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.

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The Debate on Tradition

I have just been reading parts of the debate at Vatican II on the sections of Dei Verbum dealing with Apostolic TraditionRatzinger summarizes the debate in his commentary, and now I have read translations of some of the actual speeches of the council fathers. Part of the debate is quite similar the discussion that has been going on in the comment thread of my post on unwritten Tradition. I have been defending there the account of Tradition developed by by Pope Benedict XVI long before he became pope. He understands Tradition as “the living process whereby the Holy Spirit introduces us to the fullness of truth and teaches us how to understand what previously we could still not grasp (cf.  Jn 16:12-13),” and the “remembering” by which the Church “can come to recognize what it had not caught sight of previously and yet was already handed down in the original Word.” Aelianus and Thomas Cordatus have been objecting that Ratzinger’s account seems dangerously close to the modernist idea of continuing Revelation. They insist that Tradition must be the handing on of definite ideas, though not in set formulas.

Very similar objections were brought up by some of the council fathers in the debate on Dei Verbum. The peritus Ratzinger had given a speech which had influenced the 4th draft of the Document–especially Article 8–and several of the fathers objected to this. Here is Ratzinger’s summary:

The dynamic concept of tradition, with which the Council here develops its positive conception of traditio, was strongly attacked from two quite opposite directions. On the one hand, Cardinal Ruffini rejected it from his position of traditionally neoscholastic theology, but on the other, Cardinal Leger attacked it from an ecumenical standpoint. In spite of the sharp division in their general theological orientations, the arguments of these two Council fathers were astonishingly similar Ruffini firmly emphasized the idea of revelation being concluded with the death of the last Apostle, rejected the idea of including disciples of the Apostles among the origins of revelation, and opposed the idea of a living and growing revelation, for, in accordance with the text of Trent and Vatican I, he considered that this should be mentioned only in connection with a strong emphasis on the strict unchangeability of a revelation that had been concluded once and for all, with which he referred to an appropriate text by Vincent de Lerins, quoted at both Councils. In the concept of the schema, and especially in its emphasis on spiritual experience as a principle of the growing knowledge of revelation, he detected theological evolutionism, condemned as modernism by Pius XII. In another tone and with other reasons Cardinal Leger insisted on the same point, He found that the Schema, especially in its idea of progress, which seemed to refer not only to the knowledge of tradition, but tradition itself (Haec … Traditio … proficit), blurred the strict distinction between apostolic and post-apostolic tradition and endangered the strict transcendence of divine revelation when it was confronted with the statements and actions of the teaching office of the Church. The Cardinal was concerned that the Church should bind itself firmly to the final and unchangeable word of God, that does not grow, but can only be constantly assimilated afresh and cannot be manipulated by the Church. The Theological Commission considered the question carefully, but decided not to make any major alterations in the text. It pointed out that the clause ” … Traditio proficit” is explained by a second clause “crescit … tam rerum quam verborum perceptio“, i.e. the growth of tradition is a growth in understanding of the reality that was given at the beginning. (Commentary pp.186-187)

A key question here is the interpretation of John 16:12-13: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” The two sides interpret these verses in almost opposite senses. Ratzinger takes it to refer to the “livingness” of tradition through all the ages, Ruffini takes it to refer to the completion of the Revelation in the Apostolic Age. Here is a translation of a translation of Ruffini:

The Divine Revelation, which we must accept with that faith which we owe to God alone, was completed with the death of the last Apostle, which the historical tradition tells us was the Apostle John. For, on the night before His death, Jesus said to His Apostles gathered in the cenacle: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” These words are as clear as the sun. If the Holy Spirit will teach the Apostles all truth, then one cannot expect any more truths after the time of the Apostles which could be part of  the depositum revelationis […] The draft says of Tradition that it lives and grows. These words the Council of Trent borrowed from Vincent of Lerins; but here in this draft the words of Trent are sadly mangled and abbreviated. Therefore I beg, for the love of truth, that the witness of Trent might be quoted in full: Hence, too, that meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by Holy mother Church, and there must never be any abandonment of this sense under the pretext or in the name of a more profound understanding. May understanding, knowledge and wisdom increase as ages and centuries roll along, and greatly and vigorously flourish, in each and all, in the individual and the whole Church: but this only in its own proper kind, that is to say, in the same doctrine, the same sense, and the same understanding. I will boldly speak my mind, venerable fathers […] the draft presented can scarcely be reconciled with the magnificent teaching of Trent. [For we read in the draft that] Tradition grows not only through contemplation […] but also through the interior experience of spiritual things. Such experience seems at least hardly distinguishable from the “religious sense” that the courageous defender of the Catholic Faith, Pope St. Pius X, condemned in  his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis.

Cardinal Ruffini’s rhetoric is magnificent, but it had hardly any effect on the final version of Dei Verbum, which left almost unchanged the passages to which he objected. Bl. Pope John Paul II saw this question, or rather the Ruffini-ite answer to it, as the main error of Archbishop Lefebvre. In the Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei he has written:

The root of this schismatic act can be discerned in an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition. Incomplete, because it does not take sufficiently into account the living character of Tradition, which, as the Second Vatican Council clearly taught, “comes from the apostles and progresses in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts. It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth”.

Unwritten Tradition

Searching through the passages of Catholic teaching on the relation of Scripture and Tradition in the indispensable pdf of Denzinger-Hünermann, I was struck by how often they use some variation on the formula “written or unwritten” to refer to Scripture and Tradition respectively. This seems to be derived from the locus classicus on these things 2 Thessalonians 2:15: “Therefore, brothers, be steadfast, and preserve the traditions you were taught by us whether by word of mouth or by letter.” The teaching of the Apostle is both written and unwritten, and this is true of Apostolic Teaching in general: it is handed down in two forms, distinguished by whether they are written or not. Thus the Council of Trent:

[This Gospel] our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, first promulgated with His own mouth, and then commanded to be preached by His Apostles to every creature, as the fountain of all, both saving truth, and moral discipline; and seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions [in libris scriptis et sine scripto traditionibus] which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted [traditae] as it were from hand to hand.

Now, one can ask are these “unwritten traditions” essentially unwritten, or is their unwrittenness merely an accident; that is, are they doctrines which the Apostles simply didn’t get around to writing down, but could in principle be written down later, or are they the sort of thing that can’t be written down. Continue reading