at perfect preparation instantaneously, or step by step. For it is written (Sirach 11:23): ‘It is easy in the eyes of God on a sudden to make the poor man rich.’ Now it sometimes happens that God moves a man to good, but not perfect good, and this preparation precedes grace. But He sometimes moves him suddenly and perfectly to good, and man receives grace suddenly, according to John 6:45: ‘Every one that hath heard of the Father, and hath learned, cometh to Me.’ And thus it happened to Paul, since, suddenly when he was in the midst of sin, his heart was perfectly moved by God to hear, to learn, to come; and hence he received grace suddenly.” (Ibid.)

    We don’t know whom God shall call, nor how God is preparing those whom he shall call.

    I would be interested in others’ take on this, also, which seems pertinent:

    And the scribe said to him: Well, Master, thou hast said in truth that there is one God and there is no other besides him. And that he should be loved with the whole heart and with the whole understanding and with the whole soul and with the whole strength. And to love one’s neighbour as one’s self is a greater thing than all holocausts and sacrifices. And Jesus seeing that he had answered wisely, said to him: Thou art not far from the kingdom of God. (Mk. 12: 32-34)

    Now, of course, there is a huge difference between St. Paul approving of St. Stephen’s demise before his conversion (and saying this is “being closer to the Kingdom of God”) and the wise answer of this scribe. But neither had received the grace of baptism. The scribe doesn’t even seem to be a disciple of Christ’s in any permanent sense. And yet, the understanding that he shows–about the importance of zeal for God, which is in part what Pater Edmund was in part speaking in the original post–elicits Jesus’ saying: Thou art not far from the kingdom of God.

    I think you were on to something indeed, Pater Edmund. Sorry for the lengthy post.

    Liked by 1 person

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