Discipline = Holiness
A subtle heresy
I was recently listening to an interview with a popular Catholic writer and speaker. He tried to explain that following the moral law is like learning to play the piano. At first, all you can do is bang on the keys, after that you can play simple things like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, then, the more you practice, you can play progressively more complex pieces. Finally, once you’ve mastered the piano, you are able to freely play beautiful music. He said that learning to love (i.e. keeping the commandments) is similar, that with enough discipline, we can freely love others like Jesus does.
This idea, even this piano analogy, is not unique to the particular person I was listening to. I’ve noticed that “growing in holiness” is often presented by Catholic media as something like, “We just gotta pray more and try harder, then the Lord will make us holier.”
Lots of Discipline = Holiness gets a lot of mileage with popular writers and speakers. However, it’s not the Catholic faith.
The Moral Law
The Catechism says that God revealed the moral law in stages. The first stage of revelation is the Ten Commandments. God designed the cosmos with an objective order, and life is better when we follow that order. Rather than being an arbitrary set of rules, the commandments explicitly reveal which behaviors bring goodness and life and which behaviors sorrow and death.
The importance of this revelation can’t be understated. An objective set of moral rules helps undermine leaders who prefer power over justice, lies over truth, and violence over peace. The commandments call out the temptation of relativism, the desire to determine goodness and truth on our own.
However, as good and necessary as the commandments are, the Catechism says that they are inadequate. Knowing the rules is not enough. While the Ten Commandments show us what must be done, it “does not of itself give the strength, the grace of the Spirit” to live that way (CCC 1963).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). If we hear Jesus’s commands simply as rules, we will walk away discouraged because we know that is impossible. However, Jesus’s commands are not merely objective rules, they are promises. Jesus is promising that with him, in him, and through him, we will be perfect as God is perfect.
The Catechism says:
“It is impossible to keep the Lord’s commandment by imitating the divine model from outside; there has to be a vital participation, coming from the depths of the heart, in the holiness and the mercy and the love of our God. Only the Spirit by whom we live can make ‘ours’ the same mind that was in Christ Jesus” (2842).
The Holy Spirit makes our mind like Christ’s mind and our heart like Christ’s heart, for the Law of the Gospel “proceeds to reform the heart” (CCC 1968).
Too often, when Catholics speak about the moral law and growing in holiness, grace is almost an afterthought. Grace is talked about as if it were a spiritual vitamin or energy boost, something added to our efforts that makes them holy or fruitful. We presume that we are the primary actor in our own sanctification.
This is precisely what the pope describes as the new Pelagianism. That is, speaking “warmly of God’s grace” but really believing that “all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added” (Gaudete et Exsultate 49).
Grace isn’t a spiritual energy boost, it’s the very life of God within us, transforming us into God. As the Catechism says, “Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life….The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it” (CCC 1997, 1999). With that in mind, growing in holiness isn’t like exercise or playing a musical instrument. Holiness is God giving us his very life (grace) in order to divinize us.
The difference between the Pelagian vision of growing in holiness and the Catholic position is deceptively subtle because we do have a role in our own growth in holiness. Our active cooperation in prayer and overcoming sin is essential, but we need to ask ourselves, “Who is the primary actor in this pursuit of holiness, me or God?” For “everything ‘depends not on human will or exertion, but on God…” (GE 48).
The Holy Spirit is the first and primary actor in our holiness, we simply cooperate with each step he is calling us to in our daily life.
In Gaudete et Exsultate, the pope describes our role in our own sanctification using receptive language like: “depend on God,” “allow yourself to be loved by God,” and “let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit.” These are not passive actions, but they also aren’t the language of “we become holy simply by trying harder.”
The truth is, we can’t even muster up the desire to pray by our own effort for “prayer is both a gift of grace and a determined response on our part” (CCC 2725). Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the Papal Preacher, has said:
“Between prayer and the gift of the Spirit, there is the same circularity and permeation that exists between grace and freedom. We need to receive the Holy Spirit to be able to pray, and we need to pray in order to receive the Holy Spirit. The gift of grace comes first, but then we need to pray for this gift to be preserved and increased.”
Similarly, we easily forget that, as the pope says, the desire to cooperate with grace is itself a gift from God for “Even the desire to be cleansed comes about in us through the outpouring and working of the Holy Spirit” (GE 53).
God does not only give us objective commandments, nor does he just give us the strength to live them out, rather, God transforms our hearts so that we desire to live like Jesus. This is true freedom: not only being able to live as Christ lived and love like Christ loved, but doing so with ease and joy because it is our own heart’s desire.
Holiness is not simply about more discipline, it’s about being docile before God. Our Blessed Mother is the model of what our disposition towards God ought to be. She is the timeless antidote to our contemporary Pelagianism simply because her wholehearted receptiveness to the Spirit kept her from thinking that she had any power apart from God.
(A version of this article was originally published in 2019 at Where Peter Is.)