A publication of Sacred Heart University
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Dangers Within

Throughout modern history, popes have typically identified the church as a bulwark against threats emanating from the outside world and its pitiful errors. These have ranged from Protestantism, democracy, socialism, evolution and railways (per Gregory XVI, at least in the Papal States), to “modern civilization” itself (Pius X), to name just a few. In recent decades many of these specific dangers have receded or lost their sting. Nevertheless, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI continued to warn against threats posed by outside cultural trends, such as what Cardinal Ratzinger, at the conclave that elected him, called “the dictatorship of relativism.” As far as internal threats went, they were especially on guard against the work of theologians who exhibited signs of “ambiguity,” or other threats against the doctrine of the Church. Arguably, this defensive strategy distracted attention from the seismic failure to recognize the clergy sex abuse scandal and its cover-up, which were all the while eating away at the Church’s foundations.

Pope Francis, too, has warned against cultural forces, including what he calls the “globalization of indifference,” a “throw-away culture” and a failure to heed “the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth.” But the greater threats to the Church in his view come from within—from the spirit of clericalism, “spiritual worldliness” and “self-referentiality.”

He says, “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

Many of his critics present themselves as defenders of orthodoxy and truth. It is notable that in his apostolic exhortation on the call to holiness, Gaudete et Exsultate, he addresses such critics (none-too-subtly) under the heading “The Subtle Enemies of Holiness.” This he does by way of the ancient heresies of Gnosticism and Pelagianism.       Such heresies, he says, are alive and well in the Church. They both give rise “to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism,” whereby “instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others.”

Gnosticism was a broad school of thought that competed with orthodox Christianity in the early church. Its adherents sought salvation through special knowledge available only to the pure and elect. Recent popes have typically deployed the charge of “Gnosticism” against New Age or other contemporary spiritual movements. But the Gnosticism that Pope Francis fears seems to come primarily from elements in the church that identify themselves as the pure or elect. These “gnostics” in the church “absolutize their own theories and force others to submit to their way of thinking.” They “reduce Jesus’ teaching to a cold and harsh logic that seeks to dominate everything.” He refers approvingly to St. Francis’ fear of the “temptation to turn the Christian experience into a set of intellectual exercises that distances us from the freshness of the Gospel.” 

The second threat to holiness comes from a new form of “Pelagianism.” Originally, this refers to an argument in the early church about the role of original sin, and therefore the necessity of grace in achieving salvation. The Pelagians—whose great adversary was St. Augustine—believed in the ability of men and women, by their own efforts, to achieve holiness.

Again, from recent popes, it was common to hear this kind of charge laid at the doorstep of those who too easily identify their promotion of social change with the Kingdom of God. But again, Pope Francis points in a surprising direction. The “new Pelagians” are those who “trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style.”

In effect, Francis is applying to elements in the church the same criticism that Jesus leveled against those in the Gospels who emphasize the importance of the law over the spirit of love and mercy. This form of “justification by their own efforts” finds expression in many ways of thinking and acting: “an obsession with the law … a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters …”

Thus, Francis’ call to holiness becomes a deceptively sharp criticism of tendencies within the Church. He is saying, in effect, that the greatest obstacles to promoting holiness in the Church do not come from outside “enemies,” whether individual critics of Christianity or general cultural forces, such as pluralism, relativism or atheism. Instead, they come from within—for instance, from those through whom, “contrary to the promptings of the Spirit, the life of the Church can become a museum piece or the possession of a select few.” Just as Jesus confronted the “thicket of precepts and prescription” that stifled the spirit of mercy, so Francis reminds us of the essence of the law and the prophets: to love God and our neighbor as ourselves.

Let those who have ears to hear listen!

Robert Ellsberg is the Publisher of Orbis Books and the author of many books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time.


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