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“Only at the prompting of Your grace do the faithful progress in any kind of virtue”
When I first read the Holy Father’s 2018 exhortation on holiness, Gaudete et Exsultate, I was deeply struck by his criticism of what he calls contemporary Pelagianism.
Francis’s teaching challenged so much of how I understood holiness and has brought me real clarity and freedom the more that the Lord has let it take root in my mind and heart.
The pope says that a marker of this new Pelagianism is the centering of the human will in our growth in holiness and the de-centering of grace. Grace isn’t absent, but it’s seen as something added onto our efforts.
In contrast, Francis taught that “nothing human can demand, merit or buy the gift of divine grace, and that all cooperation with it is a prior gift of that same grace.” He goes on to say, “Even the desire to be cleansed comes about in us through the outpouring and working of the Holy Spirit.”
This Pelagianism can be very subtle and disguises itself in sincere striving for holiness.
One place where I often find it is when Catholics talk about virtue. I regularly hear virtues presented as if growing in a particular virtue is like learning to play a musical instrument. If I set my mind to the task and practice every day then I will make myself more capable, more free, to play the piano. Likewise, if I set my mind to the task, discipline my behavior, and build new habits, then I will make myself more patient or more chaste.
Pelagianism can be very subtle and disguises itself in sincere striving for holiness
In other words, I often hear the virtuous life presented as a kind of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Growing in virtue means simply changing my thoughts, my behavior, and building good habits. Then voila! I’m virtuous. And at first glance it seems like the Catechism supports this self-help idea of growing in virtue when it says, “The moral virtues are acquired by human effort” (CCC 1804).
However, the Catechism also teaches that “The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God” (CCC 1803). Growing in virtue is becoming more like God. That challenges the “virtue is like learning an instrument” ideas because, if I step back for a second, I quickly realize that I cannot pray often enough, take enough old showers, or do anything at all to make one cell in my body more divine.
Rather, as the Church prays during the Easter Vigil, “only at the prompting of Your grace do the faithful progress in any kind of virtue.”
Growth in virtue, holiness, is always first and primarily God’s work. My effort is always and only in response to what God has already started and sustaining.
It is Christ who first changes our desires so that we want to be virtuous, It is Christ who gives us the strength to respond to that desire with our choices. It is Christ who uses our cooperation to make us more free to respond in the future.
In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis teaches that God initiates, sustains, and makes fruitful all good works—and that anything other than that is Pelagianism.
This four-part live workshop will be held virtually on May 30, June 6, June 13, and June 20 at 7:30-9:00pm (EST).
This workshop is for anyone who wants to deepen their faith, including catechists, ministers, and clergy who want to enhance their ministry and connect with a supportive community of learners. Whether you're looking to renew your love for Jesus, find a deeper sense of belonging, or grow in your relationship with God, the Gaudete et Exsultate Workshop is the perfect opportunity for you. In this workshop, you will have:
the freedom to participate as you want
the opportunity to learn and grow within a small group
a non-judgemental space that proclaims and invites, never imposes
the skills to read and understand papal documents
the chance to ask and discuss any questions that you have
This workshop is open to everyone, but members of Father's Heart Academy will have access to it for half the price!
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