Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Protesting Pope

In the 500 years since its inception, the Protestant revolt has evolved from the erroneous opinions of a single mad monk into a thousand-headed hydra of heresy, with each head snapping at the other almost as frequently as at the Catholic Church itself. Nonetheless, the many heads have remained joined at one common point - a point which Protestant theologians such as Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer desired to see writ large on the flag of modern Protestantism: Ecclesia semper reformanda est, i.e. "The Church is always to be reformed."

Today, speaking to bishops and faithful gathered in Florence, Pope Francis made this profoundly Protestant thesis his own, quoting it verbatim.

As disturbing as that may be, it was not the most unsettling part of Pope Francis' speech. That honor goes to his diatribe against what is becoming a major theme of his pontificate, i.e. the "Pelagianism" he sees as infecting the Church. National Catholic Register's Edward Pentin reports:
Pelagianism, the Pope told faithful gathered in Florence cathedral, "prompts the Church not to be humble, selfless and blessed. And it does so with the appearance of being a good." Such an approach, he added, "brings us confidence in structures, organizations, in perfect planning because it’s abstract." 
But often "it leads us also to take a controlling, hard, regulatory style," he said. "The law gives to the Pelagian security to feel superior, to have a precise orientation. This is its strength, not the light of the breath of the Spirit." 
"In facing evils or the problems of the Church," the Pope went on, "it is useless to look for solutions in conservatism and fundamentalism, in the restoration of practices and outdated forms that aren’t even able to be culturally meaningful."
Of course, we've heard Pope Francis speak on the subject of Pelagianism before. In fact, his barbed quip "self-absorbed promethean neopelagians" - aimed squarely at faithful Catholics of the traditional sort - has become something of a defiant self-appellation among the same. And that Pope Francis frowns upon any effort to restore the time-honored traditions of the Church - including her ancient liturgy - is not exactly news. So, what's so unsettling about this speech?

A combination of context and historical precedent. 

It was none other than Martin Luther himself who leveled the charge of "Pelagianism" against the Catholic Church on the eve of his own revolution. In his monograph entitled Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther on Original Sin and Justification of the Sinner, Jairzinho Lopes Pereira of the University of Helsinki explains (p. 312):
Complaints against the Pelagian trend of theology of his own time is recurrent in young Luther. One of the most striking is found in Operationes in Psalmos (1519-1521). What is worse, he stressed in this work, is the fact that there was a new form of Pelagianism; the one he was fighting. It was worse than any other because it was not declared. It was Pelagianism disguised as an orthodox doctrine. The Reformer regarded Pelagianism as the most dangerous and pernicious of heresies (Inter omnes autem gladios imiorum maximum et nocentissimum meo iuditio merito pelagianam impietatem censebimus) and the source of all sorts of idolatries (hic error fons est universae idolatriae). Not surprisingly, he identified it with the very human tendency to state human righteousness (iustitia hominis) to the detriment of that of faith (iusitia fidei). 
Augustine, Luther pointed out, fought Pelagians as declared heretics. He himself was fighting the very same heretical trend in men protected by the Church, under the skin of orthodox theologians. So Pelagianism, Luther stressed, is a timeless threat to Christian faith. [...] After Augustine's death the heresy rose; it not only did not find opposition, but also was openly allowed to rule within the Roman Church and universities. Nothing can be more dangerous, yet it remained in the Church, Luther claimed (pelagianos error vere omnium saeculorum error est, saepius opressus quidem, sed nunquam extinctus).
Sound familiar?

As one brave priest noted, the once-rhetorical question, "Is the Pope a Catholic?" no longer provokes laughter. Perhaps it is time to replace it with a more pointed question: "Is the Pope a Protestant?"


  1. A ship, lost in a storm, with no rudder, and a captain with no sea legs. Mutiny is in order to save the ship.

  2. Precision of insight. Yes this Bergolio with his love of the Evangelicals and Pentecostals and his apologia for the sins of Catholics against these sects, is showing his true colors. I sense he hates the Catholic Church...that he is most fond of Luther and "reform". But be not discouraged, the wolves are coming forth with great arrogance now and there is real fear. Recall our Lords words..."Be not afraid...I have overcome the world", just as they appear to be victorious...it will be the time of their demise...Mary will crush them.

  3. Sad days indeed. Here's something St. Augustine said:

    "You are beset by trials, are you, and shaken by all the things in this world that offend you, even though you have taken your stand on God’s gracious promises? But even these troubles can do you no harm. Their limits have been imposed on them by the Lord, because the sea is his. This world is the sea, but God made the sea too, and its waves can rage only as far as the shore, which he has assigned to it as its boundary. There is no temptation to which the Lord has not set a limit. Let temptations come, then; let troubles come; you are being finely wrought by them, not wrecked."

    This is from a sermon given by Dom Anderson, Abbot of the Benedictine Monastery in OK, at the Requiem Mass for one of their benefactors. This man had been stabbed to death by his mentally ill son. Abbot Anderson went on to say that in our day it's hard to realize that there is still a boundary set by our Merciful Father beyond which this day's evil will not go.

    When we think of the Arians, and the other serious challenges to the One True Faith we see the boundaries. So let's take hope from the words of St. Augustine.


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