The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recently released a document “On Certain Aspects of Christian Salvation.” This document is concerned with what it calls neo-Pelagianism and neo-Gnosticism. Concerning the former it says:
“A new form of Pelagianism is spreading in our days, one in which the individual, understood to be radically autonomous, presumes to save oneself, without recognizing that, at the deepest level of being, he or she derives from God and from others. According to this way of thinking, salvation depends on the strength of the individual or on purely human structures, which are incapable of welcoming the newness of the Spirit of God.”
In other words, this neo-Pelagianism concerns the false idea that a person can earn their own salvation, metaphorically pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. This heresy denies that grace is necessary for sanctification it basically asserts that people are endowed with the ability to live a virtuous, sinless life, and they aren’t dependent upon God to live a life of holiness or to be saved. This also easily leads to a Phariseeism that says, “I live a virtuous life and obey the law, so if you aren’t doing that clearly you’re just more lazy or ignorant than I am.” However, like the Pelagianism of old, neo-Pelagianism is a heresy.
Before we look at what the Church actually teaches on this matter, it’s helpful to have a simple definition of “grace.” Too often we see grace as a thing, something that we get like a candy bar from a vending machine by doing good works or receiving the Sacraments. But grace is simply God’s life within us. Grace is about having a relationship with God. This means that the Sacraments are the vehicles or paths that Christ established for us to encounter him and be transformed by him into his image. That is what sanctification is, God remaking us into his image. This becomes clear when we look at the Eucharist. Christ is literally coming into us and we become what we consume.