Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Lent and neopelagianism; or, Doing All the Catholic Things

Happy Ash Wednesday! Er...I can say that, right?

Not long ago I was noticing a certain vibe from some of the many pre-Lenten Facebook posts, Catholic blogosphere posts and articles that appeared in various places on the Internet. It made me think of the charge of neopelagianism that often gets leveled against various people in the Church these days.

I will grant at the outset that "neopelagianism" gets overused, as does "rigid" and a few similar words. Let us stipulate up front that it is not a neopelagian habit to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation; nor is it "rigid" to follow the precepts of the Church or to work to avoid serious sin in one's life.

At the same time, there really is what is called a neopelagian or semi-pelagian spirit at work in some places in the Church. The first time I heard this term I was a bit confused by it, as actual Pelagianism seems to have died out long ago. But some of the writers who were using the term kindly explained it to me, and this is what I came to understand: that while actual Pelagianism involved certain heretical beliefs about things like the Fall and Original Sin that do not seem to hold much water today, the new form seems to copy the idea that we are saved mainly by our own efforts--that is, by Doing All the Catholic Things.

What I came to understand (though probably not all that well) is that the neopelagian mindset is the sort of mindset that sees membership in the Church as a kind of employment. You are hired as an intern when you are baptized; your first promotion is your First Holy Communion; and if you stick around long enough to receive Confirmation and either Matrimony or Holy Orders then you are really at the level of a supervisor at the very least. For all of the "churchy things" you do, God pays you a wage in the form of grace, and when you die your savings plus your years of service earn you a nice pension plan: eternal life in Heaven, with all the good things you now deserve after all your hard work.

Sure, you can mess up, and then you've got to stop by the office of the Boss's representative, otherwise known as the confessional. But unless you become a murderer or something, you're good. Your ticket aboard the Pearly Gates Express has been punched, and you'll be fine, even if there were a few little hiccups in your past, and even if you don't agree with the Church about various issues and have no interest in forming your conscience according to Church teachings. God doesn't care, so long as you are Doing All the Catholic Things, and you check in at your Sunday workplace at least once a week.

Interestingly, Catholics who might be neopelagians can be (mostly) orthodox or (rather) heterodox or anywhere along the spectrum. This isn't one of those Catholic Right vs. Catholic Left divisions at all; we're all equally capable of making this kind of mistake. Because the mistake is in thinking that we actually earn our salvation; that when we avoid sin it's because we have built up the spiritual muscle necessary to do so; that when we attend Mass on Sundays God is taking attendance (and ignoring the cloud of distracted or petty or spiteful or judgmental or self-congratulatory thoughts that rise from us at least half the time); and that when we practice mortifications such as Lenten penances or obligatory fasting or the Friday abstinence we are somehow putting God in a position of debt: He owes us salvation, because we fulfilled our side of the bargain.

So those posts and articles I saw that veered in this direction in the days leading up to Lent 2017 had a tendency, however unintentionally, to make it sound like the purpose of Lent is to help us earn our salvation like good employees of the Kingdom of God, Inc. We fast, these posts seemed to say, for instance, in order to prove that we're capable of great feats of endurance--yet the Church has gotten soft, and only mandates a tiny fast two days of Lent; how are we supposed to earn our bonuses or promotions when fasting isn't required every day of Lent like it used to be? We give alms to make sure God knows how generous we are (and though we're supposed to keep our good deeds secret, it's not our fault that the charities we give to are going to receive checks with our names on them; that's just the reality of life in this age, and those gushing thank-you notes from our favorite charities sure are nice to get). We pray because that's how we can prove we're good Catholics, because good Catholics pray the rosary or go to daily Mass or join Bible-study groups or listen to talks about Christian meditation. We think of some nice, respectable sin (if you can call it that) so we can mention to our fellow Catholics (especially our family members) that we're working on that sin for Lent ("I'm giving up complaining about the housework for Lent, because even though I keep the house spotless no thanks to the rest of you who treat this place like a hotel and me like a maid I know that embracing my vocation means not mentioning how horrible the boys' bathroom was yet again and nagging them about it. Instead I took a picture of the mess and posted it on Instagram with a funny caption about the zoo--see, I'm improving already!").

The one thing neopelagians don't do is attempt any actual interior conversion. Granted, a lot of us struggle with interior conversion, but for the neopelagian it's not even a struggle. A neopelagian knows he doesn't need to change, because he's already Doing All the Catholic Things. So it's not necessary to look into the mirror of self-revelation and see the vanity, the selfishness, the pride, the wrath, the greed, and the laziness that all us children of Adam have inherited. Unlike the Pelagians, the neopelagians may not actually deny the doctrine of Original Sin; but they certainly don't think it matters.