Last year I had the good fortune to accidentally end up teaching Pelagianism to my Third Formers. Like many accidents in teaching, it worked out very well and I think I’ll repeat the lesson this year.
As the academic year came to a close I realized I had a timing problem. With only 3 or 4 class days left, I did not have time to teach my usual close-out lesson on the basic moral content of the Gospel. Typically I take 5 or 6 class days to go through the Sermon on the Mount and the basic Pauline exhortations so that my students will have some idea what Catholicism is about outside of their primary source of information, the TV and the internet.
Since I was short on time, I let my students choose their final lesson. I could teach a shortened version of my Sermon on the Mount material, or I could teach any topic they wanted me to tackle. Any at all! I have a lot of theological hobbies and many had come up over the course of the year without us having a chance to do more than touch upon them. New astronomy? Church history myth-busting? Thorny scriptural interpretations? Philosophy of science, the nature of numbers?
Most students were indifferent but the active voters lobbied for “cool-sounding heresies.” I’d already covered the most famous ones–you can’t teach Trinity without talking about Arius, for example–and in fact I’d already covered Pelagianism indirectly. It’s quite astonishing just how much of the basic Catholic catechism is influenced by a repudiation of Pelagianism and the later battles over the same topic (*cough* Protestantism *cough*). But when I suggested Pelagianism they jumped, with one of them slyly asking me if I’d ever heard the tragedy of Darth Pelagius the Wise (that’s a Star Wars joke, for my non-nerd audience). Topic settled!
So how do you teach Pelagianism to 9th-graders? I’m glad you asked!
After a brief biography to get us situated, I decided to set things up as a conversation between Pelagius and St. Augustine, with a third dance partner (the “semi-Pelagians”) coming in toward the end to make things interesting. And if we’re looking for a relatively simple, low-brow way to think of Pelagius, I think he’s best cast as an ancient-world version of Tony Robbins, Motivational Speaker.
Pelagius Robbins was a Real Monk who was appalled at the moral fatalism and attendant laxity that he found in the monasteries and cities of his day. It’s not hard to see why such an attitude was prevalent: there is a kind of patient wisdom in recognizing our fallen nature and the ubiquity of sin in our lives. But Pelagius heard, apparently one time too often, a monk shrugging off his depravities and claiming, “We can’t do this. That’s why Jesus came. Jesus forgives, so oh well.” Less patient wisdom, more moral indifference and indulgence. And Pelagius went off.
A man of great learning and personal charisma, he began a personal crusade of unlocking the unlimited power and awakening the moral giant within every Catholic in the land.
“Can’t do it? Can’t do it?! I don’t want to hear any more of that nonsense! God made you. God, the omnipotent Creator Universi, the Love that moves the Spheres! God does not make junk! He does not make trash! He has created you and given you everything you need in order to strive for heaven and come to rest in His happy beatitude!”
In the early going this sounded like some much needed Positive Moral Thinking. Sounds like a real reformer, right? As he toured the world with his message of hope, sternly exhorting people to grow a moral spine, even the best of the best liked what they heard. He was persuasive and articulate, and he rhetorically crushed anyone who argued with him–lazy, immoral slackers! Bishops beamed. Abbots approved. Even St. Augustine nodded enthusiastically and sent the man on his way with a pat on the back.
It was only as he left each port of call that people started to scratch their heads and wonder if all was aright. The “wait a minutes” grew and grew until controversy rushed down the mountain like an avalanche chasing a happily oblivious Pelagius, skiing his way back to the lodge and an eventual judgment before an ecumenical council.
It’s one thing to emphasize the goodness of God and call people to responsibility. Good job, Pelagius! It’s quite another to suggest, as he increasingly seemed to do, that we could get ourselves to heaven on our own. And when St. Augustine decided to ask him a few pointed questions about this, Pelagius finally crossed swords with someone he was not going to out-logic or out-rhetoric with his ample natural gifts. We don’t call him the Doctor of Grace for nothing!
Actually we call him those things because he whooped Pelagius and whooped him bad.
The argument, when framed as a back-and-forth over what God does to help us reach our last end, is pretty interesting. If I had the time and creative energy I’d write an actual dialogue. Instead I’ll give a low-rent version here:
Augustine: Pelagius, you make it sound as if Man works his way back to God on his own powers without the Divine Assistance. You can’t possibly mean that, can you?
Pelagius: Of course God helps us. He has given us the supreme assistance of His divine Power! First, He hath made all things well, and none moreso than Man! Surely you’ve read Psalm 8? He has given us, when He could have done otherwise, the power to know Him and love Him. All we have to do is use those powers–believe!–and we will arrive at our last end.
Augustine: I hear you talking about assistance but what I don’t hear, I’m afraid, is any talk of grace. Grace is freely given and unearned, an act of supreme generosity. You make it sound like a deal–we do our part, God rewards us in return. Do you really want to make God’s gift of salvation a payment or reward? What of gift? What of love?
Pelagius: Don’t be ridiculous, “Doctor Gratiae.” Creation is a gift! How could anyone earn creation? Of course it’s an act of supreme, free generosity. What’s more, He has sent His Son as the true and ultimate revelation of Himself and His Will. He didn’t have to do that either! Look at those aids! Free, grace-y aids! All we have to do is use them.
Augustine: Ok but what about Original Sin? You make it sound like the sin of Adam never happened! What about the wages of sin dragging us down to death?
Pelagius: Well of course the sin of Adam matters. Adam’s calamitous fall has been our constant ruin, for each of us imitates him as a son imitates his father. We, sadly, choose to follow him into that ruin.
Augustine: Wait, what? Original Sin is our choice? Then what the heck does Jesus save us from?
Pelagius: Our Lord Jesus Christ is the ultimate revelation of God. In that Word is disclosed all that we need to know in order to attain our last end in God. In Him we at last have a new moral exemplar to imitate instead of Adam, and by following this New Adam we arrive at our last end.
Augustine: Wait, wait, wait. Then how is Christ our Savior?
Pelagius: Of course He saves us, O Grace Doctor. He saves us by showing us the way out of certain death, out of the way of Adam. Like a lighthouse saves sailors. What more do you want? He makes us in a supreme act of love, then shows us the way to our end.
Augustine: Alright I’ve had enough snide comments about grace. We’ve got two problems here and it’s time to get them straight. First, sin. Second, God.
You’re confusing sin with Original Sin and overlooking all that St. Paul says about our screwed up human nature. There’s something grossly wrong with each of us. You’re trying to combat moral laxity by denying one of the most fundamental claims of the Gospel!
Nevermind that, even if we hadn’t fallen, our last end is God. God is not within the scope of any of our powers, no matter how well God has made us. He’s infinite! We’re made in His image; that doesn’t mean we are equal copies and we’ve defaced the image with Original Sin anyway.
Ok, sure, Creation and Revelation are graces. But they are not enough. What we need is power, the power to actually will our last end. The act of faith that you’ve mentioned a few times actually direct divine assistance to happen–not indirectly through Creation and Revelation, but even in the act of the will itself. It’s God, God, God, all the way down.
Now go to the Council of Carthage. You’re in time-out!
I think that gets the gist of the Pelagian problem in a kid’s version, even though it does not trace the story of the controversy historically. There were quite a few more actors involved than just St. Augustine and Pelagius and there were stages of the controversy, just like in the other Big Heresies.
Still, It was neat to have some of my plugged-in students recognize some of the problems with Pelagius as we went along (Augustine’s question about how Christ is a savior was a direct outburst from one of my Lutheran students).
At this point it’s time to introduce the “Semi-Pelagians.” Of course they didn’t call themselves that–terrible PR move if they had! Only many, many centuries later, in another phase of this controversy (*cough* Protestantism *cough*), would that term be coined. Instead it was a group of monks from Massilia (Marseilles) who jump in here with the killer question that we have, in some ways, never fully come to terms with:
Massilians: If it’s God, God, God all the way down, then how is it our action? How are we free?
Pelagius: Yeah, that’s what I’ve been saying—
Augustine and Massilians: Quiet, you. You already blew it.
Augustine: Go ahead, you have my attention.
Massilians: It seems that in order for us to be free, for the act of faith to be ours, at some stage it’s really got to come from within us. Sure, our powers don’t have the infinite scope required to lay hold of God. But at least it starts within us, right? The work of grace would then be super-charging that human act and making it capable of attaining that last end.
Augustine: So we start and God…what, augments it?
Massilians: Sure, that has a nice ring.
Augustine: No way. If God is outside the scope of our powers, then it requires grace to get started, to bring it within that scope if you will. Otherwise you’re just re-heating Pelagius and you want no part of that.
Massilians: Then we’re not free! God makes us, God teaches us, God starts the act of faith, God empowers the act of faith…come on, now! What do we do? How are we free?
Augustine: All the graces you mention are what make us free, truly free, supremely free. You’re confusing freedom with sin; the “freedom” to sin is no freedom at all. In about a thousand years we’re going to have to smack Ockham about this.
To go any further down the rabbit hole takes us well beyond what my Third Formers can grasp. Even skimming the surface of the Massilians on freedom is pushing their limits. So we’ll leave off there so real experts can lay things out more carefully. It’s a fascinating topic that courts disaster and agnosticism on every side; my goal here is just to get them thinking about the most basic problems and what needs to be reconciled and what needs to be solved.
Trying to articulate what’s going on here makes it really apparent just how attractive Pelagianism and Massilianism are and just how incredibly Pelagian our modern, liberal world is. Pelagianism feels right, deep down in the bones. We really are Pelagians in a great many ways, and not just because people like Tony Robbins make a lot of money unlocking giants within us.
But if even the Massilians are wrong–and they do indeed get smacked down at the Council of Orange in 529–then what is the answer here? The challenge to freedom is no illusion, even if there is an answer. Failure to establish a fixed clarity on this point is, I think it no exaggeration to say, one of the leading theological causes of the Reformation. The bottom-line answer is just not that simple or intuitive, and so we are doomed (perhaps) to have to re-fight this battle as the centuries go on.
The bottom line answer, by the way, is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church gives in CCC 153-155. It’s the Patristic synergeia answer, with a chaser of Aquinas. When in doubt, always take Patristic with a chaser of Aquinas. It’s the only way to be sure.
Faith is a grace
153 When St. Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus declared to him that this revelation did not come “from flesh and blood”, but from “my Father who is in heaven”.24 Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him. “Before this faith can be exercised, man must have the grace of God to move and assist him; he must have the interior helps of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and converts it to God, who opens the eyes of the mind and ‘makes it easy for all to accept and believe the truth.'”25
Faith is a human act
154 Believing is possible only by grace and the interior helps of the Holy Spirit. But it is no less true that believing is an authentically human act. Trusting in God and cleaving to the truths he has revealed is contrary neither to human freedom nor to human reason. Even in human relations it is not contrary to our dignity to believe what other persons tell us about themselves and their intentions, or to trust their promises (for example, when a man and a woman marry) to share a communion of life with one another. If this is so, still less is it contrary to our dignity to “yield by faith the full submission of. . . intellect and will to God who reveals”,26 and to share in an interior communion with him.
155 In faith, the human intellect and will cooperate with divine grace: “Believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace.”27