Virtue isn't Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
When I first read the Holy Father’s short 2018 exhortation on holiness, Gaudete et Exsultate, I was deeply struck by his criticism of what he calls contemporary Pelagianism.
This 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.
The pope 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, it disguises itself in pious language and sincere striving for holiness.
One place I often find it is when Catholics talk about virtue. We talk about virtues as if they were like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. That is, we present growing in virtue as changing our thoughts, changing our behavior, and building good habits. And even though we may mention grace, we ultimately frame ourselves as the primary actor in this process.
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.
God initiates, sustains, and makes fruitful all good works—anything other than that is Pelagianism.
This authentic, anti-Pelagian, understanding of Christianity is what I teach in my new small group catechesis program, Father’s Heart Catechesis.
Father’s Heart Catechesis will, at every level, proclaim God’s love for you and all people. It’s inspired by Pope Francis, centered on the mystery of theosis, and deeply grounded in the magisterial documents of the Church.
FHC is for any Catholic who wants to grow in their relationship with God, who is struggling with their faith or with Church teaching, who feels like they may not belong in the Church anymore, or who simply wants to renew their love for God.
It’s also for catechists and parish ministers who want to experience life-giving catechesis in order to bring it back to their own communities.