Pope Francis appears to to be pretty concerned with something called “Pelagianism.” He has made multiple references to it throughout his pontificate, including his new Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, and recently the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a document specifically addressing Pelagianism in the Church today. Pelagianism is a 4th century heresy, a false teaching taught by an Irish monk named, you guessed it, Pelagius. And Pope Francis says that this heresy still plagues the Church today.
Pelagianism is a heresy that concerns the role of grace in our salvation and sanctification, in how we become holy. In his recent exhortation the pope describes Pelagianism this way:
“Those who yield to this pelagian or semi-pelagian mindset, even though they speak warmly of God’s grace, “ultimately 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”….The result is a self-centred and elitist complacency, bereft of true love. This finds expression in a variety of apparently unconnected ways of thinking and acting: an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programmes of self-help and personal fulfilment. Some Christians spend their time and energy on these things, rather than letting themselves be led by the Spirit in the way of love, rather than being passionate about communicating the beauty and the joy of the Gospel and seeking out the lost among the immense crowds that thirst for Christ” (GE 49,57)
In other words, this new Pelagianism concerns the false idea that a person can earn their own salvation, metaphorically pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. It denies that grace is necessary for sanctification and 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, this new Pelagianism is a heresy.
So what does the Church teach about grace and salvation?