Skip to main content

Pope Francis against the "Pelagianism" of "restorationism": this time, it's official.

When the Pope's private remarks to the presiding board of the Confederación Latinoamericana y Caribeña de Religiosos y Religiosas about the "pelagianism" of "restorationist" groups were first reported here on Rorate and some other blogs and websites, one of the reactions, especially from some of those who adhere to the new orthodoxy that little or nothing has changed since March 13 of this year, was that the remarks were probably fabricated in the imagination of the CLAR presiding board members. 

Today, after the Mass at Copacobana, Pope Francis gave a speech to the leadership of the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Latin America and the Caribbean or CELAM. In the course of his speech he spoke of three temptations against "missionary discipleship", one of which is that of "making the Gospel message an ideology". He then mentions four ways by which the Gospel message is made an ideology, one of which is -- "The Pelagian solution". 

It may be of interest to our readers, especially those conversant with the history of the debates over the Council Documents, that the only passage from Vatican Council II that is cited here is the opening sentence of Gaudium et Spes, a passage that Pope Francis describes in this address as "the basis (of the Church's) dialogue with the contemporary world".

It cannot be denied that some passages in this speech will also make liberals uncomfortable. Our concern here, in this Traditional Catholic blog, is on what might adversely impact Traditional Catholicism, especially in Latin America where it is far more beleaguered and persecuted than in many other parts of the Catholic Church. 

From the Vatican Radio translation of the full text of the prepared address: Pope Francis: address to CELAM leadership. There were many off-the-cuff remarks which Radio Vaticana has promised to also post soon. (He did pronounce the passage on Pelagianism as already prepared, with the addition of exageradas before a la “seguridad” doctrinal o disciplinaria.)

Some temptations against missionary discipleship

The decision for missionary discipleship will encounter temptation. It is important to know where the evil spirit is afoot in order to aid our discernment. It is not a matter of chasing after demons, but simply one of clear-sightedness and evangelical astuteness. I will mention only a few attitudes which are evidence of a Church which is “tempted”. It has to do with recognizing certain contemporary proposals which can parody the process of missionary discipleship and hold back, even bring to a halt, the process of Pastoral Conversion.

1. Making the Gospel message an ideology. This is a temptation which has been present in the Church from the beginning: the attempt to interpret the Gospel apart from the Gospel itself and apart from the Church. An example: Aparecida, at one particular moment, felt this temptation. It employed, and rightly so, the method of “see, judge and act” (cf. No. 19). The temptation, though, was to opt for a way of “seeing” which was completely “antiseptic”, detached and unengaged, which is impossible. The way we “see” is always affected by the way we direct our gaze. There is no such thing as an “antiseptic” hermeneutics. The question was, rather: How are we going to look at reality in order to see it? Aparecida replied: With the eyes of discipleship. This is the way Nos. 20-32 are to be understood. There are other ways of making the message an ideology, and at present proposals of this sort are appearing in Latin America and the Caribbean. I mention only a few:

a) Sociological reductionism. This is the most readily available means of making the message an ideology. At certain times it has proved extremely influential. It involves an interpretative claim based on a hermeneutics drawn from the social sciences. It extends to the most varied fields, from market liberalism to Marxist categorization.

b) Psychologizing. Here we have to do with an elitist hermeneutics which ultimately reduces the “encounter with Jesus Christ” and its development to a process of growing self- awareness. It is ordinarily to be found in spirituality courses, spiritual retreats, etc. It ends up being an immanent, self-centred approach. It has nothing to do with transcendence and consequently, with missionary spirit.

c) The Gnostic solution. Closely linked to the previous temptation, it is ordinarily found in elite groups offering a higher spirituality, generally disembodied, which ends up in a preoccupation with certain pastoral “quaestiones disputatae”. It was the first deviation in the early community and it reappears throughout the Church’s history in ever new and revised versions. Generally its adherents are known as “enlightened Catholics” (since they are in fact rooted in the culture of the Enlightenment).

d) The Pelagian solution. This basically appears as a form of restorationism. In dealing with the Church’s problems, a purely disciplinary solution is sought, through the restoration of outdated manners and forms which, even on the cultural level, are no longer meaningful. In Latin America it is usually to be found in small groups, in some new religious congregations, in (exaggerated) tendencies to doctrinal or disciplinary “safety”. Basically it is static, although it is capable of inversion, in a process of regression. It seeks to “recover” the lost past.

(Rorate: The original Spanish text of this paragraph is: d) La propuesta pelagiana. Aparece fundamentalmente bajo la forma de restauracionismo. Ante los males de la Iglesia se busca una solución sólo en la disciplina, en la restauración de conductas y formas superadas que, incluso culturalmente, no tienen capacidad significativa. En América Latina suele darse en pequeños grupos, en algunas nuevas Congregaciones Religiosas, en tendencias exageradas a la “seguridad” doctrinal o disciplinaria. Fundamentalmente es estática, si bien puede prometerse una dinámica hacia adentro: involuciona. Busca “recuperar” el pasado perdido. The Pope added "exageradas" during actual delivery.)

2. Functionalism. Its effect on the Church is paralyzing. More than being interested in the road itself, it is concerned with fixing holes in the road. A functionalist approach has no room for mystery; it aims at efficiency. It reduces the reality of the Church to the structure of an NGO. What counts are quantifiable results and statistics. The Church ends up being run like any other business organization. It applies a sort of “theology of prosperity” to the organization of pastoral work.

3. Clericalism is also a temptation very present in Latin America. Curiously, in the majority of cases, it has to do with a sinful complicity: the priest clericalizes the lay person and the lay person kindly asks to be clericalized, because deep down it is easier. The phenomenon of clericalism explains, in great part, the lack of maturity and Christian freedom in a good part of the Latin American laity. Either they simply do not grow (the majority), or else they take refuge in forms of ideology like those we have just seen, or in partial and limited ways of belonging. Yet in our countries there does exist a form of freedom of the laity which finds expression in communal experiences: Catholic as community. Here one sees a greater autonomy, which on the whole is a healthy thing, basically expressed through popular piety. The chapter of the Aparecida document on popular piety describes this dimension in detail. The spread of bible study groups, of ecclesial basic communities and of Pastoral Councils is in fact helping to overcome clericalism and to increase lay responsibility.

We could continue by describing other temptations against missionary discipleship, but I consider these to be the most important and influential at present for Latin America and the Caribbean.