July 13, 2018

Christ the Cornerstone

Two ancient heresies are subtle enemies to holiness

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“In our times, too, many Christians, perhaps without realizing it, can be seduced by these deceptive ideas, which reflect an anthropocentric immanentism [human supremacy] disguised as Catholic truth”
(Pope Francis, “Gaudete et Exsultate,” #35).

In the recent apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis, “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”), the Holy Father warns against what he calls “two subtle enemies of holiness.” These are ancient Christian heresies that the pope says are very much alive today. Both can be seen as false forms of holiness that lead to “a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism.” Both subtly oppose the works of evangelization and mercy that are at the heart of Christian life.

The first of these ancient heresies is gnosticism, whose name comes from the Greek word for “knowledge.” What gnostics claim to have secret knowledge of has shifted over time, but in every age the gnostic’s claim to truth is absolute and exclusive. It does not open doors to Christ, but slams them shut in the faces of those who are most in need of God’s truth and his saving mercy.

Pope Francis calls the supposed knowledge of contemporary gnostics “elitism disguised as Catholic truth.” According to our Holy Father, “Gnostics think that their explanations can make the entirety of the faith and the Gospel perfectly comprehensible. They absolutize their own theories and force others to submit to their way of thinking” (#39). This was not the way that Jesus taught. It is not the way of the Church. As St. John Paul II famously said, “The Church proposes; she does not impose her teaching on anyone.”

“When somebody has an answer for every question, it is a sign that they are not on the right road,” Pope Francis insists (#41). Catholic truth allows for (in fact, demands) the mystery of God and his grace. It also requires us to recognize the mystery that permeates the lives of every human person. “God infinitely transcends us; he is full of surprises,” Pope Francis teaches. “We are not the ones to determine when and how we will encounter [God]; the exact times and places of that encounter are not up to us. Someone who wants everything to be clear and sure presumes to control God’s transcendence” (#41).

Does this mean there is no clarity or assurance in the teaching of the Catholic Church? On the contrary, it means that we can look to the Church for help in understanding the mystery of God and the complexities of human life, but we should never think that every question has a complete or satisfactory answer. Some of the most profound questions we confront in our lives, including “Why do the innocent suffer?” and “What happens to those we love after death?” only find answers in God’s mysterious love and mercy. There are many questions that we cannot answer. That’s why the gift of faith is such a marvelous thing. It gives hope in the face of despair and reassurance when we are confused by grief.

The second ancient-but-ever-present heresy described by Pope Francis in “Exsultate et Gaudete” is pelagianism. This is the belief that individual human beings have the power to save themselves by their own effort. Pelagianism rejects the necessity of God’s grace. It forgets that everything depends not on human will, but on the mercy that God shows to us in every dimension of our lives.

Pope Francis addresses this belief in no uncertain terms. “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” (#49). By ourselves, we can do nothing, but with the help of God’s grace, all things are possible.

All of us are tempted to think we can run our own lives without the direct or indirect help of God’s grace. This kind of thinking is not the way to holiness.

As Pope Francis reminds us: “God is the Father who gave us life and loves us greatly. Once we accept him, and stop trying to live our lives without him, the anguish of loneliness will disappear. In this way, we will know the pleasing and perfect will of the Lord and allow him to mold us like a potter. … In him is our holiness” (#51).

The call to holiness requires us to reject the temptations of gnosticism and pelagianism. Let’s pray for the grace to accept the fact that we do not have all the answers, and we cannot live our lives successfully without the help of God’s grace. Accepting these two truths will bring us joy—and a great sense of relief. †

Local site Links: