In the fifty century after the birth of Jesus, a monk – Pelagius – proposed that humans were not born with original sin, and therefore a person could tell the difference between good and evil without the benefit of grace. Sometimes we annotate this error and define “pelagianism” as the notion that one acquires the Kingdom of Heaven through one’s own efforts, rather than by grace.
There has been some talk recently about condemning a modern form of pelagianism, “neo-pelagianism.” In his first major letter, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the CDF), Archbishop Ladaria addresses the errors of “neo-pelagianism” and “neo-gnosticism.” To that end, the CDF recently issued a four-paged letter, entitled “Placuit Deo” or “Pleasing to God.”
The Letter is written in a very sober and conventional manner. Speaking of neo-pelagianism, the letter simply re-affirms a long-standing doctrine highlighting “the inconsistency of the claims to self-salvation that depend on human efforts alone…”. The letter rejects the idea that “salvation depends on the strength of the individual or on purely human structures…”. The letter is extraordinarily general in its rejection of neo-pelagianism, and in a sense does not alter or re-interpret long-standing doctrine.
As a side note, we should keep in mind that the CDF’s letter is well-rooted in Scripture. Paul’s letters, in particular, emphasize the role of grace and faith in salvation (eg, Rom 5:15-21). If we refer to Paul’s letter to the Romans, St. Paul stresses that we saved by our faith (eg. Rom 3:24), rather than through our obedience to the minor human precepts of the law of the Torah (eg, Rom 3:21, 27-28). Paul is not rejecting the importance of charity – in fact, St. Paul writes that charity is the greatest of all virtues and supernatural gifts (I Cor 13:13).
The subtext or the motivation for the letter is another matter. Archbishop Ladaria refers to comments made by the Holy Father “in the Ordinary Magisterium,” meaning in the day-to-day preaching of the Pope. To understand what the Pope is getting at, one has to consider the other theological error considered, “neo-gnosticism.” According to the letter, a neo-gnostic is someone who believes he or she is “intellectually capable of rising above the flesh of Jesus towards the mysteries of the unknown divinity.”
When these two errors are combined, we can see where the Holy Father intends to go. He had said, two years ago in Florence, that the modern pelagian error
prompts the Church not to be humble, selfless and blessed. And it does so with the appearance of being a “good.”
Furthermore, modern pelagianism
…leads us also to take a controlling, hard, regulatory style, … The law gives to the Pelagian security to feel superior, to have a precise orientation. This is its strength, not the light of the breath of the Spirit.
The Holy Father spoke to the CDF in regard to commenting on this concern. The “pelagianism” that the Holy Father refers to, but which is not referenced in the CDF document, is, hypothetically speaking, a mechanical, almost mindless obedience to regulation – in other words, excessive and uncharitable moral rigorism. The application of moral rigorism may or may not be a doctrinal error, depending on how it is applied.
To quote from Pope Benedict on Saint Alphonsus Liguori, who rejected moral rigorism,
Alphonsus recommended to pastors of souls and confessors that they be faithful to the Catholic moral doctrine, assuming at the same time a charitable, understanding and gentle attitude so that penitents might feel accompanied, supported and encouraged on their journey of faith and of Christian life.
In terms of condemning unjust applications of moral rigorism, the Holy Father and Archbishop Ladaria are simply re-iterating doctrines that have been held and espoused for centuries. Implicitly, the Holy Father is suggesting that certain applications of moral rigorism do not have their origins in a graced life. However, discovering precisely what conduct is both “rigorist” in its application and “ungraced” is not defined. Nor could it be – the CDF is simply laying down a framework, rather than rejecting, specifically, any action of late.