Heretical Tendencies, Part I: Neo-pelagianism

During the current pontificate the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has maintained a rather low profile, publishing very few significant statements. This year, however, on February 22, the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, the CDF promulgated a major doctrinal statement, expanding on some themes that Pope Francis has emphasized.

This letter connects with what I have just been writing in the past two weeks on the meaning of ‘no salvation outside of the Church’; it is a new affirmation of the absolute uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, as the Savior of mankind, and the indispensable role of the Church in communicating his grace to men.

We don’t hear the word ‘heresy’ much these days, but Pope Francis has actually spoken on multiple occasions of certain heretical tendencies, neo-pelagianism and neo-gnosticism. Those foreign sounding and unfamiliar words are likely to raise a few eyebrows, but the purpose of the recent letter of the CDF was precisely to explain their meaning as threats to the proper Christian understanding of ‘salvation’.

Perhaps one reason why we don’t hear the word ‘heresy’ much any more is because while in the past certain individuals, ‘heretics’, would promote very specific doctrines that could be identified with their person, our contemporary culture lacks sufficient precision of thought to form any clearly thought out system of teaching. Indeed, thought has generally been replaced by emotion and in place of definite heresies we now have heretical tendencies. These are somewhat amorphous or formless ‘currents’ that find embodiment and expression in diverse and often seemingly unrelated cultural forms. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize these ‘tendencies’ because they make it difficult for the world to hear and receive the Gospel, together with the salvation it brings.

Today, I will write about, neo-pelagianism. I will then write about neo-gnosticism, and finally, I hope to summarize how the CDF speaks of the truth of the Gospel of Christ and his Church in opposition to these heretical tendencies.

The ancient heresy of Pelagianism which took its name from 4th century British monk named Pelagius effectively denied the need for God’s grace and was vigorously opposed by St. Augustine. The CDF writes, “A new form of Pelagianism is spreading in our days, one in which the individual, understood to be radically autonomous, presumes to save oneself, without recognizing that, at the deepest level of being, he or she derives from God and from others. According to this way of thinking, salvation depends on the strength of the individual or on purely human structures, which are incapable of welcoming the newness of the Spirit of God.” (Placuit Deo 3)

It is necessary correctly to understand the expression “the newness of the Spirit of God” because a misunderstanding would readily feed into the other heretical tendency of neo-gnosticism. Though Jesus Christ walked the earth 2,000 years ago, the one truly ‘new thing’ under the sun (cf. Ec 1:2-9), was precisely the Incarnation of the Son of God and the outpouring of his Holy Spirit upon the Church, a ‘new thing’ that is continually renewed in every age through faith and the sacraments. The ‘new thing’ is the life of grace, the inner transformation that Jesus works in us through the power of his Holy Spirit. The perennial newness of the Gospel is revealed in each person in whose heart the Holy Spirit inscribes the law of the Gospel. (cf. Jer 32:33)

Neo-pelagianism does not manifest itself first of all as a religious phenomenon. On the individual level, neo-pelagianism is behind all the movements of self-help, self-improvement, and self-realization. The creed of neo-pelagianism is “Believe in yourself.” It is the ‘power of positive thought’. It has no place for losers.

When these individual drives coalesce on the level of institutions, it gives rise to the spirit of modernity that has sought to make man the master of nature. It is the spirit that drove the industrial revolution. It is the spirit that underlies the whole drive for continual technological advancement.  It is also the spirit that seeks to solve all the economic and political problems of the world. It is the spirit that thinks to conquer poverty and disease. In a word, it is the spirit of never-ending progress and of utopianism.

This spirit of utopianism now has in view even the conquest of death through ‘transhumanism’, which combines the possibilities of replacing human beings with ‘artificial intelligence’, uploading the ‘brains’ of the ‘elect’ onto electronic devices, or preserving them in ‘cyborg’ bodies.

When this spirit of neo-pelagianism enters the Church it views the Church as just one more purely human institution, to be reformed and corrected and perfected by human beings. When this spirit enters the Church the demand is made that the Church conform to the spirit of the modern age and be placed totally at the service of political reform and the eradication of things like poverty and disease.

Meanwhile, doctrine and sacraments are seen as useless and irrelevant; the whole content of faith is reduced to being a moral code; the moral code itself is emptied of anything more than a vague generic ‘love one another’. The Christian, thus freed of the burdens of doctrines and sacraments is able to enjoy all the advantages of the modern world, to ‘get along’ and be ‘tolerant’. The Church is reduced to being nothing more than an instrument of social motivation, a cheerleader for individuals and groups.




Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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