Pelagius, a name that means “sea-born,” is a rare but not unique name in Church history. Pope Pelagius I governed the Church from 556 to 561, and Pope Pelagius II reigned from 579 to 590. There are two saints named Pelagius: The first, a martyr of the third century, is venerated in Konstanz, Switzerland; the second, a 13-year-old, suffered torture and martyrdom in 925 at the command of the Moorish ruler of Córdoba, Spain.
The most famous Pelagius, however, spawned a heresy. And since his election, Pope Francis has repeatedly warned the Church about the dangers Pelagianism poses.
Born around 355, Pelagius became a monk, moved to Rome, gained a reputation for austerity and wrote several theological works, including a three-volume commentary on St. Paul’s letters. After Alaric I, the king of the Visigoths, sacked Rome in 410, Pelagius set sail for northern Africa, landing near Hippo, where St. Augustine was bishop.
Pelagius, the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, believed that “man could, by the natural power of free will and without the necessary help of God’s grace, lead a morally good life” (No. 406). Indeed, Pelagius believed that several Old Testament figures, without the help of grace, led sinless lives.
Pelagius held that although Adam offered a bad example, his sin altered only his own relationship with God, and that consequently there is no original sin from which Adam’s descendants need to be redeemed. Pelagius’ followers thus denied that baptism cleanses the soul from original sin and also denied that the sacrament elevates the baptized into a state of supernatural friendship with God. Pelagius did believe that God wished to make it easier for human beings to lead sinless lives, and so God instructed people through the law of Moses and by Christ’s teaching and good example.
Pelagius held, however, that human beings do not need the interior assistance of God’s grace to avoid sin and lead holy lives; instead, he believed that holiness is attained through one’s unaided free will.
These views troubled many bishops, including St. Augustine, who acutely perceived his need for God’s grace and mercy. Upholding the reality of original sin and the necessity of grace, he preached sermons and wrote numerous treatises in response to the teachings of Pelagius and his followers. In four regional meetings, beginning in 411 and culminating in the Synod of Carthage in 418, African bishops condemned Pelagianism, and the popes of the time supported the bishops’ efforts.
Pelagius died around 425, but his ideas lived on. In 431, the Council of Ephesus condemned Pelagianism. Over the following century, Semi-Pelagianism — a weaker form of Pelagianism — made inroads in France.
Local bishops, meeting at the Second Synod of Orange in 529, affirmed the necessity of God’s grace in these areas, and Pope Boniface II soon extended the synod’s teaching to the entire Church.
Pope Francis’ warnings
In the Roman Martyrology, which contains the Church’s official listing of saints, St. Innocent I, the first pope to condemn Pelagianism, is included among the saints of March 12. On that day in 2013, the conclave to elect Pope Benedict’s successor commenced, and the following day, the assembled cardinals chose Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a prelate who had spoken out against contemporary forms of Pelagianism.
In 2001, Cardinal Bergoglio praised a book by Father Luigi Giussani (1922-2005), an Italian priest who founded the Communion and Liberation movement and lamented Pelagianism’s continuing influence. Authentic Christian morality, Cardinal Bergoglio said at the time, has nothing to do “with the Pelagianism so fashionable today in its different, sophisticated manifestations. Pelagianism, underneath it all, is a remake of the Tower of Babel. … Grace always comes first, then comes all the rest.”
Recent popes have, on occasion, referred to Pelagianism’s manifestations, but since his election, Pope Francis has spoken about it at least five times. In his Holy Thursday Chrism Mass homily, he told priests that “it is not in soul-searching or constant introspection that we encounter the Lord: Self-help courses can be useful in life, but to live our priestly life going from one course to another, from one method to another, leads us to become Pelagians and to minimize the power of grace, which comes alive and flourishes to the extent that we, in faith, go out and give ourselves and the Gospel to others.”
Pope Francis referred again to Pelagianism during a June 23 address. Four days later, in a homily, he said that there are dour Christians who confuse “solidity and firmness with rigidity,” adding that “today’s Pelagians … are convinced that ‘salvation is the way I do things.’”
In a July 28 address to Latin American bishops, he warned that there are different ways in which the Gospel is reduced to an ideology.
Among these ideologies is the “Pelagian solution. This basically appears as a form of restorationism. In dealing with the Church’s problems, a purely disciplinary solution is sought, through the restoration of outdated manners and forms which, even on the cultural level, are no longer meaningful.”
Most recently and authoritatively, in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis warned that one form of “spiritual worldliness” is “the self-absorbed Promethean neo-Pelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past.”
“[I]nstead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying,” he said. “In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others.”
In speaking about Pelagianism, Pope Francis is asking us important questions. Have we become absorbed in ourselves, rather than turning to the Lord and loving others? Have we adopted a “my way or the highway” mentality in matters of changeable Church discipline, believing that our preferences, rather than God’s grace, will solve the Church’s problems? Do we trust in ourselves to lead morally upright lives? Or do we, like St. Augustine, recall that without Christ we can do nothing, and seek his grace every day?
J.J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.